Genre: YA, Fantasy, Fairytale Retelling
Publisher: Roc on October 2, 2009
Whistling Tor is a place of secrets, a mysterious wooded hill housing the crumbling fortress of a chieftain whose name is spoken throughout the region in tones of revulsion and bitterness.A curse lies of Anluan’s family and his people. The woods hold a perilous force whose every whisper threatens doom. And Anluan himself has been crippled by a childhood illness.
Then the young scribe Caitrin appears in Anluan’s garden, admiring the rare plant known as heart’s blood. Retained to sort through entangled family documents, Caitrin brings about the unexpected changes in the household, casting a hopeful light against the despairing shadows.
But even as Caitrin brings solace to Anluan, and the promise of something more between them, he remains in thrall to the darkness surrounding Whistling Tor. To free Anluan’s burdened soul, Caitrin must unravel the web of sorcery woven by his ancestors before it claims his life and their love…
In a world seemingly overrun with Beauty and the Beast retellings, Juliet Marillier’s HEART’S BLOOD stands out – and proves that talented writers can make even the oldest and most familiar stories feel new again.
Fleeing an abusive home life and a terrible personal loss, a young scribe named Caitrin stumbles upon the eerie community of Whistling Tor. The villagers living around the hold claim that the castle is haunted by “unnatural folk” and run by a monstrous, incompetent chieftain named Anluan and warn Caitrin away from the cursed place. But with nowhere else to go and her funds running out, Caitrin decides to accept a position transcribing Latin documents in the library of Whistling Tor for the summer. Surely the rumours about the place and its inhabitants are untrue, although there’s clearly something unusual about the folk who call Whistling Tor home. Despite herself, Caitrin begins to care for the ragtag crew, from the former warchief Rioghan to the councillor Magnus…and even Lord Anluan himself.
HEART’S BLOOD is an incredibly successful retelling not because it’s faithful to the original, but because it completely reinvents the story, setting, and characters while preserving the tone of the original. Although there are hints here and there of the fae, this isn’t a fairytale: it’s a ghost story. Whistling Tor is populated by spirits – not all of them benevolent – who are haunted themselves; haunted by their past misdeeds, failings, and poor choices. Caitrin also struggles with her past, with her losses and the trauma that physical and verbal abuse left behind plaguing her with nightmares and toxic thoughts. Anluan too is haunted by his failures as chieftain, what might have been had he not been disfigured by a palsy, and most of all by the evil deeds of his ancestor Nechtan. There’s a lot more to this story than a trite message about what’s on the inside, although Marillier does address that too.
As with all of Marillier’s novels I’ve read so far, HEART’S BLOOD is incredibly atmospheric. The dense fog, impenetrable forest, and inexplicable sounds and sights surrounding Whistling Tor all contribute a sense of unsettling disquiet. The Irish setting and politics also contributed a lot and added a distinct flair to it, with even the library that Caitrin works in reflecting the culture: she’s tasked with translating Latin documents to Irish so Anluan can read them and unlock the secrets of the curse on Whistling Tor. No one writes a Celtic fantasy quite like Juliet Marillier, and this story is a safe bet if you’re looking to be transported to another time and place.
While I really liked HEART’S BLOOD and the way Marillier put her own spin on the Beauty and the Beast story, I have to admit that it wasn’t quite up to her usual standards. I’m not sure if it’s because this is a YA story and I’ve only read her adult work so far, but I thought her writing (while still more skillful than most) was dumbed-down a bit compared to her stories geared towards adults. The ending was also a little too tidy for my tastes, but I’ll forgive that since this is a standalone. Fans of fairytale retellings, Celtic lore, and UPROOTED by Naomi Novik will find lots to love in HEART’S BLOOD.