Daughter of the Forest is an epic fantasy novel with a mix of sweet romance and bitter-sweet Romanticism added for flavor. The story follows a pattern more often see in classic English literature than in contemporary works. Sorcha, the main character, is introduced well before anything happens. The story follows her through her childhood, to the inciting incident, into the unfolding of the story, through the climax and the denouement, which is followed by a summary of the rest of her life.
While the pattern is more traditional, the pace is definitely contemporary. The opening sequence is told rapidly, with rich details that reach for the sublime, before it descends into the mechanics of plot. Marillier successfully borrows from both genre tropes and classic patterns to tell an age-old fairytale against a rich, grown-up tapestry of setting, theme, character, and plot. While the primary character is a child who comes of age during the story, this is not a book I would recommend for the target audience of YA novels. (Though, admittedly, they’ve gotten a lot more risqué since I was reading them as a member of the target audience.)
Sorcha is the seventh child of a land owner in the land of Erin (Ireland) at a time when the Christian faith had secured strong footing, but had not completely subverted the old faith. Her six older brothers do their best to raise their tiny sister, with little assistance from their father, who drowns his heart in war now that the love of his life is dead—until a strange woman comes along, seduces their father, and plays mischief with their household. The children band together in an attempt to challenge this femme fatale, but she is even more terrible than she seems. Sorcha’s brothers give her warning and Sorcha escapes, but she must leave her brothers to their terrible fate—to live out their mortal lives as creatures of the wild, as swans.
With his six sons lost, disappeared, vanished in a single morning, without warning or clue as to what happened (and his little daughter, too), the father gives in to his grief and, unwittingly so, his wife’s merciless quest for power. But all is not lost. The brothers and their one small sister are not dead, nor are they lost forever. If she keeps her silence, if endures the unbearable, if she sews a painfully thorny plant into six shirts for her brothers to wear, Sorcha can save her brothers from the wild—she can change them back, restore them to her human form.
Twice a year her brothers return to her, and to themselves, from dusk until dawn. They know her sacrifice and they bear it. Until something an act of terrible cruelty robs their precious sister, whom they love above all else, of her innocence. Then, they ask her to choose, they ask her to give up this chore and save herself. But, even hurt as she is, she refuses to abandon them.
Still, despite her courage and dedication, the ill done to her is not so easily overcome. She cannot struggle on her own as before. Wrapped in despair and terror, she slowly loses her battle to survive, until the deities of the Forest intervene and send her away—into the arms of the enemy. From that moment on Sorcha learns how much more she can endure and just how much she will have to sacrifice to save her family.
If you believe that genre novels cannot strive for literary quality, read this book. If you enjoy high-fantasy epics with high-stakes, read this book. If you enjoy bitter-sweet love stories, read this book. If you believe there is a cost for every bit of happiness, read this book. If you want to immerse yourself in a story that will take you off into a world of wonder and magic, read this book. I highly recommend it!
(Sorry for the late post!)