Desert Isle Keeper
What a lovely book to break me out of my reading slump. Juliet Marillier’s single-title offering is a Medieval Irish Beauty and the Beast fantasy, with a small dash of history, a medium dose of romance, and a whole heap of bloody good storytelling.
Caitrin is an unusual and beautiful young woman. She can read and write, and has been trained by her late father to scribe and illuminate manuscripts. But her superficial beauty is limited, she feels, to the outside – inside she feels crippled. She is running away from a forced marriage to a distant cousin who beat her to a shriveled husk, and fear governs her actions, paralyzing her tongue and weakening her spirit. She hates it, but she doesn’t know how to return to the strong-willed Caitrin of yore.
Her prospects change when she is hired to transcribe some manuscripts and arrives at Whistling Tor, a derelict castle surrounded by a ghostly forest that whispers and is inhabited by few. There is Magnus, a middle-aged warrior-steward who cooks; Olcan and Fianchu, an old man and his giant hound; Eichri and Rioghan, a cadaverous monk and red-caped soldier who spat like a married couple; and Muirne, the lone woman in group.
There is also Anluan, the master of Whistling Tor. Stricken by palsy as a child, he limps and lacks the normal strength and skills expected from a man of twenty-five. Initially, Caitrin is taken aback by his brusqueness, but as she works her way through the dusty library, unearths pieces of Anluan’s family history, and worms her way into the castle life, she begins to understand the pressures upon Whistling Tor and its red-headed lord.
My synopsis barely covers the layers regarding a magical mystery, the imminent Norman threat, and the broad cast of characters. In the midst of the turmoil, Caitrin is a wonderful protagonist to follow. The story’s success hinges on her narration, and Ms. Marillier’s excellent prose reveals a strong eighteen-year-old of her time. Caitrin’s internal fears are wholly justified, and her recovery slow and realistic. Anluan is a fine match for this moderately headstrong girl, and the beauty of the Ms. Marillier’s writing allows the reader to see him through Caitrin’s eyes, but also as he is. The story’s Beauty and the Beast antecedents are clear enough to make the narrative satisfyingly familiar, but Heart’s Blood contains a depth and thoughtfulness that many other versions lack.
The colorful inhabitants of Whistling Tor and the nearby village form an excellent supporting cast. The only exception is the villain, whose depiction is constrained by Caitrin’s perspective, which foreshadows the villain’s identity too early and too often, lacking the grace and subtlety of the other characterizations.
However, the book’s considerable strengths outweigh my minor quibble. Ms. Marillier takes a beloved tale and, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, makes it better than ever.