Marillier, Juliet. 2000. Daughter of the Forest. New York: Tor.

Reviewed 11 August 2000

Daughter of the Forest (cover) This is the beginning of a new fantasy series, at least according to the unusually inaccurate marketing blurbs. Unusually inaccurate because this piece of dreck is implicitly compared to a novel. Never again will I trust a blurb from those who provided these. It's a good thing Tor is in New York (see my journal entry for 11 July) and can, for the moment anyway, rely upon Lakoff to avoid liability for false advertising.

This book is an appalling piece of dragon dung (and, as European dragons are carnivores, I can guarantee that that won't smell good). But, if you have a very strong stomach, you just might learn something. An obviously inept and ill-considered work can provide an excellent learning experience, albeit an extremely painful one.

Marillier's book tries to be a retelling of the story of the swans. It's also a particularly unfortunate attempt to cram that fairy tale (misidentified as a "myth" in the marketing copy, but that is admittedly a very fine distinction) into the same package as a romance. No, not the literary type Romance (Romanze, Roman), which is the true ancestor of the novel—particularly in northern and central Europe, the local cognate of Roman is used interchangeably with the local cognate of "novel"—but the worst of the mass-market-paperback romances. Those that usually feature a twentyish woman with immense cleavage in a subservient position to a musclebound man (arm of his white shirt ripped to show his biceps), somehow attempting to imply passionate consummation about to occur immediately. The one marginally redeeming feature of Daughter of the Forest is John Jude Palencar's tastefully understated cover painting, which avoids the male lust object entirely.

Marillier makes a number of grievous errors avoidable through understanding of some pretty basic literary theory:

  • The narrative is entirely a first-person memoir; the narrator is conscious of her role throughout, and recalls exact impressions of trivialities and pretentious portents years afterward. On the other hand, she describes the gratuitous rape in entirely physical terms, with nothing really in the aftermath. This is not logically consistent. It is also not logically consistent with a narrator who begins her story at about ten or eleven years old, is raped at (by inference) around thirteen years old, and then…

    Stupidly continues to trust the good intentions of others, and particularly of strange men after they demonstrate some immediate resistance to the impulse to ravish her. (Look at her actions, not her narrative self-justification.) The major difficulty here is that the entire narrative structure subverts the reader's desire and ability to identify with the narrator, which is particularly irksome when the narrator is also the putative protagonist. This is just another step down the road from the kind of details that Sorcha recalls of the rape—and, perhaps more importantly, doesn't recall.

    From a theoretical perspective, how should the choice of a first-person memoir affect the structure and development of a novel? At the very least, the memoirist should clearly indicate when she is imposing her current thoughts and impressions, with the benefit of hindsight, upon her younger self. Unless, of course, both the memoirist and younger self are supposed to be arrogant omniscient asses. Then there's the self-awareness issue. A first-person narrative has at least some undercurrent of self-awareness, even when presented as the unvarnished truth (e.g., Le Guin's "The First Report of the Shipwrecked Foreigner to the Kadanh of Derb," in The Compass Rose; Mann's Doktor Faustus).

  • With very, very few exceptions, retellings of fairy tales simply do not work at novel length while playing straight with the material—that is, fixing the tale in one particular time and place. The difficulty is twofold.

    1. First, fixing the tale is itself extraordinarily difficult to do. It requires extensive research, and it's still very easy to screw up. In this book, the military issues are about as close to "wrong" for the implied time as it's possible to get short of having crewmen from the Enterprise indiscriminately hand out phasers. Distressingly, given the author's claimed advanced degree in "languages," the book contains an inordinate number of linguistic anachronisms. For example, the narrator throughout refers to the invaders-from-across-the-water as "Britons"—a term that absolutely does not belong in that time (early importation of Christianity to Ireland), and one that ignores the identification of the invaders with one particular lord of Northumbria.

    2. More subtly, fixing a fairy tale in a given time and place destroys its character as a fairy tale. The whole point of a fairy tale is that it is relatively timeless, the characters close to archetypal. A fairy tale is not character-driven; it is theme-driven, and to a lesser extent plot-driven. Attempting to remain very close to the source material while imposing the post-2001 imperative to make works of fiction character-driven just doesn't work very often. At shorter lengths, this is less of a problem, because the integration of character, environment, plot, and theme is implied, just as in the original tale. Once one reaches the novella length and beyond, though, that integration must be made much more explicit. The successful novel-length retellings (such as Card's Enchantment) generally do not "play straight" with the material for precisely this reason. Instead, they integrate something significant of the author's invention and interpretation to the tale.

  • Then there's the romance aspect. This isn't a mature romance, or even raging teenage hormones (particularly since Sorcha, the narrator, is about thirteen or fourteen when she meets up with the thirtyish Hugh). No, this is a junior-high crush on the gym teacher. The romance subplot also thoroughly undermines the theme of the swans' tale. Instead of the familial bond becoming stronger, the romance essentially shatters it, particularly in the ill-considered introduction of Finbar's defection (which is, itself, another anachronism: the narrator is "Sorcha," including all of the non-English-phonetic letters, but "Fionbar" has been spelled phonetically for no apparent reason). As used here, this is not a "tragic counterpoint," but simply ludicrous.

    None of this is to say that romance and fairy tales shall not meet, nor that they shall be destroyed in such a meeting. For example, Card's Enchantment has a successful, if understated, romance subplot that does not harm the novel. However, it's a romance explicitly considered in, and consistent with, the source material. Similarly, Shakespeare's The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream emphasize romance much more than did the respective source material (or, at least, what many scholars infer is the source material) without undermining it.

Overall rating: 1 star
This is not a strong effort. In my judgment, it is not of professional quality, and compares unfavorably with Patricia Kenneally (Morrison)'s awful "Celts in Space" works. It's depressing—and surprising—to see this coming from Tor.

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