The first book in the Blackthorn and Grim fantasy series. Can be read as a stand-alone.

Publication year: 2014
Format: Audio
Running time: 17 hours and 44 minutes
Narrators: Scott Aiello, Natalie Gold, Nick Sullivan

This story has three POV characters and so it has three narrators. Each reads the chapter which is written in the POV of his or her character. I really liked this technique.

The story starts with Blackthorn, although she’s a nameless prisoner in a terrible prison. She tells us that she rose against the local ruler, who was raping women and then discarding them, and so she was locked up. However, she’s endured and is waiting for her one chance to talk in front of the council and tell everyone what happened. But one of the jailers tells her that she’s going to be murdered before that can happen. However, she’s brought in front of a strange, a fey calling himself Conmael. She’s suspicious and sullen. When Conmael offers her a chance to freedom but at a cost, she’s hesitant. Conmael demands seven years of service from her. During that time, she will stay in another country, Dalriada, and help everyone who asks for help, and those who need it but won’t, or can’t, ask. She will be a healer and a wisewoman. She will also put aside her need for revenge during the seven years. That need has sustained her through her terrible year in prison, so it’s not easy. Finally, she accepts.

Grim is another inmate, a huge and strong man. He’s latched on to Blackthorn who is his life line even though they don’t really know each other. Nor are they friends. But when chance comes, in the form of a prison break, he tries to help other inmates and follows Blackthorn. They travel together to Dalriada and there Grim works for the local people and lives with Blackthorn (but not romantically).

Dalriada’s Crown Prince Oran needs to make a political marriage. He’s known that all his life but still dreams about a love match. When he starts to exchange letters with Lady Flidais he becomes convinced that she can be the girl of his dreams: gentle, compassionate, and intelligent. She also shows that she, too, has been brought up to serve the people instead of using power for her own benefit. But when the lady’s group arrives, she’s not at all as Oran imagined her to be: she snaps at even her own people, seduces Oran, and even her own dog seems to hate her. Oran can’t help but to feel that something is terribly wrong. Maybe the new local wisewoman Blackthorn can help?

This is a lush fantasy book. The world-building is intricate. It’s not an epic fantasy; it’s not based on fighting at all. Instead, people are the center of this novel. Both Blackthorn and Grim are wounded and flawed characters. They can barely tolerate the company of other people. But they’re also used to working for their bread. Oran has been reared to serve justice as best he can and he’s a very down-to-earth royalty. He doesn’t enjoy the noble pastimes of hunting or gaming. He much rather reads old tales.

Grim and Blackthorn are suspicious of other people, especially of people in power.

This was another long book and it took quite a while until Oran approaches Blackthorn. I knew (or thought I knew) what had happened to the lady, but I didn’t grow impatient with the story. Marillier builds the characters meticulously and also revealed the world, bit by bit. We didn’t much see the fey but I like what I saw. In this world, they’re tricksters with a lot of magical power and humans don’t trust them.

The book has quite obvious themes: corrupt people using their powers over others, most of them are men but women are just as capable of using power, if usually differently. The way that people will close their eyes and not see obvious bad things around them, when they don’t like the people to whom these bad things happen.

While I liked most of the book, it does have some rather questionable stuff about (female) sexuality.

The book doesn’t end in a cliffhanger and can be read as stand-alone.

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