Monthly Marillier: “Son of the Shadows”

“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.

Book: “Son of the Shadows” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Tor, June 2002

Where Did I Get this Book: own it

Book Description: After years of comparative peace, darkness has fallen upon Ulster. Trouble is brewing and even those in the heart of the forest are not safe. Niamh, elder daughter of Sorcha, is required to make a strategic marriage, while her sister Liadan, who has the gift of Sight and her mother’s talent for healing, finds herself drawn into the shadowy world of the Painted Man and his warrior band. There Liadan begins a journey that is to transform her life.

Review: The second book in Marillier’s trilogy is really where the author gets to stretch her wings. The first story, while definitely fleshed out and expanded upon, is still essentially a fairy-tale retelling of the “Sevan Swans” so much of the bones were already in place. Without that framework, “Son of the Shadows” is really the book that lays the foundation for the rest of the series. It’s also probably one of my favorite books of Marillier’s.

The next generation is coming into their own. Niamh, the beautiful and wild-hearted eldest. Sean, the chieftain-in-training son. And Liadan, the unexpected second daughter, a young woman very similar to her mother, Sorcha, but who operates outside the Fair Folks’ plans. When their quiet life at Sevenwaters is interrupted by a series of misfortunes, Liadan begins to see hints of a darker force working around them. But while all fingers are pointed at a dangerous mercenary, the Painted Man, and his band of skilled fighters, Liadan suspects otherwise after spending time in their company and forming an unexpected bon with their leader.

In some ways, in this second book Marilliar simply switches the roles of her hero and heroine. Where Sorcha was the damaged character and Red the patient, steady force who drew her in, Liadan and Bran play opposite roles. By the nature of her curse, Sorcha was by necessity a quiet character. Here, Liadan is much more of a force. She has a similar quiet strength, but she’s also snappy, stubborn, and powerful in ways that make her a fascinating character to follow. Bran, of course, has his own strengths, but the mystery of his past, a wrong that makes him slow to trust and suspicious of women, affects him deeply. Much of their relationship is defined by Liadan’s sheer force of will to love Bran despite his best efforts. It’s a very different romance than the sweet, steady love story that played out in the first book. Here there are a lot more sparks, both of the good and bad variety.

I also really liked the secondary characters we get here. Red and Sorcha, of course, play a role, but Marillier does a good job keeping their page time limited so that they don’t overpower the new story she is trying to tell. We also see some familiar faces in Connor and Liam, but there, too, their roles are smaller. Sean, Liadan’s twin brother, plays an important role as the future leader of Sevenwaters, and we begin to see how he will differ from the generation that came before him. We also meet Eamonn, the son of the leader who betrayed Sevenwaters in the previous book. He plays an unexpected role here, adding a sense of building tension throughout the story.

I will give the book one ding here, with these secondary characters. Marillier falls prey to the writing trap where her characters could clear up much by simply communicating. There’s a lot of unnecessary secrecy and no good explanation is ever given. And the secrecy isn’t just a tiny side plot, it has big, important impacts on the story itself, which ultimately undermines those plot points.

The writing and world-building is a beautiful and complex as ever. Again, given the nature of Sorcha’s curse, much of the first book is dependent on the author’s ability to flesh out the world and characters without a talkative leading lady. Here, since Liadan not only can speak but is an opinionated character, we see a new strength of Marillier’s writing in the compelling dialogue. But it’s in the book’s quieter, sadder moments that her writing really shines, and there are several instances (some of them pretty unexpected!) that always make me cry.

One last, small criticim of the story has to be some of the smaller tales woven throughout. Storytelling is often featured in Marillier’s work and there is often a particular tale within the story itself that holds particular importance to a character’s arc. We have that here, too. But there were also several other stories, and while they also connected to characters and actions, they sometimes felt too long and that they were throwing off the balance of the actual story being told. I think a few of them could have been cut or reduced to help with the overall pacing of the book.

But, while I did rate this book one point down from the first, it’s still one of my favorites and maybe even preferred to that one. I really like Liadan as a leading character, and her romance with Bran is very swoon-worthy. It’s a solid sequel to the first and does a lot of the heavy-lifting for paving the way for future books.

Rating 9: Freed of the trappings of a fairytale retelling, we begin to see what Marillier is really capable of.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Son of the Shadows” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Heroine in a Fantasy Book and Fantasy Romance.

Find “Son of the Shadows” at your library using WorldCat!