Review: Dreamer’s Pool by Juliet Marillier
Fantasy – Blackthorn and Grim, #1 of ?
I fished out the rusty nail from under my pallet and scratched another mark on the wall. Tomorrow was midsummer, not that a person could tell rain from shine in this cesspit. I’d been here a year. A whole year of filth and abuse and being shoved back down the moment I lifted myself so much as an inch. Tomorrow, at last, I’d get my chance to speak out. Tomorrow I would tell my story.
An imprisoned former healer, Blackthorn makes a bargain with a stranger that she will return to her old profession for 7 years, during which she will give help to anyone who asks for it and only use her gifts for good. In exchange, he helps her escape. With a fellow prisoner, her strong and silent cell-mate Grim, she settles near the village of Winterfalls… but Blackthorn and Grim are left bitter and traumatized by their pasts, and the two of them struggle to rebuild their lives. When Prince Oran and asks for their help in a delicate matter, Blackthorn is unable to turn him down.
Dreamer’s Pool seems very thoughtful and slow at first, which is why I was completely caught off guard when I realized, somewhere along the way, that the plot had taken off like a bat out of hell and I was completely hooked. I started it in an afternoon, had trouble putting it down so that I could go eat supper, eschewed a delicious homemade dessert afterwards so that I could get back to reading, and finished it later that evening. I was completely drawn in by the writing and hopelessly addicted to the plot.
Dreamer’s Pool is exactly as long as it needs to be, perfectly paced, and beautifully crafted. The plot resolves some mysteries while leaving other questions unanswered, and sufficient clues are placed in the text for an attentive reader to guess what is happening and then feel extra-accomplished and invested. Marillier reveals just enough of Grim and Blackthorn’s backstories so that you feel satisfied at the novel’s conclusion, while still leaving plenty more to discover in future books.
And speaking of the characters, Blackthorn is fantastic. She is a middle-aged protagonist whose age and experience have given her fire and made her opinions stronger and more defiant. It’s a refreshing change from the vast number of rebellious, obstinate young heroines out there in fantasy. And though at first her companion Grim seems ready to be cast as either the gentle giant or brutish enforcer, he proves to be a far more interesting and complicated character. He is usually calm and quiet, but struggles with a volatile temper and violent past, and I found him to be a unique take on both tropes at the same time.
But their relationship is the star of the book. I am a huge fan of books about the power of unwavering loyalty and friendship… cheesy, but I love it. Blackthorn and Grim’s story is not one of redemption or revenge, not yet at any rate, though it has the potential to be both in later books. Rather, it’s the story of two survivors, forging a deep connection with each other as they try to find a way to live with the trauma they have experienced.
Now for the less good part of the review. There is a chapter or two of the book that deals with false rape accusations. Obviously, this is a tactic so often used to silence or shame women, and having such accusations given merit in the storyline is something that I am sensitive to. I don’t like that Blackthorn’s willingness to believe women becomes a negative trait in this (admittedly very brief) section of the book.
More important than my personal discomfort with the topic, though, is that I’m not altogether happy with the role that these accusations played in the narrative; they seemed like a contrivance to turn readers more resolutely against the character making the accusations, so that ultimately we are more willing accept her being punished for her actions. So much of the book is concerned with the powerlessness and marginalization of women, and I wish there had been a way to change or remove this particular narrative detail, as I think it works against the book’s greater thematic content.
This one element of the story kept me from enjoying the book to it’s full potential – which is a shame, because otherwise it would have been a perfect reading experience. Dreamer’s Pool is a phenomenal book, without a doubt one of the best I’ve read this year. It was such a rare and memorable reading experience; a spellbinding fairytale that feels comfortable and familiar without being trite or trope-filled, and a story that is poetically written, but plot-driven at the same time. I can’t recommend it enough.
If you like ________, you should pick up Dreamer’s Pool:
- Beautifully written prose
- Plot and mystery driven books
- Stories about the power of friendship/found families
- Fairytales, Irish folklore and mythology, storytelling