Title: Heart’s Blood
Author: Juliet Marillier
Nutshell: This is very simple to nutshell: A female scribe in Medieval Ireland finds herself in a Beauty and the Beast tale under threat of Norman invasion.
Readalikes: Mrs. Marillier’s Sevenwaters books are also fairytales made real in Medieval Ireland. Mercedes Lackey’s Arthurian tale Gwenhwyfar: the White Spirit is another in this vein.
I had a lot of trouble developing the necessary curiosity to finish this book, but I don’t think it’s the fault of the book. I wanted to read something else, but I couldn’t find something else, and this was the only thing that looked in any way enjoyable on the library shelves. (There’s too much romance at my library. Thank goodness for branches.)
Eventually I got hooked. The fairytale seemed to recede a bit, to me, and the unique aspects got delved into.
The setting in ancient Ireland is, of course, one of those aspects, with Anluan (the Beast) a chieftain that his people never see. As people with a hermit lord ought to do (instead of forgetting like the Disney folk seem to,) the people under his care very much resent him and the curse that surrounds them.
The curse is much less silly and much more appropriate for an Irish tale. Instead of the servants being turned into cups and things, the lord of the hill is bound to a ghostly army, summoned by an ancestor. A ghostly army seems useful, until you learn that it is barely controllable, and whenever the lord leaves his fortress, it runs riot, usually slaughtering his own people. The servants at the fortress are members of this ghostly host, supporting and serving their master in a strange twist of irony.
Enter Caitrin, a female scribe, on the run from her would-be lover. (He’s much more overtly sinister than Disney’s pompous braggart, having conspired to keep her in isolation after the loss of her father and coerce her into marriage.) She has the heroine’s perspective, that guileless way of seeing new persons without judgement. Hiding out in the town below the cursed fortress, Caitrin hears that the lord is looking for a scribe. She happens to be one, and she’s also broke. It’s a perfect match.
What was interesting to me was that, though I pegged the story in the first few pages, and though I never doubted whether the romance would come off, I wondered until the last minute is they would succeed in breaking the curse. Taking a well-known story like that and genuinely putting the ending in question is a feat.