I should’ve got round to this ages ago, I know. I usually enjoy Juliet Marillier’s work, though I don’t always love it (I think Wolfskin and Foxmask didn’t work so well for me), and I read some very enthusiastic reviews about this one. There were one or two aspects that made me pause (a minor character is a victim of pretty serious abuse and rape) and a few people did note that there’s a fair amount of ‘slut-shaming’ in the story, i.e. shaming a female character for being at all interested in sex. It’s not surprising in a medieval-esque setting, as it often comes with the territory, but off-putting in a fantasy world with no reason to include it.
Still, it’s essentially a fairytale set-up: Blackthorn makes a bargain with a fairy to get out of prison, with a number of conditions placed upon it. This frames the story and sets up her relationship with Grim, her obligation to help people, and her slow road to recovery after the depredations of prison and injustice. That then combines with the story of the side characters, Oran and Flidais, who have an arranged marriage but communicated via letters. Yet, when she arrives amidst the tragedy of losing one of her maids, her faithful dog suddenly hates her and she doesn’t behave at all like the bride he expected.
I found the actual mystery aspect of that really obvious; given the mythological, Celtic-ish setting, it was a little tedious waiting for everyone else to catch up to the obvious. There was one issue which surprised me a little, involving the dog Bramble, though I was pleased by that development and how the plot worked out. Flidais and Oran are sweet and naive, and it seemed like everyone would be miserable if things didn’t work out properly. It’s difficult to discuss the plot and the sex/abuse issue without giving any spoilers, so skip the next paragraph if you haven’t read the book and might want to work things out for yourself!
There is a character who has been abused and raped, but it is essential to the story for the things it brings out in various different characters — in Oran and his wife-to-be, in Blackthorn and Grim in their determination to give the girl justice. Likewise, the issue of sex isn’t as straightforward, in my opinion, as other people think. The problem is not that a particular character is interested in sex, but that she acts out of character about it. It’s as important that she isn’t sympathetic to a victim of rape as that she’s proactive about having sex with Oran. It all comes together into a picture of a woman who just isn’t the woman Oran thought he knew from the letters, and that is the important thing. Honestly, the most important clue about her identity is not the sexual aspects, but in her lack of interest in reading and poetry, and her indifference to her formerly beloved dog.
There’s a lot of time spent on the characters of Oran and Flidais, but Blackthorn and Grim are really the core of the story: Blackthorn’s trauma, her need for justice, her geas to help people in exchange for freedom. I expect that the second book is going to spend more time with Blackthorn and Grim, and dealing with their partnership and friendship, and I’m all for it. And I really enjoy that Blackthorn’s relationship with Grim is emotionally important to both of them, gives them both stability, and has nothing to do with sex or romance. I hope it continues that way.