I’ve not read anything by Juliet Marillier before so I came to this novel with no preconceptions about her work. It declares itself to be a Young Adult novel; I habitually reserve judgement on that because there’s no telling what any given author thinks that label means until you start reading. So my only guide is the jacket where it’s fortunate I believe one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Proficient as the intricate artwork is, it does suggest a tweeness that I didn’t find in this engaging and intelligent tale.
Juliet Marillier's interpretation of Young Adult fiction is a story focused on one place, a remote valley, on a comparatively small cast of mostly youthful characters, related by blood and marriage, and dealing with a defined sequence of events which leaves everything irrevocably changed. Five sisters, the eldest two just reaching marriageable age, live with their widowed merchant father in the remote castle of Piscul Dracului, Transylvania, on the edge of the vast wild wood. Those names will prompt all manner of expectation in the adult reader but Juliet Marillier has sufficient confidence in both her story and in her intended readership not to get bogged down with unpicking all those implications, just as she sees no need to pin down the period. As long as we know that travel is by horse and cart, that coffee and silks are available but both are costly luxuries and a girl's future, or a boy's come to that, is still largely determined by gender, tradition and expectation, we don't need to know all the ins and outs of the wider historical, political and economic picture.
Which is not to say the setting lacks substance. There's no hint that a book for children deserves any less careful crafting than one ostensibly for adults, in the vivid, evocative descriptions of the castle, the valley, of the woods, and for the most part, in the vibrant characterisation of the main players. If a few of the subordinate characters are somewhat two-dimensional, that's just a consequence of keeping the narrative moving with pace and purpose.
The story is told by Jena, the second sister, the sensible one, who sees herself as plain, with a talent for mathematics. The eldest, Tatiana, is the beautiful one; Paula is the scholar, with Iulia at thirteen bidding fair to be another more sensual beauty and some way behind, Stela, still a little girl. As the story opens, they are dealing with the fact that their father is dangerously ill. He must spend the winter in the milder climate of the coast if he is to recover. So he departs, leaving the children with the faithful retainers Florica and Petru in the house and the whole estate in the guardianship of their uncle who lives with his own wife and son close by.
So far, so unexceptional, only these girls have a secret. As with many elements in this story, starting with children being stripped of their natural protector, their secret is one that crops up so often in Young Adult and for that matter, traditional and folk fiction. They have a secret route into another world, the realm of faerie, reached through a portal accessed through their bedchamber at full moon. Magical creatures guide them across the enchanted lake and for years now, they have spent that one night each month dancing and talking with people and creatures from myth and magic. There are all manner of resonances from folklore and fairy tale in this magical realm and as with the real-world setting she has devised, Juliet Marillier takes what serves her story best without entangling her readers in extraneous explanation or justification.
As the story unfolds, it’s all about change. The Other Kingdom is changing, as the Night People encroach on the Full Moon dancing. Jena has always known there are darker aspects to this magical realm; local stories tell of Draguta, the witch of the woods, always to be feared. But these Night People are something more sinister and worse, more seductive. Tatiana gradually, irresistibly, loses her heart to the silent youth known only as Sorrow.
But Jena has more immediate, real-world concerns where change is also forcing itself upon them. Their uncle, Nicolae, is killed in an awful accident and that leaves his son Cezar in charge. Jena's relationship with Cezar has long been complicated by the death of his older brother Costin when the three of them were children, playing on the shores of the forbidden lake deep in the woods. Cezar is determined to prove himself and becomes increasingly domineering and autocratic. Jena’s letters to her father go unanswered; she cannot even be sure they are being delivered. Cezar takes charge of their finances and even moves into their castle. Because darker aspects of the Other Kingdom are impinging upon this remote valley. A girl has been found dead and the Night People are being blamed. Cezar is determined to drive the unearthly out of the wild wood, root and branch. He'll fell all the trees if need be, causing as much devastation in the Other Kingdom as in this world.
Jena has to try to save herself and her sisters as well as their friends in the Other Kingdom. Her only ally is Gogu, her pet, an undeniably magical frog with whom she shares an abiding telepathic bond. As the story progresses, well paced and logically constructed, she meets with both success and failure. Where Jena errs, it's not through stupidity but through lack of experience or confidence as she wavers on the cusp of girlhood and adult life. Her choices and options are often frustrated by her gender and her youth and she has to learn to deal with such unpalatable facts of life. She experiences new temptations and learns hard lessons in responsibility. As she claims the right to make her own decisions and not be gainsaid, she must also find the maturity to allow others to do the same. Crucially, she realises that for adults, in this world or in the Other Kingdom, help is something to be purchased at a price.
That it all turns out right in the end comes as no great surprise. But there will be surprises along the way for even adult readers well-versed in myth and folklore as well as the satisfaction of seeing traditional tropes used with intelligence, verve and affection. Most importantly of all, as in the most enduring traditional tales, having things come out right doesn’t mean everything necessarily ends well for all those involved. Everyone gets what they deserve rather than what they might want. Juliet Marillier sees no reason to patronise her readers and they will enjoy this story all the more as a consequence. Given the focus on female central characters and yes, the cover art, I’d expect the majority of those readers to be girls, but in the best tradition of modern feminist thinking, those who enjoy it most will be girls who acknowledge far more unites the sexes than divides them.
This review originally appeared in SF Revu.