Author: Juliet Marillier
Series: Shadowfell #1
Pages: 416 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: September 11 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Sixteen-year-old Neryn is alone in the land of Alban, where the oppressive king has ordered anyone with magical strengths captured and brought before him. Eager to hide her own canny skill—a uniquely powerful ability to communicate with the fairy-like Good Folk—Neryn sets out for the legendary Shadowfell, a home and training ground for a secret rebel group determined to overthrow the evil King Keldec.
During her dangerous journey, she receives aid from the Good Folk, who tell her she must pass a series of tests in order to recognize her full potential. She also finds help from a handsome young man, Flint, who rescues her from certain death—but whose motives in doing so remain unclear. Neryn struggles to trust her only allies. They both hint that she alone may be the key to Alban’s release from Keldec’s rule.
Homeless, unsure of who to trust, and trapped in an empire determined to crush her, Neryn must make it to Shadowfell not only to save herself, but to save Alban.
My first Juliet Marillier novel, and I am already considering myself a fan. Though primarily known and loved as a gifted fantasy writer for adults, this prolific and beloved Australian writer extends herself easily into the growing YA fantasy genre with the first in her new series about the oppressed magical land of Alban. Though rife with well-known and often overdone fantasy tropes - the "chosen one", the slow realization of virtues of the protagonist, usually during the long long quest filled with some few adventures and then more walking, the medieval feel to the country and culture - Marillier manages to infuse these often used conventions and make them exciting, fun, and emotional. Boasting a well-rounded cast operating on a lively stage, Shadowfell is occasionally formulaic but still manages to shine and involve readers in Neryn's journey for safety in a land wracked by distrust, suspicion, and fear. Combining fey legends ("The Good Folk") with pieces of Celtic lore, Marillier builds a novel that enchants and entertains all at the same time.
Neryn is the likable, kind, and also incredibly naive protagonist of Shadowfell. It's both easy to like the canny girl and root for her on her trek, but also to become increasingly frustrated with the character's guileless attitude as the tension increasingly grows and her awareness of who to trust, what to do in these situations does not. I liked the character, she's easy to empathize with early on, but often enough her reactions would be silly, too trusting and thus lead to contrived, frustrating situations with her secondary protagonist and obvious love interest, Flint. The book is more internal and personal struggle-driven than moved by action or adventure - though there are incidences of both throughout - and Neryn's wide-eyed acceptance of whatever is most recently told to her can get a bit wearying. Her inner monologue and thoughts are very readable and easily engrossing, but I do think that a more skeptical eye, a more discerning look at what she sees and hears, would clear up a lot of unnecessary conflicts that pop up more than once with Flint.
Flint is a character of contradictions as well. His is a dangerous world without the benefit of neryn's black and white morality, and the role he is forced to play shows a clear hand at the author's ability to evoke pathos from her readers. Flint's relationship with the young girl is delicate balance (just like his with the King), full of equal amounts of cautious trust, doubt, and attraction (hopefully, unlike his interactions with the King). Like Neryn, he is more than he seems and is wonderfully fleshed out as the story progresses and more of his character is revealed. He's also a great love interest, outside of the "do what I tell you because I can't give you any pertinent information." It's an obvious ploy to cause drama between the two, and I must admit that it got old after a while. I did get frustrated with the lack of communication between the two, but I still came out of reading this pretty enamored with Flint. The slow burning mutual attraction and connection between Flint and Neryn are core parts of the story, but romance is not what drives the plot forward. Neryn's quest(s) for safety, knowledge, and self-awareness do the heavy lifting.
Shadowfell clocks in at a respectable 416 pages, but the characters, setting, and even the message at the heart of everything (though non too subtle) make for a fast-engrossing, easy, and fun read. It's a fantasy novel with two interesting characters wrestling with their future roles in the fight to free Alban, their mutual growing attraction to one another, their independent wants and hopes, which makes for a cast of well-rounded, distinct people with a well-crafted plot to keep interest high and the pages turning with alacrity. This was a one-day read, and I found myself severely jonesing for the next in the series as soon as I finished. Juliet Marillier has impressed me, and I won't be waiting long to try my hand at her more well-known and widely loved adult fantasy titles.