I took the past two days “off” from researching & studying, cleaning, the garden and the Internet to read for pure pleasure. It’s been quite a long while since I’ve done that, and it was a break I sorely needed.
The book I chose was Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest (2000, Tor), which is Book One of the Sevenwaters trilogy.
The main storyline is loosely based on the Irish legend, The Children of Lir, in which Lir’s children (both male and female) are transformed by their step-mother into swans for a period of 900 years. When the spell is finally lifted by the sound of a church bell, the children are baptized, age rapidly and die soon thereafter.
The Grimm brothers collected a story in the 1850s called “The Six Swans,” which the storyline follows even more closely in that only the males are transformed and the single remaining sister must remain silent for six years while sewing shirts for her brothers. In that tale, the sister marries and, as she gives birth to each of three children, another jealous step-mother steals the children and fakes that their mother has eaten them — how deliciously evil! — until the sister places the shirts over the swans, lifts the curse and can speak again. The main character in the book is the seventh and youngest child, Sorcha, and while the horrible fate of being accused of child cannibalism doesn’t befall her, she might have wished it had.
Daughter of the Forest is a beautiful and elegantly told tale of betrayal, loss, sacrifice, redemption, and love. The author skillfully used her characters to weave Celtic stories and lore throughout the plot line, many with which I was already familiar but enough that were new so there were some surprises. What pleased me most was the way the author portrayed life in the heart of a truly living forest, where natural magic and the Fair Folk are clearly manifest and coexisting with the “new religion.” The author’s knowledge of herb lore, the cunning arts and the faerie realm really made this an enjoyable read for me. The only dissonance was the author’s use of the name “Oonagh” for the red-haired evil step-mother. In faerie lore, Queen Oonagh is described as having “golden hair sweeping to the ground” and there are no wicked tales or deeds connected with her. I understand the plot device that required a recognizable “faerie queen” name for the evil step-mother, but “Oonagh” was a poor choice.