Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Heir to Sevenwaters," by Juliet Marillier

The Heroine: Lady Clodagh. One of the many daughters of the Chieftain of Sevenwaters, she contents herself with wifely tasks such as housekeeping, cooking, and organization while her mother weathers a risky pregnancy.
The Rub: Her mother gives birth to a dearly-wished-for boy, but it is just as quickly stolen away by mysterious forces - and Clodagh takes the blame.

The Supporting Cast:

Lord Sean: Gruff, useless, and not-very-supportive father of Clodagh. Holds to the "I'm very busy, go back to the kitchen" mindset.

Aidan: Clodagh's childhood friend who crushes on her pretty hardcore. Too bad he's engaged to a twelve-year-old! Also - he kicks dogs when he's angry.

Sibeal: Clodagh's younger sister. Is a seer, which results in her being an old soul a la Dakota Fanning.

Deidre: Clodagh's twin sister. Kind of dumb. Possibly a traitor.

Mac Dara: The Big Fairy Pimp Daddy of the Otherworld. Loves the ladies. Specializes in mischief and douchebaggery.

Cathal: Super-gloomy BFF to Aidan. Favourite activities: standing in the rain and hating himself.

Willow: Elderly dispenser of uselessly cryptic advice.

Fantasy Convention Checklist

1 Angsty Half-Breed

2 Negligent Fathers

1 Evil Spell

1 Magic Ring

1 Tree Baby

Several Disturbing Predictions

2 Sets of Twin Magic

The Word: The Booksmugglers and I, we have similar tastes. After all, if not for them, I would never have read Linnea Sinclair or N.K. Jemisin. However, similar is not identical, and this is one of those cases that illustrates the difference. I really looked forward to Heir to Sevenwaters, especially since it was one of their most highly-hyped books. But guess what? So was Caressed By Ice. Oh well.

Heir to Sevenwaters
was by no means a terrible book. It's solidly written. It has good detail and setting. However, the two main factors that crippled this book for me were the pacing, and the protagonists.

Let's start with the pacing first, by telling you the story. Clodagh is the daughter of Lord Sean, the Chieftain of Sevenwaters, in ancient Ireland. Christianity is taking over other parts of the island but Lord Sean keeps to the old ways and maintains the alliance with the Fair Folk who inhabit the forest of Sevenwaters and keep Lord Sean and his holdings safe. Clodagh is just one of many daughters of Lord Sean, with nary a brother in sight.

However, Clodagh's pregnant mother Aisling insists she's finally carrying a boy, a potential heir to Sevenwaters. Despite her excitement, her pregnancy is exceptionally difficult and the whole household is worried after her health, fearful neither she nor the baby may survive labour. While Aisling is confined, Clodagh takes over her mother's tasks running the household and organizing supplies. To the author's credit, Clodagh is an unusual heroine - a gentle domestic, content to remain in the background measuring the flour stores and mending the sheets.

Then Lord Sean's nephew and heir-presumptive Johnny shows up, with a host of his warriors in tow, to visit and pay his respects. Clodagh is pleased to discover that Aidan, a young man she flirted with last year, has returned in Johnny's company and seems eager to renew their acquaintance. Clodagh is less impressed by Aidan's BFF Cathal, a scowling, sarcastic and brooding jerk who seems to know things he shouldn't.

So Clodagh flirts with Aidan, spars with Cathal, and worries about her mother - and all this takes one hundred and fifty pages. That's right, a hundred and fifty pages of repetitive and unnecessary set-up before the action of the story really begins. This is why I initially put this book aside while I'd been reading it on tour - while not so bad at home, pacing this slow was unbearable when trapped on a tour bus for seven hours on end.

So, a fairly huge chunk into the book, Aisling finally has her baby, and, true to her word, it's a healthy boy that Lord Sean names Finbar. The household celebrates, but all too quickly disaster strikes. After Clodagh checks on Finbar, Cathal shows up out of the blue, kisses her, then vanishes. Clodagh only gave into the kiss for a moment, but when she checks back in on Finbar, the boy is missing - and a strange changeling baby made of bark and leaves is left in his place.

Given his sudden disappearance, Cathal is fingered as the possible culprit. Meanwhile, Clodagh endures an avalanche of blame from her family when she reveals the kidnapping, and the deluge only worsens when a maid tattles about Clodagh and Cathal's smooch. While her father isn't quite prepared to believe she's a traitor, he certainly believes she's incompetent and possibly even mad - Clodagh insists that the infant of twigs left in Finbar's crib is somehow alive, but everyone else only sees a baby-shaped pile of trash.

Similarly, Clodagh is certain that Finbar's disappearance is thanks to supernatural whims rather than political machinations, and believes that keeping the changling alive is integral to keeping Finbar alive as well. Still, no one believes her, and Clodagh knows the days they spend searching for human conspirators will mean fewer days to find Finbar. Believing she has no other choice, Clodagh takes the changeling baby and hightails it into the Sevenwaters forest to seek out the Fair Folk and see if she can return the changeling for her brother. On the way, she encounters the runaway Cathal, who offers to accompany her on her quest for reasons he prefers to keep to himself.

As I established before, this book takes way too long to get going. A slow start isn't always a deal breaker, so long as there's something else to maintain my interest. Original characters, for one. A complex political situation. Intriguing magic systems. Hell, I love Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn books and the action doesn't start until page 200.

Sadly, Heir to Sevenwaters doesn't have these. I'm told this book was supposed to be a standalone, but to me it came across as very closely tied to previous books. Backstories, setting details and characters are often dealt with in an intentionally vague way, as if the author is describing something she already expects her readers to know from an earlier novel, which alienates new readers like me.

And, frankly, the two protagonists, Clodagh and Cathal, are the dampest pair of wet blankets I've ever come across, whose combined self-esteem wouldn't fill a shotglass. They're definitely made for each other, for they share the same favourite activity: blaming themselves for everything that ever goes wrong, ever. Clodagh is whiny, pessimistic and easily discouraged - however, she also earns points for the fact that she doesn't go on and on about her failings at length. I appreciated her story arc - that of the housewifey girl in the background who suddenly has to make the active choice despite how unprepared and hopeless she feels. Still, while I appreciated and sympathized with her character, I wasn't particularly entertained by her.

Cathal is even worse. A relentlessly mopey - dare I say emo? - character, he's an exaggerated cartoon of the brooding, damaged hero. He's nigh unbearable in the novel's first half due to the inconsistency of his character - while he's almost childishly eager to launch into a rehearsed speech about what a worthless and scummy doom-magnet he is, he's also required by the plot to remain mum on the personal details of his life in order to maintain his "mystery." So what we get is a man who self-indulgently blathers on about the general suckitude of his life in frustratingly vague terms but shuts down faster than an infected PC whenever Clodagh questions him on any of it. By the last third of the novel he's easier to deal with - but that's because the mystery's out and he can self-indulgently blather on about the general suckitude of his life in glorious detail instead.

If the entire book had been like the last third of Heir to Sevenwaters, I might have enjoyed it a lot more. As it is, by the time the action and the mystery and the answers and the romance finally come together, the boring slog of a set-up's rendered me too apathetic to care about any of it. Heir to Sevenwaters isn't a bad book, but it doesn't move fast enough to be a very good one, either.

1 comment:

  1. I have heard so many good things about Juliet Marillier but never actually read her myself. I have one book on request at the library, but it is the newest one I think.