As you probably know from previous reviews, I very much enjoy Juliet Marillier’s style of writing and the stories she chooses to tell. Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier is another success with me. So much so that I often found myself staying up far too late, long after I was exhausted, because I couldn’t put it down. Though I’m short on time, I devoured this book in less than three days. And now I’m re-reading it at a more leisurely pace. It’s kind of like gobbling down your first piece of birthday cake, but taking your time to really taste the second piece.
The story starts with Caitrin, the heroine, on the run. You quickly learn that she’s fleeing an abusive environment and is more afraid of the evils of men than of anything else, including a haunted hill and its strange master. Raised a craftswoman at a time when women rarely have such opportunities, she’s a character that readily depicts feminine empowerment, while also showing some of the ugly realties of masculine control. More than that, she’s a character who was raised to respect the need for balance, but whose own beliefs—in people, in herself, in society—have been damaged. The story is of her journey to restore that balance in her own life, and how she changes along the way. This is not meant to imply, however, that the fantastic elements are just background noise; the fantasy milieu of the story very much impacts how she accomplishes these goals and is an integral part of the story.
Though I usually don’t do this, I wanted to share a passage that I think sets the tone of the piece:
I made the mistake of rolling up my sleeves before I left the kitchen, and was instantly aware of the big man’s stare. I turned away, but not before he had seen the bruises on my arms.
“Who did that?” asked Magnus, an edge in his voice that would have made a grown man tremble. “Who set those marks on you, Caitrin?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I muttered, hauling my sleeves back down. I headed for the door out to the yard, but he was there before me, his solid form blocking the doorway.
“Who hurt you?”
“It makes no difference who,” I said. “The bruises will fade. They’ll be gone soon.”
“Of course it makes a difference. Someone beat you, not once but over and over; that’s blindingly obvious.”
“It’s not important,” I murmured. “Really.”
Magnus put his big hands on my shoulders. Despite the gentleness of his touch I could not help flinching. He spoke quietly, leaving his hands where they were. “It’s important to us, Caitrin. Maybe you’ve had nobody to stand up for you; maybe you’ve been all on your own. But you’re at Whistling Tor now. You’re one of Anluan’s folk. If a man thought to set a violent hand to you now, he’d soon find you’re not on your own anymore.”
For some reason, this passage stands out in my mind, though it’s very early in the book and a lot happens afterwards. Here is a promise made that will be tested more than Caitrin could have imagined. More than that, it shows the reality of abuse in a way that I’ve rarely seen depicted in fiction.
In the blogosphere, there’s a tendency to mark certain passages with ***TRIGGER WARNING*** to prepare (or warn off) those who experience post-traumatic stress from various kinds of abuse. In the news, in the movies, in books, and even in blog posts, so much of what we write to express abuse requires a warning of some kind. Marillier handles the same kind of material with such a deft touch, with such finesse that we lose none of the reality, while also not reliving the trauma. She shows how Caitrin has been impacted, without causing readers similar harm. And I am very impressed by that.
The story, of course, is a fantasy. What Caitrin faces at Whistling Tor is supernatural. A curse has been laid on the property and its inhabitants. So, the plot is two-fold: Caitrin feels compelled to discover how to lift the curse, and must influence the lord of the Tor to do what must be done. He, in turn, influences her to face her own past, her own fears, her own terror. Together, if they can but succeed, they can become whole again.
This dark journey would be enough to recommend the book. But there is another element I feel compelled to mention. Often, when disability arises in fantasy, it seems part of the “fantasy” is to find a way to be without the disability. The hero’s reward is to be restored to a “perfect” state. Yet, for the vast majority of disabilities, that isn’t just merely unrealistic, it is offensive. The implication of these “fantasies” is that 1) a person with a disability who retains that disability cannot be a hero and 2) that the disability is something that must be set “right” to restore the person/situation to “wholeness” and “wholesomeness.”
One of the primary characters in this book is a person with a disability. This disability is used against him through much of the book. This is very realistic. As the nuances of human behavior in the face of abuse are depicted accurately, the nuances of human behavior in the face of disability are depicted accurately. Marillier shows through her story, however, that the disability itself isn’t the problem; it’s the attitudes about the disability that makes it oh-so-limiting. And this is something I advocate for strongly in my nonfiction work, and it’s something I live in real life as the mother of three children with disabilities.
So, what we’ve got here is a fantasy novel that is dark, but is also romantic, that respects social order (as long as that order respects the humanity of those within that order), validates the abilities of women, validates the abilities of those with disabilities, takes a stand against domestic violence and abuse, and does so through well-crafted prose and well-structured story and solid characterization.
In short, it’s awesome!