Before I begin, can I just say that it’s a complete fluke that there are fairy-tale-retelling elements in Heart’s Blood, after last week’s Kingdom of Sleep, and that this parallel in my reading was in no way deliberate. Just one of those happy accidents.
I picked this up having been inspired by both Maddalena of Space and Sorcery and Karina of Karina Reads to try Juliet Marillier’s books (hearty thanks are due!). I have Daughter of the Forest on the book pile at home, but I got caught short at work without a book to read (drama!) and Heart’s Blood was very conveniently in my locker (where I keep all the library books I want to take out, but don’t yet have space for on my library ticket – yes, these are the trials and tribulations of my working life!).
And darn it! I loved this book! With all its fairy-tale romance tropes – grumpy male lead, mysterious castle cut off from the everyday world, beautiful young woman seeking refuge – I loved it. Despite it being a retelling of one of the suckiest fairy-tales ever, Beauty and the Beast (I’ll spare you the whole rant that goes with that) – I loved it. I’m officially aboard the Marillier train – woo woo!
The story is set in late 12th century Ireland, at the time of the Norman invasion. It’s told by (and is about) Caitrin, a rare female scribe who, at the opening of the book, has summoned up the courage to escape a less than ideal home situation, and found herself in Whistling Tor, a small settlement with plenty of creepy stories about their chieftain, who lives in the big spooky castle at the top of the local hill. Said chieftain is looking for a scribe to translate some family documents, and Caitrin, less afraid of stories than she is of what she’s left behind, decides to apply for the job. What follows is part reimagining of Beauty and the Beast (a library, a garden, a magic mirror), part mystery (what exactly is the curse on the people of Whistling Tor? And who keeps moving Roise the doll?), part ghost story (so so creepy in places – I am such a wimp when it comes to the scary stuff). And it’s brilliant.
Not least because of its well-written characters. Caitrin, unusually for the period, has been taught both to read and write, and the art of script illumination by her scribe father, and until his death she worked with him carrying out commissions for legal documents, private manuscripts and the like. She is a skilled craftswoman in her own right and takes pride in this. She has come from a warm and loving family, but the death of her father and the departure of her older sister left her alone with two distant relations who bullied and brutalised her, and while she has had the courage to escape them, she has become a nervous shadow of what she once was. Her coming back to her calm and confident self was one of my secret joys in reading Heart’s Blood. Caitrin is a determinedly hopeful character with enough affection for everyone, and her budding relationship with Anluan, the chieftain of Whistling Tor, was equally satisfying.
One of my big problems with romance is that it is often written to titillate, and that pisses me off. I don’t appreciate the feeling of being manipulated into finding something attractive just because all the ingredients are there. So the romantic male lead is assertive, has a ‘passionate’ temper and a deep voice? So? So does an overbearing prig. I want to know about characters’ thoughts and feelings, I want to know about their ideas and dreams, I want to see them grow, and, most importantly, I want to decide for myself whether they’re ‘attractive’ or not. Anluan has the temper of a boy too used to getting his own way, no manners at all, and because of a palsy he suffered as a child he is not the image of rugged Irish manliness he thinks he should be. I initially found him grating and slappable. But Caitrin, in an exceptional feat of empathy, is able to imagine what it must have been like for him to have grown up in the sad, cursed castle on the Tor, and to see past all his snarling and sniping to the self-doubt at his core. She works hard to help Anluan, first because it’s her job and she is an actively curious person, then because she becomes fond of everyone at Whistling Tor, and finally, yes, because she comes to love him, (which still gets an *eye-roll*). Thanks to Caitrin though, and to Marillier, I came to like and appreciate Anluan. I enjoyed all the growing up he does over the course of the story and I was even proud of his overcoming some seriously daunting obstacles. He ends up becoming a good chieftain, and I actually did a little cheer when he and Caitrin finally, finally realised they loved each other (although I’d still have been happier if we’d left that at the bedroom door … oh my … *blush*).
And Anluan’s home is almost a character in itself too. Marillier’s historical Ireland feels very real, but Whistling Tor practically crackles with the uncanny. From the unseen presences that Caitrin encounters on her first journey up the hill, to the benign scarecrow in the garden, to the things seen in the many mirrors made by one of his ancestors, Whistling Tor is wonderfully creepy and alive with its own private history because of the curse on Anluan’s family. There is so much more I want to say about this that I can’t without becoming incoherent or spoiling too much, so I will satisfy myself with: I didn’t see the nature of the host coming, I loved the discovery about the curse, and, wow! that final reveal!
Oh my goodness, all the awesome things I haven’t even mentioned yet: Caitrin’s work in the library (I’d have been happy with a book entirely about her sorting and cataloguing Anluan’s family documents); the mirrors; the warm and wonderful Magnus and his kitchen; Olcan and Fianchu (dear Fianchu! Best dog ever!), and Rioghan and Eichri, and Cathair, Gearrog and the little girl; the host (the awesome, otherworldly, read-this-book-because-of-them host); the lovely Donal and Maeve; the best Big Bad ever; the secret in the potting shed; Irial’s beautiful garden. There’s just too much to say. I really, really enjoyed this book.
Darn it. 🙂
(I’m claiming this for the “Ghosts!” category of this year’s Book Bingo).