Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Jennifer's Book Review: Shadowfell by Juliet Marillier

Shadowfell by Juliet Marillier is a fairy story, but it’s not the typical story one thinks of when imagining YA fairy stories. There are no wings, no ethereal beauties, no references to Oberon or Mab or Puck. For those who haven’t heard of Marillier before, she’s written many fantasy novels, many of which are based on old Celtic stories and European legends. (I fell in love with her writing when I first read Daughter of the Forest, which is loosely based on the Six Swans fairy tale with a heavy Celtic twist.)

As in her other novels, Marillier creates a magical world. The focus of the book is narrow: We follow the journey of 15-year-old Neryn as she journeys to a place only rumored to exist – Shadowfell. It’s supposedly a rebel stronghold, designed to oppose the king who strikes fear in the hearts of his people. Neryn, penniless and orphaned, knows Shadowfell is the only place she might find safety because she is canny – a term used to describe someone with special abilities. The spectrum of canniness varies wildly; a canny person might be able to sing extraordinarily well, to cook a bit better than others, or even to mess with minds. Along the way, Neryn makes friends in unexpected places, including a strange man known as Flint and some of the Good Folk (fey). Again, the Celtic influence shows in Marillier’s writing with mention of a Red Cap[1], a Urisk[2], a Brollachan[3] and more[4].  

Marillier is very descriptive, and it would be fair to say that the story moves slowly. We follow Neryn’s journey day-by-day, except for a period of time in which she’s indisposed. While I would find this tedious in many other novels, Marillier manages to enchant me with her lyrical language and detailed character building. No one Neryn meets is two-dimensional, from a witless minor character to the mysterious Flint. Filled with romance, magic and secrets, the world of Alban is rich and beautiful, and I eagerly wait for the next novel in the series. 

(Side note: I kept thinking of the book The Ill-Made Mute by Cecilia Dart-Thornton while reading this book. If you want your fairy books without the glitter and wings and Shakespeare references, it’s another great book to consider.)


[1] In most stories, a red cap is a type of goblin or dwarf that dips its cap in the blood of those it kills or injures. Marillier’s Red Cap, however, doesn’t seem malevolent and is actually quite heroic. The only resemblance to the mythology is the presence of the red headgear.

[2] A urisk is a type of brownie, often quite helpful with housework or farming, and is known for its overwhelming sense of loneliness. Marillier’s urisk is quite a pest – he doesn’t seem to be of the helpful sort. Rather, if you give him comfort for his loneliness, he’ll follow you for the rest of your days.

[3] A brollachan is a boogie man of Celtic myth. In some myths, he takes the form of whatever you fear most. In others he takes the form of whatever he rests upon.

[4] In many Celtic stories and fiction based upon them, fey beings are often categorized as seelie (good) or unseelie (evil). Marillier avoids these terms, and the fey are surprisingly helpful in Neryn’s journey. However, their tricky natures are often alluded to, and we’re led to believe that Neryn’s canny ability is why they aren’t out to trick her.


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