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“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: “The Dark Mirror” by Juliet Marillier
Publishing Info: Tor, September 2004
Where Did I Get this Book: own it!
Book Description: Bridei is a young nobleman fostered at the home of Broichan, one of the most powerful druids in the land. His earliest memories are not of hearth and kin but of this dark stranger who while not unkind is mysterious in his ways. The tasks that he sets Bridei appear to have one goal-to make him a vessel for some distant purpose. What that purpose is Bridei cannot fathom but he trusts the man and is content to learn all he can about the ways of the world.
But something happens that will change Bridei’s world forever…and possibly wreck all of Broichan’s plans. For Bridei finds a child on their doorstep on a bitter MidWinter Eve, a child seemingly abandoned by the fairie folk. It is uncommonly bad luck to have truck with the Fair Folk and all counsel the babe’s death. But Bridei sees an old and precious magic at work here and heedless of the danger fights to save the child. Broichan relents but is wary.
The two grow up together and as Bridei comes to manhood he sees the shy girl Tuala blossom into a beautiful woman. Broichan sees the same process and feels only danger…for Tuala could be a key part in Bridei’s future…or could spell his doom.
Review: When I was planning out this review series, I can honestly say I forgot about this trilogy in my first run through of scheduling. So, take from that what you will! I can say that this is another of Marillier’s trilogies that leave me with the very hipster opinion of preferring the second book in the series to any other. As you will see, this book wasn’t my favorite, and as much as I do enjoy the second entry in the trilogy, I think it’s this lukewarm start that has me so often forgetting about these books’ existence in Marillier’s catalog of work.
Bridei’s childhood is clearly centered around some greater plan being put to work by the druid Broichan. Mysterious and reclusive, Broichan is not one to explain himself to Bridei, but Bridei does know that when they discover a baby girl at their door, this is definitely not part of the plan. Now, growing up alongside Tuala, Bridei begins to suspect why his teacher was so cautious to begin with. But Bridei himself can’t help but feel a stronger and stronger connection to the young woman, and, soon enough, the fates of an entire people may rest in her hands.
So, this another of my least favorite of Marillier’s works. Many of her strengths are equally present: the lyrical writing, the clear sense of the world and time period, and a flowing style of storytelling that lends even practical scenes a sense of wonder and magic. But some of her most common limitations are also present. That is, a stalled pace, especially in the beginning of the story, and a romance that is hard to become invested in. This latter point is the most puzzling, because her amazing romances are part of the reason I love her so much! But she is one of those authors who seems to either really nail the romance or to miss the mark altogether.
This book leans heavily on the political situation surrounding Bridei’s coming of age and the role he is meant to have in the future of the land. As such, much of the story is very much set in the human world (as opposed to some of Marillier’s more fantasy-focused stories). This isn’t a bad thing on the face things, but the story does feel slow and plodding for the first half or so. It’s a struggle to really put together the pieces that are moving and see much of an actual story arch building in the book itself.
The romance was also very cringe-y at times. It’s a hard balance to write a romance that develops from childhood friendship into romance, especially when there’s a distinct age gap. I think that “The First Girl Child” did very well, but that relied on separating the main characters until the younger of the two, the young woman, was an adult (by the time’s standards). Here, Bridei’s views of Tuala seem uncomfortable at times, given her age. I also felt like the resolution for the romance came on too suddenly in the end, with their feelings for one another going from zero to hundred over the course of one event. It wasn’t bad, but it doesn’t hold up to Marillier’s more complex and swoony romances.
This was only my second time reading this book, and I can say that my original lower opinion stands pretty true. I think I might have disliked it even more than the first time I read it, as I found the romance to be harder to read without feeling uncomfortable this go around. But I do remember liking the second book much more. In fact, I know I’ve read that one more than once, though it’s still be about a decade since I last revisited! I hope it holds up!
Rating 6: A slow, plodding pace isn’t helped by a romance that falls more on the cringe side of the cringe/swoon scale.
“The Dark Mirror” is on these Goodreads lists: Wise Women, Witches, Midwives, Healers, and Strong Girls! and Medieval Fantasy Books.