“You know not, yet, the sort of love that strikes like a lightning bolt; that clutches hold of you by the heart, as irrevocably as death.”
Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier is one of the best books I’ve read this year. I’ve been longing for a story and prose just like this—it enchanted me from the very first page. Already I want to read it again, to wring out every emotion and savor each word.
This book is a tragic historical fantasy retelling of the Six Swans fairy tale. In the traditional story, a young girl’s six brothers are turned into swans by a sorceress. In order to break the curse, the sister must remain completely silent until she sews six shirts from stinging nettles, which will turn the swans back into her brothers. Daughter of the Forest is set in early Ireland and follows Sorcha, a young healer with the unflinching devotion and strength of will to embark on this agonizing task. Although the book maintains the feel of a folktale with the poetic writing style and the incorporation of mystical magic, Marillier adds more to the story than the Six Swans detailed, most notably the historical backdrop and the divide between two cultures, Britain and Ireland, which Sorcha must confront.
The writing style is indescribably beautiful. Every sentence feels like something living and breathing, like a brief glimpse of the forest, the sea, a character’s subtle expression. Marillier has a gift for giving specific and heartbreaking detail without overwriting emotions or descriptions. Even though Daughter of the Forest is quite dense, it is not unnecessarily so, and it never slowed down enough to lose my attention.
I fell in love with the characters, with their sweetness and insight and hurt that felt like a fist around my heart. It’s been a while since I’ve been so enraptured by a full cast of characters. I was worried that I wouldn’t care for the brothers individually, since there are six of them, but Marillier made them each endearing and flawed in their own ways. I was especially attached to Conor and Finbar. The beautiful bond between the siblings and their shared strength is one of the many highlights of this book. It prevents the plot—particularly Sorcha’s unwavering determination to accomplish her task—from becoming unrealistic and hard to believe.
It’s difficult to write a character who is so kind and good but also complex and interesting to follow, especially when the story is told from one perspective. But Sorcha is more than interesting; her pain, her love for her brothers, her wisdom, her anger, every bitter challenge she faces with gentle strength—it all feels real. She is one of my new favorite fictional characters. I can already imagine myself asking what Sorcha would do in the face of difficult decisions. Although Daughter of the Forest is not a happy story and gets more painful as it progresses, leading to a melancholy ending that left me with tears in my eyes, I was still inspired by the characters. There is considerable beauty in this book along with the sorrow.
The Six Swans is my favorite folktale, and this is my new definitive retelling of it. I can’t fathom any way to do the story justice better than Juliet Marillier already has. Daughter of the Forest is impossibly good.