Sometimes a book comes along just when you need it. Heart’s Blood was like that for me. Between Juliet Marillier’s compelling tale-spinning and an underlying message about love and courage that I really needed to hear, it’s pretty safe to say I was moved deeply by this novel.
At its core, Heart’s Blood is a Beauty and the Beast story. Marillier mixes the classic fairy tale with some of the conventions of Gothic romance, sets it all in the medieval-Ireland setting she’s so good at portraying, and the result is the kind of book that’s perfect for curling up on a cool night with a cup of hot cider. (And a box of Kleenex, but I’ll get to that part later.)
On the run from a domineering aunt and an abusive fiancé, Caitrin stumbles across the village of Whistling Tor and its mysterious, haunted fortress. Caitrin, unusually for a woman of her time, has been trained in the arts of a scribe, and her skills land her a position working for Whistling Tor’s reclusive chieftain. Caitrin and the chieftain, Anluan, find themselves drawn to each other despite their baggage. But an ancestral curse, and Caitrin’s and Anluan’s own fears, threaten to tear them apart and destroy Whistling Tor. Caitrin wants to inspire Anluan to become the leader she knows he can be. Can she accomplish this, though, when she’s afraid to face her own “ghosts”?
Not everyone is going to love Heart’s Blood quite as much as I do. The story unfolds at a slow, contemplative pace, creeping in like fog rather than exploding like fireworks. This is necessary, because the romance between Anluan and Caitrin wouldn’t work if it didn’t have time to build, but not everyone will like it. There’s also a certain predictability to the plot, which is one of the side effects of retelling fairy tales, and possibly one of the side effects of writing Gothic romance. Though the two books are very different, my experience with Heart’s Blood was much like my experience with Robin McKinley’s Beauty. Don’t read this one for shocking plot twists. Marillier isn’t reinventing the wheel; she’s polishing up an old wheel until it shines. (How’s that for mangling a metaphor?)
But for readers willing to fall under a familiar but timeless spell, Heart’s Blood is rewarding. I’m reminded of the beginning of The Princess Bride: “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” Caitrin and Anluan’s journey is moving and sometimes agonizing, and yes, I made use of a lot of Kleenex toward the end. (Hey, Ms. Marillier, stop making me cry! It’s hard to read when your vision gets all swimmy. Daughter of the Forest did the same thing to me.)
I strongly recommend Heart’s Blood to anyone who loves Beauty and the Beast, Gothic romance, romantic fantasy, and heroines who are strong without being combat monsters. (She’s a medieval businesswoman — how awesome is that?)