I recently read a series that really hit the sweet spot for intimate rather than epic fantasy, with a focus on the characters, and we really got to see the characters grow, even though there were only three books. It was the Blackthorn and Grim series by Juliet Marillier.
The series is set in Ireland soon after the coming of Christianity, but before it really takes over, though it’s a fictional version of Ireland where magic exists and the fey play a role. The setup for the series is that Blackthorn, a former village wise woman (a healer, mostly, but with a bit of magic) has been imprisoned by a corrupt lord. She’s looking forward to her day in court to be able to publicly accuse him of his wrongs, but on the eve of her hearing, she’s warned that the lord has no intention of letting her speak, so she’s going to suffer an “accident” on the way. A fey lord appears to her and makes her a bargain: he’ll get her free, but she has to agree to go to a different kingdom, take up residence in the cottage she finds in a certain place, and resume her duties as wise woman. For seven years, she can’t seek revenge against the lord, and she must help anyone who asks her for aid. She wrestles with the decision because she wants nothing more than to get revenge, but ultimately decides that she can’t get revenge if she’s dead, so she takes the deal. Another prisoner, Grim, escapes with her. They find the cottage, set up shop, and soon the local prince needs some help because there’s something very strange going on with his betrothed.
This series is structured a lot like a mystery series, with a “case” in each book of someone who needs help, but the characters and their relationships grow from book to book, with the threat of that evil lord always lurking in the background. There’s also a hint of romance, with some of the cases involving relationships. I would have thought this series could go on indefinitely, with seven years worth of having to help anyone who asks, but the whole thing is wrapped up in the third book, and quite satisfactorily. I like the way it’s resolved, but since I enjoyed these books, I wish there had been more of them before the ending.
One thing I enjoyed about this series is the way it was told. There are multiple viewpoints, with Blackthorn and Grim in first-person narration and most of the “guest” characters in third-person. Their voices are so distinct that you’d have known whose chapter it was without the headers. Blackthorn has an edge to her voice. She’s lost trust in people and starts out very bitter. She doesn’t really want to help people and would prefer just to be left alone. Grim is a gentle giant, a man of few words, and his narration reflects that, with short sentences and simple words.
I will caution that there’s mention of rape, especially in the first book. It takes place “offstage,” but it is referred to, and the effects are dealt with, with the focus on the victim. That might make this difficult to read for some. I’d tried to read another book by this author and had to stop reading midway through because it was too much — it was a retelling of the fairytale with the brothers turned to birds and the sister having to remain silent while she makes shirts of nettles, which has always bothered me, but dealing rather realistically with what happens to a girl who can’t speak, so it got really intense. These books aren’t nearly that bad, but she doesn’t shy away from painful subjects. I think it’s handled well in this case, but I’m not seeing it from the perspective of someone who’s dealt with it personally, so I don’t know how it might affect them, and thus the warning.
The first book is Dreamer’s Pool. I ended up devouring the whole series but might have paced myself better if I’d known there were only three books. They were good for reading on a rainy night with Celtic music playing. I’m going to try another of her series next.