Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

Sorcha and her six brothers have always protected each other and their home in the heart of Ireland, but when the men come under a deadly enchantment, Sorcha must complete a grueling task and endure mute exile across the sea in Britain with the hated enemies of her kin.

Daughter of the Forest is a retelling of a fairy tale made famous by Hans Christian Anderson. Sorcha’s six brothers have been turned into swans, and Sorcha commanded by the Lady of the Forest to weave shirts of stinging nettle which will return her brothers to their true form when thrown over their heads–only if Sorcha can complete her task without speaking a word or telling anyone her story in writing or sign language. Marillier is a native New Zealander living in Australia who has a great love for Celtic lore, and sets her story against the backdrop of the invasion of Ireland (Erin) by the Britons. She explores the culture clash between the country’s native paganism and the newly arrived Christianity in a way that feels natural and organic, not intended to pass judgment on either belief system (unlike in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, which I was unable to read more than a chapter of because her hatred hurt my heart).

My one quibble with the story is that Sorcha is excessively noble in her suffering, and Marillier seems afraid to give her flaws or make her unattractive in any way. I would have enjoyed seeing Sorcha wrestle with her task, to be enticed away from her challenge by the lures of the world. She never had any temptation to speak, and she was so pure-minded in her quest as to lack an essential humanity. The rest of the characters suffer from a similar flatness, with the villains prone to some “before I kill you” speechifying, and Sorcha’s allies being loyal to her for the most part. There’s a sharp division between good and bad in all of the characters, and I just wasn’t engaged emotionally with the characters as much as I wanted to be. For that reason, I’d actually call this book YA, despite its length, because the complexity is at an adolescent level. It’s a good read, and I would recommend it to a teen, but not to someone looking for a meaty, life-changing read.

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