Author: Juliet Marillier
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: September 2012
Hardcover: 416 Pages
Sixteen-year-old Neryn is alone in the land of Alban, where the oppressive king has ordered anyone with magical strengths captured and brought before him. Eager to hide her own canny skill—a uniquely powerful ability to communicate with the fairy-like Good Folk—Neryn sets out for the legendary Shadowfell, a home and training ground for a secret rebel group determined to overthrow the evil King Keldec.
During her dangerous journey, she receives aid from the Good Folk, who tell her she must pass a series of tests in order to recognize her full potential. She also finds help from a handsome young man, Flint, who rescues her from certain death—but whose motives in doing so remain unclear. Neryn struggles to trust her only allies. They both hint that she alone may be the key to Alban’s release from Keldec’s rule.
Homeless, unsure of who to trust, and trapped in an empire determined to crush her, Neryn must make it to Shadowfell not only to save herself, but to save Alban.
Stand alone or series: Book One of the Shadowfell Trilogy
How did I get this book: ARC from the Publisher (full disclosure, one of my friends works at Knopf)
Why did I read this book: Are you kidding me? I am a die-hard Juliet Marillier fan, so I was ecstatic when I learned she would be publishing a new YA trilogy. I’ve had my Shadowfell ARC for a while but put off reading it until recently because Marillier is just that damn good – and I wanted to savor the experience.
Under the oppressive reign of King Keldec, Alban has become a cold, cruel land. Once, Albans embraced the fey “Good folk” with whom they share their land and history, revering the magical gifts born to some humans. But since Keldec’s ascension to power, the fair folk have been hunted, and any human possessing magical abilities killed or worse: mind-scraped and turned to the King’s cause by way of magic.
Fifteen-year-old Neryn possesses a strange, unique gift, that has attracted the attention of the King. Both she and her father have been on the run ever since their home and family were cruelly destroyed, victims of the King’s iron-fisted Enforcers. Always on the move, Neryn and her father have stayed a hair’s breadth ahead of their pursuers, never staying longer than a night in a single location. With autumn approaching and coin and supplies running low, Naryn’s father – once a proud and strong man, long fallen from grace – chooses to gamble their remaining money on a chancey boat, hoping that a game can change his fate. When the game turns sour and he loses all his money, just as Naryn knew and feared would happen, her father drunkenly, desperately wagers Naryn as a prize – and loses. When the ship is overrun by Enforcers, Naryn and her new cloaked ‘owner’ flee and emerge the only survivors of the raid.
Terrified and powerless, Naryn finds herself at the mercy of a hardened young man named Flint – and though he has rescued her from death or worse at then hands of the Enforcers, and though he seems set on helping Naryn, she escapes from him at first opportunity. Naryn clings to the faint, solitary hope that she can find a rumored place called Shadowfell, a land to the north where rebels and those with gifts like her own have gathered and ready themselves to fight Keldec’s reign. As she journeys north, Neryn discovers the extent of her gift and is sorely tested by human and Good folk alike. She must choose who and in what to trust, for in her hands, she holds the key to Alba’s salvation or its ruin.
Shadowfell, the newest novel from Juliet Marillier, is a captivating – if at times infuriating – start to a new strong YA fantasy trilogy. I am an unabashed Juliet Marillier fangirl, and have read and loved her Sevenwaters books as well as her two prior YA efforts. As with these beloved earlier novels, Shadowfell is a beautifully written tale, showcasing Marillier’s lush, evocative prose and gift for worldbuilding. Neryn’s Alba is reminiscent of the mist-shrouded magic of the Sevenwaters saga (set in medieval Ireland), but of a different flavor with its Scottish setting, and unique its tradition of Good folk, from the small to the ancient Guardians that have gone to ground in the troubled rule of the new king. Shadowfell is very much a questing book, a travelling book, as Neryn and her unlikely friends pick their way across Alba in search of safety and salvation. Along the way, Neryn encounters different beings and tests, from the wailing of a lonely haunt, to the stanie mon of rock and ground. At each turn, we glimpse more of this version of Alba – and true to form, Marillier’s painstaking research of folklore and history shine throughout Shadowfell. Naryn’s Alba feels incredibly real, from the Gaelic inspired language and songs, to the vivid imagery of lochs and cliffs.
