Dreamer’s Pool: The perilous business of being female in fantasy

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews Dreamer’s Pool by Juliet Marillier fantasy book reviewsDreamer’s Pool by Juliet Marillier

Those who have read Juliet Marillier before know the drill: She produces exceptionally readable and endearing fantasy set in the medieval and ancient British Isles, revolving around women, myths, and magic. I adored Daughter of the Forest for its loving recreation of my absolute favorite fairy tale as a kid (the Six Swans).[1] The other SEVENWATERS books went by in a blur of kings and curses because I was on vacation and had to get through the entire series before my Mom left with her duffle bag of paperbacks.

Dreamer’s Pool is still about women, magic, and ancient Ireland. So if you liked SEVENWATERS, there’s no need to fear that Marillier is now writing about werewolf romances in Prague or artificially intelligent zucchini or something. But in some key ways Dreamer’s Pool is a departure from her previous works, focusing on the lowest rungs of society rather than the ruling family and looking at much wider and more real social ills. Not that help-my-brothers-are-swans isn’t a compelling problem, it’s just not, you know, something that haunts my nightmares.

The story revolves around two tough ex-prisoners with suitably tough, ex-prisoner names: Blackthorn and Grim. Blackthorn is a healer obsessed with vengeance against her princely jailer. Grim is a slightly-mentally-unsound mystery-man imprisoned for god-knows-what and obsessed with protecting Blackthorn. On the day before Blackthorn’s execution a meddling member of the fey arrives and cuts her a deal: He’ll bust her out of prison if she’ll swear to help anyone who asks for it and not seek revenge, for seven years. She agrees.

Blackthorn and Grim flee north and settle into a little cottage on the edge of forest that practically screams Magical Weird Stuff Happens Here. They become entangled with the local prince and his mysteriously awful bride-to-be, and the rest of the story is a quick-moving combination of crime-solving and dealing with their own scarred pasts. Some of it leads to moments of shocking darkness, but this isn’t the sort of story that leaves many wrongs un-righted.

Dreamer’s Pool is exactly the kind of heartfelt but fast-paced fantasy book you need sometimes. If you want an epic showdown between the Chosen One and Ultimate Evil, look elsewhere. If you want a surreal yet cerebral analysis of the human condition, look elsewhere. If you want a twisting and shocking mystery that keeps you guessing until the last page — yeah, still look elsewhere. But if you just want an honest and hardworking sort of story with two lovable main characters, some magic, and some commentary about the perils of being a woman in the ancient past (or, you know, right now), then Dreamer’s Pool is 100% for you.

I don’t want to make it sound like pure cotton-candy — the kind of fantasy book that includes dragons, princesses, daring rescues, and is mostly made of air and artificial dye — because it deals with some surprisingly dark and serious themes. The most blinding theme is also the most chilling: women and the abuses they suffer, and the ways their voices go unheard. Women in Marillier’s world face violence, rape, and a kind of suffocating voiceless-ness. Some of them survive and heal, some of them don’t, but all of them are quite real.

In most ways, the emphasis on women and victimhood makes the book stronger and more unified than it might otherwise be. In other ways… it was like wading through the Fire Swamp, except instead of Rodents of Unusual Size it was Rapes of Unusual Frequency. Now, it wasn’t the kind of casual and chilling rape that exists in George R.R. It’s-All-Historically-Accurate Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE this isn’t rape as window dressing. Nor is it rape as a way of showing how bad the bad guy is. But it does, sometimes, feel like sexual violence is the primary motivator for most of the female characters. Which is a squicky plot device.[2]

To its great credit, Dreamer’s Pool also spends a lot of time talking about the ways abuse victims are received by their communities — how a woman’s credibility is questioned and her sexual history scrutinized for signs she may have been “asking for it.” But then, bummer alert: One of the villains in the story turns out to be an absolute caricature of the seductive and manipulative serving-woman, using her feminine wiles to climb the social ladder. She even descends to a false rape accusation — an even squickier plot device.

But I still swallowed the whole thing in about two days, and enjoyed almost every minute of it. It moves easily forward, and Blackthorn herself is just the kind of tough-but-lovable character I adore. Marillier hasn’t lost the straightforward charm of her previous works, but she might be delving into darker and more perilous stories. The kind that must be navigated with nimbly, to avoid squickiness.[3]

[1] I also loved Labyrinth. I had two younger brothers, see, and stories where they might vanish and be heroically rescued by me were kind of my thing. In reality, they spent their childhoods ricocheting through the house like gleeful grenades full of mess and noise and action figure battles — never once getting kidnapped by David Bowie — while I hunched over a book in the corner and tsked.

[2] Squicky: That feeling when something happens in a book that’s perfectly plausible but also clichéd, ugly, and kind of makes you sick to your feminist stomach.

[3] If you want medieval almost-fantasy that genuinely portrays the full complexity and depth of women’s lived experiences, Nicola Griffith’s Hild is a book of an entirely different caliber. But then, Hild makes every other medieval fantasy book on the planet look like a cheesy puppet show where you can see the puppeteers bumbling behind the curtain.

Blackthorn & Grim — (2014- ) Award-winning author Juliet Marillier “weaves magic, mythology, and folklore into every sentence on the page” (The Book Smugglers). Now she begins an all-new and enchanting series that will transport readers to a magical vision of ancient Ireland…. In exchange for help escaping her long and wrongful imprisonment, embittered magical healer Blackthorn has vowed to set aside her bid for vengeance against the man who destroyed all that she once held dear. Followed by a former prison mate, a silent hulk of a man named Grim, she travels north to Dalriada. There she’ll live on the fringe of a mysterious forest, duty bound for seven years to assist anyone who asks for her help. Oran, crown prince of Dalriada, has waited anxiously for the arrival of his future bride, Lady Flidais. He knows her only from a portrait and sweetly poetic correspondence that have convinced him Flidais is his destined true love. But Oran discovers letters can lie. For although his intended exactly resembles her portrait, her brutality upon arrival proves she is nothing like the sensitive woman of the letters. With the strategic marriage imminent, Oran sees no way out of his dilemma. Word has spread that Blackthorn possesses a remarkable gift for solving knotty problems, so the prince asks her for help. To save Oran from his treacherous nuptials, Blackthorn and Grim will need all their resources: courage, ingenuity, leaps of deduction, and more than a little magic.


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ALIX E. HARROW, who retired from our blog in 2014, is a part-time historian with a full-time desk job, a lot of opinions, and excessive library fines. Her short fiction has appeared in Shimmer, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, Apex, and other venues. She won a Hugo Award for her fiction in 2019. Alix and her husband live in Kentucky under the cheerful tyranny of their kids and pets. Find her at @AlixEHarrow on Twitter. Some of her favorite authors include Neil Gaiman, Ursula LeGuin, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Susanna Clarke.

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2 comments

  1. Oh, this sounds good. I should try it. The woman in Heart’s Blood wasn’t royalty either, though her love interest was of noble blood, so there’s that. ;)

    I also need to try Hild again. I had a loved one go into the hospital while I was trying to read it, and it just asked way more brainpower from me than I had at the time, but I could tell it was good.

  2. Well, parts of it sound great, but I don’t think I can face this much more violence against women right now.

    Kelly, do give Hild a second chance when you can focus on it. It’s beautiful.

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