Series: BLACKTHORN & GRIM
Plot Type: Fantasy
Ratings: Violence—3-4; Sensuality—3-4; Humor—2
Tower of Thorns (11/2015)
NOVEL 3: Den of Wolves
Feather bright and feather fine, None shall harm this child of mine...
Healer Blackthorn knows all too well the rules of her bond to the fey: seek no vengeance, help any who ask, do only good. But after the recent ordeal she and her companion, Grim, have suffered, she knows she cannot let go of her quest to bring justice to the man who ruined her life.
Despite her personal struggles, Blackthorn agrees to help the princess of Dalriada in taking care of a troubled young girl who has recently been brought to court, while Grim is sent to the girl’s home at Wolf Glen to aid her wealthy father with a strange task—repairing a broken-down house deep in the woods. It doesn’t take Grim long to realize that everything in Wolf Glen is not as it seems—the place is full of perilous secrets and deadly lies.
Back at Winterfalls, the evil touch of Blackthorn’s sworn enemy reopens old wounds and fuels her long-simmering passion for justice. With danger on two fronts, Blackthorn and Grim are faced with a heartbreaking choice—to stand once again by each other’s side or to fight their battles alone.
Cara has an almost mystical attachment to nature, particularly to the birds and trees of her father's lands—the forests of Wolf Glen. She can often be found high up in a tree with birds sitting on her shoulders and in her hair. Secretly, Cara speaks to the trees and the birds, and they answer her: "I will protect you. I will guard you." Cara knows better than to let her father or her aunt in on her secret conversations. Both of them want her to be more "normal," to become more sociable, to make small talk, and to make herself ready for a marriage that will be arranged by her father. Unlike Tóla and Aunt Della, Cara believes that, "It was so much easier to talk to trees than people." She would rather sit by herself creating intricate carvings of birds from pieces of wood from the forest. Cara's only friends are her maid, Alba, and her father's forester, Gormán.
One day, while Cara is sitting up in her favorite tree, she looks down and sees a scary man standing below her perch. "He was wild-looking, filthy, with matted hair halfway down his back, a bristling beard and crazy eyes, and he was staring at the scattered remnants of the heartwood house." The heartwood house is also at the center of the plot. Fifteen years ago, Tóla hired a local builder to construct a heartwood house to bring luck to his family. The building of the house is based on an old, local folktale, and it must be built according to excruciatingly exact specifications, which the builder claims to know. Unfortunately, halfway through the project, the builder ran off one night and never returned. The heartwood house is now a ruin, falling apart and being overgrown by the forest. Cara is terrified when the man looks up and sees her, and she shouts out for her maid to bring Gormán to rescue her from the wild man. Immediately, Gormán whisks Cara away to the house, and the next morning, her father takes her to Prince Oran's castle at Winterfalls, where he drops her off and never returns—not even for a brief visit.
Now, how do Blackthorn and Grim get involved with Tóla and Cara? Cara is extremely unhappy at Winterfalls and won't speak to anyone, so Lady Flidais asks Blackthorn to try to help her to settle in at the castle. Meanwhile, Grim gets a request from Tóla to come to Wolf Glen to rebuild the heartwood house under the direction of the wild man, who (Surprise!) is the original builder who has now returned from his run-away travels. His name is Bardán, and he has some deep, dark secrets.
As usual, the chapters move back and forth between Cara's third-person perspective and the first-person voices of Blackthorn and Grim. Naturally, fey magic is involved in the plot, as well as human vindictiveness and cruelty. What is unusual about this book is that Blackthorn and Grim spend most of it far away from one another because Grim has to promise Tóla to work from dawn to dusk on the heartwood house until it is completed. He leaves every day before sunrise and returns—exhausted—to quickly eat supper and fall into bed. This is the first time the two have been apart for an extended period, and each misses the other terribly.
Back at Winterfalls, Prince Oran receives news that Lord Mathuin of Laois—bitter enemy of Blackthorn and Grim—has invaded the territory of Lady Flidais' father, forcing her parents to take refuge in a neighboring kingdom. Suddenly, large numbers of strange, fierce warriors—called the Swan Island Men—begin to arrive at Winterfalls. The men's faces are heavily tattooed—each showing the distinctive features of an animal (e.g., dog, wolf, hawk). Blackthorn meets two of them after a mysterious scuffle in the woods near her cottage, and they tell her that they are at Winterfalls at the behest of Prince Oran. (Later, Blackthorn will learn more about that mysterious incident in Dreaming Woods and how it directly affects her.)
So...back and forth we go, with Grim trying to figure out Bardán's story and Blackthorn trying to help Cara learn to speak up for herself. Each night before Grim falls asleep in exhaustion, he and Blackthorn exchange information about what they have learned. Soon, the reader can draw some conclusions as to the real story of what went on at Wolf Glen fifteen years ago, although it takes Grim and Blackthorn a bit longer. Remember, we have the luxury of seeing the whole picture, while Grim and Blackthorn have to put the puzzle together a piece at a time, each gathering clues from a separate source.
This is most likely the final novel in this series, although Marillier doesn't explicitly state that in the book or on her web site. I have enjoyed all three of these novels because of Marillier's masterful story-telling skills, her creative world-building, her quirky characters, and her fantastic hero and heroine—both of them so courageous and good-hearted, yet flawed in such truly human ways. This is a terrific series that I recommend without reservation.
Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Den of Wolves on the novel's Amazon.com page by clicking on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio.
FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Den of Wolves is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are entirely my own.
