Tower of Thorns
It’s safe to say that science fiction and fantasy novels have been staples of my reading diet since I first began to read, which means that I can be a harsh critic when it comes to this genre. I’ve read so many of these books I know what terrific, great, good, acceptable and sub-par look like intimately. Given my past experiences with this author, I’m surprised to say Tower of Thorns was just okay.
This is book two of the Blackthorn and Grim series but you don’t have to read book one prior to reading this. Doing so does give you a deeper look into the characters but in terms of plot and following the story, it is not necessary.
Fairy tale romance requires a certain voice. One that can send you back to a time long ago, when magic roamed the earth in the form of little people, the fey, enchanted forests and curses. Ms. Marillier has that voice. She pulls you into a world of dust and grime and hard work but one dark and gorgeous with bewitchment. If that allure doesn’t come through in this review the fault is entirely mine since it does come through very strongly in the story.
After escaping the truly disgusting and horrifying prison of an evil chieftain with the help of fey lord Conmael, Blackthorn and Grim have settled into life in the country of Dalriada. They are far enough out of the reach of their enemy to breathe easier, if not quite easy. Both are still plagued by nightmares, not just of the horrible prison to which they had been unjustly sentenced, but of the events which led to their individual imprisonments. Neither quite knows the other’s story, but they have a companionship made of deep devotion, compassion and loyalty. For now, they are somewhat content to wait out the seven years of Blackthorn’s bond to her fey mentor in this location. They are hoping to do so with no more excitement than what is brought to them by the day to day aspects of Blackthorn’s job as a healer. But we all know what they say about being careful what you wish for.
The Princess, whom Blackthorn saved from a terrible fate in Dreamer’s Pool calls for them. She and the Prince would like Blackthorn and Grim to live at the castle until their baby is born. While the pair hates the thought of living in such close quarters with other people, they agree to the arrangement. Still, both have a bad feeling about the whole thing, a sort of itching between the shoulders that lets them know something is bound to go wrong. Something does in the form of two unexpected visitors. The first is the Lady Geiléis, a noblewoman from the northern border, who comes to ask Prince Oran’s help in expelling a howling creature from an old tower on her land. Sitting on an enchanted island at the middle of a critical crossing in the river near her home, the tower is surrounded by an impenetrable hedge of thorns. All attempts to rid themselves of the beast have been thwarted. The howls of the creature cast a curse over the entire holding; driving people to suicide, causing still births, stopping hens from laying and making animals drown themselves. They need someone to fix the problem and fix it soon.
This is actually the portion of the book where I was first yanked from the story. A mysterious woman shows up, whom none in the palace has seen before. She is sobbing and crying and begging for help and literally throws herself at the prince and has to be pulled away. So clearly, she’s a touch hysterical. No one does anything to check to see if she is who she says she is. No books or maps are consulted regarding her holding. No tax records checked to see what kind of financial history the district has. No riders are sent to verify her tale. When they question her it is clear that she is either not giving them all the information or has done a slip shod job of checking for solutions in the lore, and yet her tale is accepted at face value. This story is set in a time of great violence, where strangers and outsiders are met with suspicion and yet the prince and his entire contingent seem as trusting as babes. This seemed odd, especially after the events of book one.
Back to our tale.
Blackthorn fears she will be the one asked to solve what is obviously a magical problem so she words her no carefully before the question can be asked. This is vital since Conmael placed her under a geis which requires her to help any who ask for her aid. Lady Geiléis settles in at the castle to await a druid the Prince calls for, things seem to go back to normal, Blackthorn and Grim have apparently dodged a bullet – and then unexpected visitor number two shows up.
Flannan is a childhood friend of Blackthorn, someone who knows her dangerous past. He is also a tie to a happier time for her, a time when she had a husband and child and was filled with hope for the future. Since Flannan is a travelling scribe he was away when Blackthorn’s world fell apart and is happy that his latest job happens to land him unexpectedly in her path. They had presumed each other dead and there is much rejoicing at the reunion. The two spend hours chatting and reacquainting themselves with each other’s lives. There’s an element of sadness and anger that goes with that though. It is clear that some of what Flannan has to tell Blackthorn is not welcome news; it is equally clear to Grim that Flannan is pushing and bullying Blackthorn though he can’t imagine to what purpose. Within days, Blackthorn changes her decision regarding the Tower of Thorns and heads to the home of Lady Geiléis, a happy Flannan and confused Grim in tow. What she finds when she gets to the holding surprises her but that surprise is nothing compared to the one that follows.
This is a richly imagined world, which both resembles the past and veers just far enough away from it to be fantasy. It has a real twilight feel to it, neither night nor day but a time between where anything can happen. The author shows considerable skill in terms of both tone and setting. Where the story fell apart for me was in characterization and plotting.
As I said before, the response to Lady Geiléis’ arrival at the castle completely pulled me from the story. None of the behavior by any of the people except possibly Grim seemed to reflect any kind of intelligence. This was especially difficult to deal with in our so called wise woman since she’s supposed to be – well, wise. In fact, a big problem for me in terms of the characterization is how unwise Blackthorn tends to be. Yes, I know she just got out of a horrific situation but I would think her experiences would make her more wary of trusting the gentry and less likely to lower her guard. I understood her embracing the mysteriously appearing old friend but her responses in regard to what was happening at the Tower of Thorns made her seem a bit dim.
I should add a warning here that Geiléis is a bitch. That added to the feel that the characterization was off since I am fairly certain we are supposed to find her and the beast sympathetic characters.
Flannan’s character is vital to his storyline so I won’t say much about it. I will say that I understood completely Blackthorn’s feelings for him and the issue he is advocating, so while he may have added to her appearance of being a bit mentally slow, it was in a totally believable and understandable way.
Grim almost made up for the faults in the other characters. He’s such a fantastic individual – wise but content to appear dim, strong but meek and mild, talented but humble. This tale gives us Grim’s history and I enjoyed that portion of the story very much. I was happy to get his background and hope that having some of the blanks filled in gives him some peace. In terms of characterization Grim was the most smoothly, realistically done in this story.
Because character and plot go hand in hand I struggled with the plotting, too. The book is primarily a magical mystery but since our primary protagonist seems outclassed, it was difficult to really appreciate what was happening. Maybe it is because I am so familiar with fairy tales but I felt that Blackthorn missed several obvious clues. I also felt her investigative technique left a lot to be desired, and that meant joining her on her journey of discovery was more tedious than pleasurable.
As a result of the above, grading Tower of Thorns presented a real conundrum. On the one hand, we have the fabulous prose and near perfect setting. On the other are a weak plot and some less than stellar characterization. While this book is a bit better than a lot of what is on the market, it never quite pulls itself together enough to reach a B grade. If you’re a fan of the author or are just anxious to continue the series I would recommend it. Otherwise I’d give it a miss and pick up something from Ms. Marillier’s back list. There’s a lot there to love.