Monthly Marillier: “Shadowfell”

“Monthly Marillier” is a review series that is, essentially, an excuse for me to go back and re-read one of my favorite author’s back catalog. Ever since I first discovered her work over fifteen years ago, Juliet Marillier has been one of my favorite authors. Her stories are the perfect mixture of so many things I love: strong heroines, beautiful romances, fairytale-like magic, and whimsical writing. Even better, Marillier is a prolific author and has regularly put out new books almost once a year since I began following her. I own almost all of them, and most of those I’ve read several times. Tor began re-releasing her original Sevenwaters trilogy, so that’s all the excuse I needed to begin a new series in which I indulge myself in a massive re-read of her books. I’ll be posting a new entry in this series on the first Friday of every month.

Book: “Shadowfell” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, September 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Sixteen-year-old Neryn is alone in the land of Alban, where the oppressive king has ordered anyone with magical strengths captured and brought before him. Eager to hide her own canny skill–a uniquely powerful ability to communicate with the fairy-like Good Folk–Neryn sets out for the legendary Shadowfell, a home and training ground for a secret rebel group determined to overthrow the evil King Keldec.

During her dangerous journey, she receives aid from the Good Folk, who tell her she must pass a series of tests in order to recognize her full potential. She also finds help from a handsome young man, Flint, who rescues her from certain death–but whose motives in doing so remain unclear. Neryn struggles to trust her only allies. They both hint that she alone may be the key to Alban’s release from Keldec’s rule. Homeless, unsure of who to trust, and trapped in an empire determined to crush her, Neryn must make it to Shadowfell not only to save herself, but to save Alban.

Review: I remember being really excited when this book was slated to come out. I had mostly read Marillier’s “Sevenwaters” books at this point, so I was excited to see a new world molded under her hands. And I was curious to see how she would translate her work to a YA audience (many of the “Sevenwaters” books tackle some pretty serious subjects). And while it surprised me in many ways, it also fell a bit on middling ground as far as my overall rankings of Marillier’s work.

The land has become a dangerous place for those with anything resembling the uncanny. But there are rumors of those who still fight, hidden away in a place called Shadowfell. It’s there that Neryn sets off in search of, all the while trying to hide her own magical abilities. But as she travels, she gains aid from small, magical folk who are even more at risk than she and hint at a future much greater than one Neryn had ever imagined for herself. With this perilous task ahead of her, Neryn’s world is rocked. She finds herself even more unbalanced when she runs across a young man named Flint whose mysterious origins and loyalties keep her guessing at every turn. Will Neryn make it to Shadowfell? And will this place hold the answers to all of her questions?

“Shadowfell” demonstrates some of the standard strengths and weaknesses of her writing. Her world-building, evocative writing, and well-researched to folktales are just as effective and appealing here as they have been in her previous books. Alba felt unique from the Irish setting that we’ve seen so much of in the “Sevenwaters” series. The tales and songs, from what I could tell, were all based in historically accurate traditions of the area. As well, the magical creatures were distinct from the Fae we’ve seen in her other work. The small, creature-like animals and the land-based beings were all fascinating and immediately compelling. And, like always, her writing is lush and immersive, drawing the reader in to the point where you feel the mists and chills that Neryn so often travels through.

On the other hand, if there’s one complaint I’ve routinely had about Marillier’s work it has been the overwhelming “goodness” of her heroines. The extent to which I enjoy them often depends on whether this goodness is balanced out by other actions that they take on the world (often the more pro-active heroines get a bigger pass from me.) But Neryn ends up being one of the more passive heroines we’ve seen for a while. Not only does she fall into the trope of being essentially a “chosen one,” but she is routinely is incredibly naïve about the world she exists within. Her thoughts turn in what quickly becomes a tiresome circle of worries and renewed determination. On top of that, she spends a significant amount of time ill and needing help from others, effectively making her the most passive of passive characters.

I also struggled with the “romance,” such as it is. Flint’s attachment to Neryn seems to come out of nowhere and is based on next to nothing. For her part, Neryn’s naivete is incredibly frustrating with regards to Flint. He’s obviously an untrustworthy party when she first meets him, and yet she quickly seems to fall in love with him. From there we enter yet another circular train of actions between her distrusting and trusting Flint. It gets old fairly quickly.

This book was a struggle for me when I first read it and a struggle the second time around as well. I can see the strong story at the heart of it, but Neryn’s passive presence and the frustrating treadmill that is her thought process about her mission and/or her feelings towards Flint became very frustrating. But, that said, it’s still a nice YA fantasy and Marillier’s strong writing save it from itself for the most part.

Rating 7: Not the best, but not the worst, “Shadowfell” introduces an interesting new fantasy story but hobbles itself with a passive heroine.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Shadowfell” is on these Goodreads lists: YA Second World Fantasy and Everything Fae.

Find “Shadowfell” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

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