Themes Explored: tyranny, freedom, morality, coming of age, independence, evil, fairy mythology, Celtic legends, folklore, survival, relationships, ethics, magic
Synopsis: 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. (Synopsis from Goodreads)
Review: Juliet Marillier has penned some wonderful novels. Her Sevenwaters series is nothing short of fantastic Celtic fantasy. Since I needed a Celtic fantasy fix, I decided to give Marillier’s latest Young Adult Series a try. So far I have only read the first book, but I thoroughly enjoyed the story. Shadowfell is the first book and is beautifully written. Though it is also slightly infuriating at certain points.
Shadowfell follows the quest of sixteen-year-old Neryn as she attempts to evade the tyrannical King Keldec. The King has outlawed magic unless he can manipulate it for his own gain. So Neryn is on the run from Keldric’s enforcers. Along the way she encounters a mysterious young man who is not what he seems. The title refers to a sanctuary for people possessing magical abilities. While the plot is not groundbreaking, Marillier’s prose is haunting and thoughtful. For a relatively short book, there is a lot of intrigue packed into the narrative. Fans of the Sevenwaters series will recognize the Kingdom of Alban since Marillier liberally borrows from her already established Celtic world.
While I enjoyed reading Shadowfell, there are a couple problems. First, there is a myriad of repetition. We are constantly reminded about the high stakes and the consequences of failing. However, the most annoying aspect is that Neryn cycles through the same thought process about five times. She continuously has the same stressful breakdown and this is exhausting to read after the third iteration. And there is a lot of walking. About eighty percent of the book is detailing Neryn’s walking quest across the kingdom. From a pacing standpoint, the plot moves at an almost excruciatingly slow speed. There are a lot of talking scenes and relatively few action sequences. It took me awhile to really connect with the characters and the quest.
My biggest complaint about the book is Neryn’s personality. Marillier’s female protagonists tend to have strong, spirited, and dignified personalities. But they also have flaws that cause them some problems along the way. Now I realize that this is a young adult novel and the author cannot overly focus on characterization with only 400 pages. Yet Neryn really needed a personality; she is a rather bland heroine. She possess no discernible flaws. Except for not trusting a shady guy she just met. But that is not a flaw so much as common sense. Though this lack of development is more a consequence of the narrative style. Since Neryn is constantly on the run, we are not afforded a chance to see her interact with a wide swath of characters. I hope the next installments adds some much needed depth to Neryn.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of this book is the interaction between Neryn and Flint. The dialogue is believable and Neryn acts a lot like I would expect a scared sixteen-year-old girl to act. One of my problems with the Young Adult genre is that authors tend to emphasize the adult part and forget about the young. This results in a lot of teenagers acting like thirty-year-olds. So this book was refreshing because Marillier does not depict her characters as being wise beyond their years. Neryn comes across as a sixteen-year old, which is good considering that is her age. Also, the relationship between Flint and Neryn does not magically progress from untrustworthy to star struck lovers. There is a lot of tension and mistrust. I think the progression of the relationship is realistic.
This is not an innovative fantasy novel. However, it is well-written and the narrative is a lot more grounded than most Young Adult novels. While it is a fantasy novel, the characters could exist almost anywhere. This is definitely a more grounded approach to fantasy fiction. As this is a Young Adult book, there is not a lot of complexity or depth to the narrative. But there is enough development to keep the story intriguing. Despite its flaws, I would highly recommend giving Shadowfell a try.
Shadowfell, Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2012, ISBN 9780375869549