Wicked stepmothers, loyal brothers and the spirits of the woods inhabit this fairy tale retelling in Juliet Marillier's Daughter of the Forest.
Despite the tribulations of her birth, Sorcha had something of a charmed childhood. If she had been born a boy, she would have been the twice-blessed seventh son of a seventh son. Not only was she born a girl, but her mother died in childbirth. While her father loved her, as he loved all her children, she was a painful reminder of the love he had lost, and besides, he was busy fighting wars and teaching her brothers to take their eventual places by his side.
So perhaps Sorcha grew up a bit wild by the standards of nobility. She was taught to read and reckon along with her brothers, and while other girls were stitching samplers she learned the healing arts. She ran through the woods barefoot well into her teens, and became a bit headstrong for it.
While she had no parents present to teach her to be a proper young lady, she had six doting brothers to raise her. When she got into some unpleasant plants in the forest, it was her brothers how pulled the stickers out of her hands. When she learned a new healing skill, her brothers were there to congratulate her. But even her brothers are not enough to protect her from what is to come.
For their father has remarried, and she has no use for his previous family in her plans.
Daughter of the Forest, in the tradition of many other fantasy novels, retells the classic fairy tale 'The Six Swans.' Marillier pulls no punches with her characters, giving us some of the worst sides of human nature. The light only shines in the darkness, though, and the contrast between her and the loyalty, honor and faith of our heroine shows that even when faced with a seemingly impossible task, the human spirit can find a way to prevail.
Highs: Marillier creates a feudal world with a rich history, and imparts this backstory seamlessly within the plot.
Lows: While the beauty of the descriptions and the magic of the faerie realm would be loved by all ages, certain scenes of Sorcha's trials make this unsuitable for the younger fantasy audience.
Verdict: A lovely story that contains both the light and the darkness of the fairy tale that it's based on.
Further Reading: Son of the Shadows, The Fire Rose