(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“In exchange for help escaping her long and wrongful imprisonment, embittered magical healer Blackthorn has vowed to set aside her bid for vengeance against the man who destroyed all that she once held dear. Followed by a former prison mate, a silent hulk of a man named Grim, she travels north to Dalriada. There she’ll live on the fringe of a mysterious forest, duty bound for seven years to assist anyone who asks for her help.
Oran, crown prince of Dalriada, has waited anxiously for the arrival of his future bride, Lady Flidais. He knows her only from a portrait and sweetly poetic correspondence that have convinced him Flidais is his destined true love. But Oran discovers letters can lie. For although his intended exactly resembles her portrait, her brutality upon arrival proves she is nothing like the sensitive woman of the letters.
With the strategic marriage imminent, Oran sees no way out of his dilemma. Word has spread that Blackthorn possesses a remarkable gift for solving knotty problems, so the prince asks her for help. To save Oran from his treacherous nuptials, Blackthorn and Grim will need all their resources: courage, ingenuity, leaps of deduction, and more than a little magic.”
Boy, I really liked this one! Marillier is well-known for her books based in Irish myth and history, and although I’ve loved her previous novels, I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for one right now. Then I cracked this one open and wondered why in the heck I’d waited so long to dive into it. Yes, the setting is ancient Ireland, but the novel focuses more on the main characters: Blackthorn, a woman who has endured much in her past and has let it define much of her self; and Grim, a huge, strong man who wants nothing more than to protect Blackthorn and keep her safe. It’s the relationship between these two and carries so much of the story. Note that this isn’t a romance, which is so refreshing. This is a friendship, one that heals soul-deep wounds and provides all the support that you need to become your best self.
That’s not to denigrate Oran’s part in the story. His hope for happiness in his arranged marriage, and his subsequent confusion upon meeting someone so different from what he expected, is just the groundwork for a study of a man trying to do the right thing but uncertain how to go about it. Make no mistake, Oran is fallible, and he doesn’t always behave in the best or wisest way. He did earn my respect, however, as he constantly strove to become a better man.
But it’s Blackthorn’s journey that really got my attention. Marillier managed to make the story about female empowerment without getting preachy. Blackthorn is a strong, no-nonsense woman, and I had a lot of respect for her by the end of the novel. There are also themes running alongside this narrative that touch on trust and peace of mind, and how to regain them once they’re lost.
Three main characters may seem like a bit much, but it works out great. Each change of narrator coincided with a new chapter; but, even if the author hadn’t done that, the characters’ voices are all so distinct that I doubt I would have had trouble picking them out. Blackthorn’s story resounds with her anger, Grim is taciturn yet straightforward, and Oran has a great depth of thought and feeling. They’re all people that I’d love to meet in real life, and each have their virtues and vices that readers will see clearly as the story progresses.
I’m so glad that this book is the start of a series, because I fell completely in love with the people and the places in the story. If you like your fantasy with some mythical roots and a smidgen of magic, this is the book for you.