Hello, everyone! The year is almost over and I’m 11 books shy of reading 52 books, or one book each week. IT’S TIME TO SPEED-READ!!! For me, the key to reading a book each week is finding a book that you can get lost in, with pages that trap you in their narrative and a story that tickles the back of your brain when you’re trying to focus on other things. Books like that make it easy to fly through them in only a few days. On the other hand, there are books like Juliet Marillier’s Shadowfell, which seem so enticing on the outside, but are sort of a slog to get through. I think I spent almost two weeks on this 300 page book, which for me, is molasses-slow. After loving Marillier’s novel Wildwood Dancing, which was full of love and glowing magic, Shadowfell was like a splash of icy cold water that left me feeling morose and hesitant to spend my time on the other books in the trilogy.
Quick Synopsis: Before Keldec’s ascension to the throne of Alban, the people lived in harmony with the Good Folk, and those with “canny” abilities were accepted into society. Neryn, a 15-year-old with the gifts to see and communicate with the Good Folk, is a child of the after-times, forced to hide her magic and flee when the king’s brutal Enforcers destroy her village. After years of running, Neryn meets Flint, a mysterious figure who saves her from an untimely death, and promises to guard her from all harm. Together, they head for Shadowfell, a place in the North rumored to harbor a band of rebels. On their journey, Neryn learns more about her own special gifts, and the role both she and Flint have to play to take back Alban from its tyrannical king.
My thoughts: Shadowfell is as bleak as its cover implies. As the first book in a trilogy, its primary function is to set the scene for the main action to come, but such a task is not exactly fun or interesting to read. Marillier’s world of Alban is a frightening place, where violent soldiers kill clan chieftans on a whim, twist the minds of canny folk into mindless obedience, and torture and execute anyone who dare cross them, children included.
Neryn, the protagonist, is well-written in that she’s a believable product of this terrifying environment. Her thoughts are filled with worry and paranoia, her dreams are filled with the trauma of her past, and her actions are reminiscent of a hunted deer. This is a book about escape and flight, with a few moments of safety and refuge sprinkled in for a change of pace, but overall, the reader never gets a chance to settle in with the main characters. Like Neryn, we’re constantly moving from place to place, and never getting a chance to fully understand the people or the world that we’re reading about.
This book is the “journey” stage of the trilogy. Most of it is devoted to Neryn fleeing from danger, which can get tedious to read. It reminded me of how The Walking Dead consisted of 5 episodes each season that were just walking, with a few minutes of action thrown in to keep viewers interested. Some novels, like The Fellowship of the Ring, can make the “journey” stage interesting by filling it with vibrant characters and memorable little side-stories, but even though Marillier is clearly capable of doing that, the world and characters of Shadowfell are all too depressing to make the journey worthwhile. The Good Folk, a diverse group of magical creatures, can be interesting, such as a notable encounter with an ancient trickster god later in the novel, but they do very little besides warn Neryn of coming danger, and they all end up blending into each other. They, too, are scarred by the terrifying violence in Alban, but when every character in the novel is scared and depressed, it makes for a heavy reading experience, and definitely not what I was looking for in a fantasy novel.
Fantasy novels often feature dark material, with evil rulers, black magic, death, etc. But the best fantasy novels know how to balance the dark with the light, and the sadness with the humor. The Fellowship of the Ring had Frodo, Sam, and the other hobbits for levity to balance out the darkness of the orcs and other villains that the heroes encounter on their way. Although Shadowfell does have some lighter moments, such as the inevitable romance between Neryn and Flint, and some humorous moments from the Good Folk, it’s not enough to act as a counterweight to the overpowering atmosphere of despair in the novel. I wanted things to happen and for people to make decisions, not just wander around and contemplate how their choices might effect an outcome if they ever decide to act on them. Were their thought processes realistic? Yes. Were they interesting to read? Hell no.
Neryn is a completely unmemorable protagonist. I never got a clear picture of what she looked like, or who she was as a person apart from her grief over her dead family and her desire to be safe. Again, for a story set in a oppressive, almost genocidal regime, it makes sense for a person to think of nothing more than safety and self-preservation. But it also makes it hard for the reader to feel anything for the character beyond a mild interest in their well-being. Her love-interest, Flint, is the same sort of enigma. He’s a kind and gentle guardian on the one hand, and on the other hand, he’s a skilled warrior with a mysterious past and haunted eyes. And oh yeah, and he grew up on the beach. How dynamic! Their romance was cute, but not groundbreaking, and certainly nothing in comparison to the heart-stirring romance in Wildwood Dancing. I wanted so much more from it. Perhaps there is more to come in the later books, but the first book still needs to give the reader something to convince them to keep reading.
Final Consensus: Overall, Shadowfell is not a book I would recommend to other readers. Its bleak atmosphere, repetitive plot, and slow pacing make it a dull reading experience. The protagonist Neryn is well-written, but uninteresting, and her love-interest could probably be replaced with a loyal hound and have the same effect. Juliet Marillier is a fantastic author, but Shadowfell is not her best work, and your time would be better spent reading her far superior novel Wildwood Dancing instead.