Rating: 4/5 stars (maybe even 4.5)
Clean rating: PG-13. There is discussion of violence but not particularly gore, and in my opinion the violence was not really a problem. There is also some torture, and you see the after-effects, not the torture itself. But that’s kind of rough anyway. The worst is that there is rape, and while it is not described in gory detail, it is emotional and ugly and horrific (not much of a shocker, considering that it’s rape). So the content is emotionally fraught, but I didn’t find it to be morally ugly, if that makes sense. There was no glory in the terrible things that happen in this book; there was a very strong awareness of the ugliness—which, in my opinion, makes it a much stronger book.
Short summary: Sorcha is the youngest of seven children. When their father marries a sorceress, Sorcha and her brothers try to protect themselves from her. They fail and end up with a terrible spell placed on them that only Sorcha can undo, but only at great personal cost. The book is an extended version of “The Six Swans,” set in medieval Erin (this is Ireland, right? my history knowledge is sooo very bad).
What I liked: It would probably be a shorter post if I just skipped straight to what I didn’t like. Because pretty much I liked everything.
For starters, the tone and voice and language. It is beautifully written. The words are fluid like water rushing past and so easy to read. This is not flowery, overblown language. It is simply the loveliness of gorgeous, perfect prose. It is a beauty that I often try to achieve in my stories and that Marillier does in a way that makes it look effortless. Okay, enough gushing. It’s wonderful, that’s all I can say.
Next: I have read versions of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” where, at the end, I could not keep any of the princesses straight. I recently read a book that had only four siblings, and I’m still not sure I could name a single one of them. But in this novel, it’s been a week or so since I read it, and I’m pretty sure I can not only name each of the six brothers, but I can also tell you a little bit about each one.* They all stood out as separate people, which I think is a difficult task in cases like this. But Marillier did a good job with it.
Sorcha was a likeable character. She had a lot of ugliness to deal with, but she loved her family and she was hardworking and she was overall pretty darn awesome.
What didn’t work for me: Well, we’ve got to come up with something here, right? So I will say that it was long. Not only is it over 500 pages, but the print is really small. This is undoubtedly a turn-off for some, and I confess I wasn’t thrilled about it. But it didn’t really feel long to me. As in, “Really? It’s not over yet?” I’m sure I could come up with something else to complain about, but they would be minor quibbles.
Last words: It’s a good thing I read this because I had once considered doing a novel-length retelling of “The Six Swans” (there’s something about this tale that I just love), but now I can honestly say that the best possible version of this story is already written. I might someday revisit it just for fun, but I would have to place it in a contemporary setting and with a very different emotional tone and just a wildly different story overall because this version is pretty much perfect. If you like fairy tale retellings with a sort of lush magical tone, you must read this!
* Okay, now I have to test myself. Mild spoilers contained herein. Liam: leader, oldest, warlike. Diarmid: idiot, hothead. Cormack: Conor’s twin, a little warlike, loved his dog. Conor: druid. Finbar: moody, into justice. Padriac: loved animals, a healer. Wow, look at that! Easy peasy.
** P.S. I liked this one a lot better than Wildwood Dancing, even though I also liked that one.