This novel, set in early medieval Ireland, tells the story of Blackthorn, a young woman who has been imprisoned by a cruel chieftain and sentenced to death. But on the eve of her execution, she is saved by one of the Fair Folk, who grants her freedom under two conditions: she must assist anyone who asks for her help, and she cannot seek revenge against her jailer for seven years. Blackthorn reluctantly accepts these terms and escapes from the prison, along with fellow prisoner Grim. At first, the two travel aimlessly, with Blackthorn occasionally using her skills as a wise woman to help those who need medical attention. Eventually, they arrive in the kingdom of Dalriada, where Prince Oran asks Blackthorn for help. He is about to be married to Flidais, the daughter of a neighboring chieftain. He has fallen in love with her because of the letters she has sent him; but when Flidais arrives in person, she seems completely unlike the woman of the letters. Blackthorn and Grim help Oran to investigate his bride’s seemingly changed personality, and their search eventually leads to a shocking discovery about the nearby Dreamer’s Wood.
I’m a big fan of Juliet Marillier’s books, and I’m pleased to say that I liked this one also. The novel is narrated by Blackthorn, Grim, and Oran in turn, and each character’s voice is very specific and distinct from the others. Blackthorn is clearly the book’s true heroine, and I found her an interesting protagonist, especially because most of her motivation at this point stems from her (justifiable) rage at being imprisoned for so long. In other words, she’s not a very nice person, and her traumatic past often leads her to assume the worst of other people. But her flaws make her a compelling character, and I look forward to seeing how she continues to develop as the (planned) series progresses. Grim is also an intriguing character, although not as well fleshed out as Blackthorn; I’m eager to learn more of his backstory. Like most of Marillier’s novels, the pace of this one is quite slow, and I’m not sure the mystery with Flidais needed to be as drawn-out as it was. That said, I did like the book and will plan to continue with the series; I believe book 2 comes out later this year.