While the writing and feeling for the book is pitch-perfect, there are, however, some significant issues with character and pacing. One of my very favorite things about Marillier’s books are the heroines – I have fallen in love with and cheered passionately for them all, from Sorcha of Daughter of the Forest to Paula of Cybele’s Secret. Neryn, however, falls somewhat flat and pales in comparison to her predecessors. Perhaps it is because Neryn is so damned good – she is unerringly kind and passes every test set before her without flinching or wavering (it doesn’t help that she is The One that can bring peace to Alba once more with her Super Special Utterly Unique gift). No, that’s not quite it. I think the reason that Neryn is so hard to swallow is because she is so freaking helpless and at times frustratingly naive – despite having The One Power That Can Save Them All, Neryn spends most of Shadowfell in a sickly stupor and requires much rescuing at the hands of the Good Folk or Flint (the mysterious stranger who Guards a Secret). Neryn’s naivete pervades the text, particularly with regard to Flint, her mysterious savior (on multiple occasions). And, while Flint is a strong, conflicted character, he’s not exactly trustworthy. The attraction between the characters is similarly frustrating because there doesn’t seem to be any reason for Flint to care so deeply for Neryn – but perhaps this is just my own pet peeve.
In terms of pacing, too, there is the problem of repetition. At just over 400 pages long, Shadowfell covers a lot of ground but also needlessly retreads the same emotional justifications; we are frequently told just how high the stakes are, and Neryn continuously cycles through the same thoughts and stresses ad nauseam. Of course, I was reviewing an early ARC, so perhaps this is changed in the final book.1 And yet, despite these failings, Shadowfell held my attention rapt, and I finished the book in basically two sittings. The action – when it happens – is fantastic, and I found myself caring for the future of Alba, even if the heroine was a little too good to be true.
Ultimately, I enjoyed Shadowfell – heck, I greatly enjoyed it, with some reservations. Definitely recommended, and I will certainly be back for more.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
As we came down to the shore of Darkwater, the wind sliced cold right to my bones. My heels stung with blisters. Dusk was falling, and my head was muzzy from the weariness of another long day’s walk. Birds cried out overhead, winging to nighttime roosts. They were as eager as I was to get out of the chill.
We’d heard there was a settlement not far along the loch shore, a place where we might perhaps buy shelter with our fast-shrinking store of coppers. I allowed myself to imagine a bed, a proper one with a straw mattress and a woolen coverlet. Oh, how my limbs ached for warmth and comfort! Foolish hope. The way things were in Alban, people didn’t open their doors to strangers. Especially not to disheveled vagrants, and that was what we had become. I was a fool to believe, even for a moment, that our money would buy us time by someone’s hearth fire and a real bed. Never mind that. A heap of old sacks in a net-mending shed or a pile of straw in an outhouse would do fine. Anyplace out of this wind. Anyplace out of sight.
I became aware of silence. Father’s endless mumbled recounting of past sorrows, a constant accompaniment to our day’s journey, had come to a halt, and now he stopped walking to gaze ahead. Between the water’s edge and the looming darkness of a steep wooded hillside, I could make out a cluster of dim lights.
“Darkwater settlement,” he said. “There are lights down by the jetty. The boat’s there!”
“What boat?” I was slow to understand, my mind dreaming of a fire, a bowl of porridge, a blanket. I did not hear the note in his voice, the one that meant trouble.
“Fowler’s boat. The chancy-boat, Neryn. What have we got left, how much?”
My heart plummeted. When this mood took him, setting the glitter of impossible hope in his eyes, there was no stopping him. I could not restrain him by force; he was too strong for me. And whatever I said, he would ignore it. But I had to try.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
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- Also, while we’re on the subject of nitpicks (and this is possibly something that was changed from my ARC to the final product), Neryn frequently refers to herself as being fifteen years old, or in her sixteenth year. Descriptive copy fail. ↩