Shadowfell by Juliet Marillier: Review

 

Shadowfell cover artShadowfell

by Juliet Marillier

Its name is spoken only in whispers, if the people of Alban dare to speak it at all: Shadowfell. The training ground for rebels seeking to free their land from the grip of the tyrannical king is so shrouded in mystery that most believe it to be a myth. But for Neryn, Shadowfell’s existence is her only hope. She is penniless, orphaned, and utterly alone – and concealing a treacherous magical power that will warrant her immediate enslavement should it be revealed. She finds hope of allies in the Good Folk, fey beings whom she must pretend she cannot see and who taunt her with chatter of prophecies and tests, and in a striking, mysterious stranger, who saves her from certain death but whose motives remain unclear. She knows she should not trust anyone with her plans, but something within her longs to confide in him. Will Neryn be forced to make the dangerous journey alone? She must reach Shadowfell, not only to avenge her family and salvage her own life, but to rescue Alban itself.

Shadowfell is my first Juliet Marillier read. I love YA, I love faerie stories, and I love made-up kingdom flat earth fantasy stories, so this “girl with the Sight on the run from the king’s men” setup caught my eye. I enjoyed large parts of it, but I wish I had realized it’s the first book in a trilogy. In teen series lately, trilogies feel like standalones that have been padded out with pointless scenes in order to stretch them into three books, and hopefully three times the profit. Book 1’s tend toward setup with little plot advancement, and unfortunately this book Shadow-fell into that trap. (See what I did there?)

Neryn is gifted (or cursed) with the ability to see the Good Folk, aka the Fair Folk, the Good Neighbors, the Lords and Ladies, the fae, fairies, faerie, whatever you want to call them and whichever spelling you prefer. In her kingdom, any sort of canny gift marks you as an outlaw, eligible for torture and “mind-scraping” by the King’s psychically-talented minions. Neryn never fully explains why magical gifts are illegal, nor does anyone point out the contradiction in a regime that outlaws magic but then uses magic to fight it. I know, I know, evil dictatorships aren’t supposed to make sense, but I still craved more background.

While on the run with her deadbeat dad, Neryn is rescued by a hooded stranger calling himself Strider Flint. He tries to convince her to travel with him, but she is dead-set on finding out if this mysterious place known as “Shadowfell” exists, so she elects to travel alone through country filled with dangerous magical creatures, henchman, and of course, rapists. My point is, Neryn’s a sweet girl, but she’s not long on common sense. Consequently, she makes poor decisions that stall the plot more often than they advance it. Her interactions with the ghosts, trolls, and various fae creatures are enjoyable, as is watching her explore her magical talent. However, huge sections of the book are devoted to travel, as well as Neryn’s starvation and illness (remember how I said she makes poor choices?), and the book bogs down considerably in these sections.

Thankfully, mysterious Flint showed up and saved both Neryn’s life and my interest in this book. I loved the friendship that developed between them despite their mutual “can I/can’t I trust you” concerns, and their interplay is definitely the strongest part of the story. Flint has the honorable-yet-tortured hero schtick working for him, as well as a good deal more warmth and sense than Neryn.

Marillier writes well, and I Shadow-fell for the hero, but Neryn left me cold. I don’t think I’ll continue with the series, but it would be a great intro to the high fantasy genre for young teen girls, possibly even a high-level reader of 11 or 12 years. (Rape is mentioned but doesn’t actually happen.) Young fans of Franny Billingsley’s The Folk Keeper or Robin McKinley’s fairy tale retellings may enjoy this magical, gentle tale, but adult readers and older teens will likely crave more action.

Overall Rating: 3 of 5

Pub stub: Knopf Books for Young Readers, $16.99 hardback, 0375869549 , September 11, 2012

I received a copy of Shadowfell from Netgalley. No money changed hands in the course of this review.

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