The main characters are Blackthorn, a wise woman (magical healer) and Grim, a giant of a man who becomes her traveling companion after they both escape from imprisonment by one of the more evil chieftains. Both have dark and tragic pasts that cause PTSD-type flashbacks. Blackthorn's tragedies have left her a bitter and angry woman who yearns for revenge on the chieftain who destroyed her life. When Grim's memories of his past are triggered, he bursts into monstrous, uncontrollable red rages that can result in death or injury for the unlucky person who provoked Grim's fury.
Click HERE to read an on-line "Conversation with Juliet Marillier" in which she discusses the series.
NOVEL 1: Dreamer's Pool
Marillier tells her story in the first-person voice from three points of view: Blackthorn, Grim, and Prince Oran of Dalriada. The chapters alternate among the three voices.
As the story begins, Blackthorn and Grim are behind bars in squalid cells within a filthy prison owned by Lord Mathuin, a sociopathic chieftain. Blackthorn has been there for nearly a year, beaten and abused almost daily, and she is barely hanging on to her sanity. The only thing keeping her going is that the law requires that a prisoner must be allowed to plead before the council before the end of a year of imprisonment. Blackthorn is counting the days until the midsummer council, where she will publicly denounce Mathuin and his dirty deeds. Then, days before the council meeting, a brutal prison guard tells her that Mathuin has ordered that she be executed the next day so that she will never get a chance to tell her side of the story.
That night, a fey lord named Conmael appears with a proposition: He promises that he will save her life if she agrees to leave Mathuin's territory and travel to Dalriada giving aid to anyone who asks for her help. If she agrees to remain in Dalriada as a healer for seven years, continuing to help anyone who asks for it, she will be totally free of any obligation to him. If, however, she uses dark magic or refuses to help someone, he will add another year to her sentence each time she does so. If she makes more than five of these mistakes in judgment, he will put her back into Mathuin's prison to face her certain death. Conmael promises to help her escape and to provide her with food and shelter.
Throughout her imprisonment, Blackthorn (who has used two other names before this one) has had a frenemy relationship with Grim, a silent hulk of a man who spends his time muttering and murmuring to himself and staring at Blackthorn. When Conmael destroys the prison, Grim helps Blackthorn escape while he tries to save the other prisoners. He then tracks down Blackthorn, planning to watch over her and keep her safe. Obviously, he has strong feelings for Blackthorn. Although Blackthorn doesn't want his company, she realizes that his following her is a cry for help and that she must heed it so that she doesn't break Conmael's rules.
The two head north to Dalriada, specifically to Winterfalls—Prince Oran's territory, where Grim fixes up the cottage and takes on heavy jobs for local farmers and merchants while Blackthorn heals wounds and illnesses among the locals. Soon, the two become involved in the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a young girl just before they arrived in Winterfalls. Working together, they figure out what happened and serve as witnesses when Prince Oran holds a trial and metes out punishment.
Meanwhile, Prince Oran has agreed to marry Lady Flidais, a young noblewoman he has never met. He has, however, seen her portrait, and the two have exchanged letters and self-written poems. Based on her appearance and her words, Oran has convinced himself that Flidais is truly his soul mate. Unfortunately, when Flidais arrives at Winterfalls, she is nothing like the woman in her letters. That woman was kind and thoughtful and a lover of nature, just like Oran. The woman who comes to Oran's home is mean-spirited, petty, and passive aggressive, generating negative feelings and uneasiness in everyone she meets. What is Oran to do? He knows that he must marry Flidais because he has promised both his father and hers that he will. But Oran is certain that something is dreadfully wrong. When he sees how clever Blackthorn and Grim were in solving the case of the missing girl, he goes to them with his problem.
The novel focuses primarily on Blackthorn and Grim and is essentially divided into three parts: two brief opening chapters describing Blackthorn and Grim's miserable prison existence and their escape; a longer section (the bulk of the book) that follows the pair as they walk to Winterfalls, settle down on in a cottage on the edge of an enchanted forest, and solve the case of the missing girl; and a short (too short?) final section in which they resolve Flidais and Oran's situation. Although what happened to the missing girl is magic-free and relatively easy to predict, the mystery of Lady Flidais is filled with magical twists and turns. Each time I thought I had it figured out, more details emerged, sending the investigation in another direction. Marillier is a terrific story teller who has a talent for weaving together fairy tales and mysteries and giving familiar folk tales a new twist. In this novel, the theme is transformation of several kinds, both real and magical.
Marillier's two main characters are exceptionally well drawn, each one having a distinctive voice. Refreshingly, they are not young, blushing, whiny naifs, but mature adults who have weathered some serious storms. We soon know Blackthorn and Grim so well that we empathize deeply with the tragic past events that still drive their emotions and keep them from developing friendships with anyone but each other. Blackthorn's history (which is finally provided towards the end of the book) has made her a voice for justice for women in this male-driven society. She is willing to stand up to chieftains and princes in defense of down-trodden and abused women no matter what the cost—and it costs her a lot. We don't learn the details of Grim's tragic past in this book, but it must be a doozy because he still lives with sweat-soaked night terrors and red rages that take him to the brink of insanity.
Oran, too, is a well-developed, if less dramatic, character—a strong, handsome, sensitive prince right out of a fairy tale, but riddled with doubts about his ability to rule and scared to death over the mystery of what is happening with Flidais.
This is a strong beginning to a new series that will continue on with the two tragic lead characters solving more magical mysteries while dealing with ghosts from their pasts. In future books, Blackthorn must continue to rein in her desperate need for revenge against Mathuin and try not to break Conmael's rules. Grim has two impossible tasks: to keep his temper under control and to hide his deep feelings for Blackthorn. I'm really looking forward to seeing what happens to them in the book 2.
Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Dreamer's Pool on the novel's Amazon.com page by clicking on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon.
NOVEL 2: Tower of Thorns