Of The Shadows by Juliet Marillier
I make a point of never starting a trilogy with the second book, but something compelled me to break that rule for Son of the Shadows, and I did not regret it. Marillier sets her story in ancient Erin and uses Celtic mythology as a springboard for a charming story of a girl growing to womanhood and power. Liadan is the youngest of three children, the quiet one content to stay at home in Sevenwaters and study herb lore with her mother, Sorcha, yet ever mindful of the prophecy, that one day a child will be born of their lineage who will win back the holy Islands lost to the Britons.
All her life she has shared a special bond with her twin brother, Sean, that allows them to speak without words, but never suspected that she had inherited other, greater gifts until her uncle Conor, a druid, visits them at the festival of Imbolc. Conor urges her remember that a time of change approaches but what happens will not be her doing. Each must choose his own path and it unfolds as it must. He also warns her against the Fair Folk, who meddled in the fates of their family for their own purposes, at terrible cost to Sorcha and her six brothers.
Struggling with strange new forebodings brought on by her uncle's revelations, Liadan begs a year's grace from her suitor, Eamonn, pleading the need to stay home and nurse her ailing mother. He agrees reluctantly, but assures her that his mind is made up, and will not change; he will have her, or no one.
Her older sister Niamh's unwise choice in love forces Liadan to choose between dutiful obedience to her family and the dire warnings of her own fledgling powers of the Sight. Her uncle and father refuse to listen to her plea for compassion, and summarily banish Niamh's lover Ciaran for reasons they refuse to explain. A hasty marriage is arranged for Niamh with the chieftain of the powerful Ui Neill clan to cement a political alliance. Liadan, burdened by the guilt of having betrayed her sister's secret passion, accompanies Niamh part way to her new home, but is unable to mend the rift between them. On the way back to Sevenwaters, she is tricked and betrayed, and falls into the hands of outlaws.
To her surprise, all they want from her is her skill as a healer. One of their company has been badly wounded, and three of the brigands have decided to defy their chief's rules and attempt to save their friend, though he is too badly wounded to keep up with the band. Touched by their loyalty to their comrade, Liadan decides to treat the injured man and bargains with the warlord, a fierce and mysterious warrior known as the Painted Man, for a respite of seven days in which to effect a cure.
Liadan's honesty, fearlessness and skill as a story-teller win her a place in the band, and she begins to see the outlaws as individuals, each with their own tragedy and grief, each with their unique charm. As she labors to save the wounded smith, she finds herself increasingly drawn to the Painted Man. He refuses to reveal anything of his past to her, and fiercely repulses her overtures of friendship and compassion. Unwilling to allow him to remain anonymous she gives him the name of a legendary wanderer, Bran. Liadan tries at first to shield her heart with memories of her life in Sevenwaters and her family, but when her powers reveal Bran's secret vulnerability to her, she accepts the bond that has grown between them, and commits herself to him. Thinking he returns her love, Liadan reveals the truth of her identity, and appeals to him to set her free, so she can nurse her mother in her final illness. To her despair, Bran rejects her violently, and blames her father for all the evil that has befallen him and his family.
Seeing no other recourse, Liadan returns to Sevenwaters to take refuge in her family's love. There, she determines to unravel the riddle of the past that caused Bran to revile her, and find out the truth that her uncle and father have concealed all her life. Eamonn, furious at what he sees as rejection and betrayal, sets in motion an elaborate plot to revenge himself upon the Painted Man. As if this were not peril enough, Niamh, wretched in her loveless marriage, appeals for help, but Liadan knows that to aid her sister would risk the alliance that protects Sevenwaters from the marauding Britons.
Only Liadan's courage and cleverness can save her lover and her family from the doom that threatens them all. She must dare frightening trials, both real and arcane, to outwit Eamonn and his allies and help Bran win free of the nightmares of his past, and secure a future for those she loves. The Fair Folk offer double-edged council; they see Liadan as a pawn in an perilous battle of their own against the older powers that once ruled Erin.
The novel's plot was self-sustaining without excessive references to Marillier's first book, Daughter of the Forest. The pacing was perhaps a bit too deliberate, with considerable time devoted to Liadan's internal drama, which is narrated in first person. Marillier has evidently done considerable research into early Irish history; the detailed settings and cultural background were consistent and credible. The interweaving of Celtic legends during story-telling interludes adds richness and depth without derailing the action. Fans of Andre Norton and Anne McCaffrey will enjoy this leisurely yarn of first love and magic.
The climax is a lengthy affair, more internal narrative and emotional drama than real action. However, it offers sufficient emotional closure to bring this book to a satisfying end while leaving the door open for the final book of the trilogy, Child of the Prophecy, due out next month in hard cover.
© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu