Review: Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier

Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier

Genre: YA, Fantasy, Fairytale Retelling

Publisher: Roc on October 2, 2009

Source: Purchased

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.

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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’tΒ quiteΒ 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.

What’s your favourite fairytale retelling? Have you read anything by Juliet Marillier? Let me know in the comments!

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  • I tried Marillier, but she depresses me

  • Ooh, this sounds really cool. I really enjoy fairy tale retellings! I think the most recent fairy tale retelling series I read was A Court of Thorns and Roses, which was fantastic. πŸ˜€

    • It *is* really cool! If you liked ACOTAR, I think you’d really like this – it also has a focus on romance and world building, but pulls them both off better. At leas in my opinion. πŸ˜‰

  • Karen

    Beauty and the Beast re-tellings are my absolute favorite. Any genre/age – I’m a total sucker.

    For What It’s Worth

    • I think every reader has a trope or genre like that – mine are historical fantasy + boarding school and girl disguised as boy. Gets me every time!

  • Greg Hill

    This had me at Whistling Tor frankly lol. Right there I thought this one is gonna have atmosphere! And sounds like it does. While I’m not a fan of retellings it sounds like this one is different enough. Sorry to hear it wasn’t quite as good as her adult books, I think some writers probably have a rough transition writing for YA? Maybe? And that probably does cause them to dumb it down just a tad, which of course can be very noticeable! Bummer about that.

    Otherwise though this sounds great! I LOVE the sound of her having to transcribe Latin.

    • LOL, I hear that! Juliet Marillier’s storiess are some of the most atmospheric ones I’ve ever read, and this one was no exception. I’m not sure what it is but you’re right, a lot of authors seem to struggle with the adult vs. YA transition. Personally, the fact that so many think they need to change their writing style indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of modern YA, but oh well.

      The scenes where Caitrin is in the library working on the Latin documents were some of my favourites! I actually learned quite a bit about scribing, too.

  • Ooh, more Marillier! I haven’t even heard of this one and here I thought I was pretty good with tracking down a lot of her older books. I’m really interested in checking out her backlist, and so far I’ve only read a couple of her Sevenwaters novels and Wildwood Dancing. On second thought, maybe I should finish those series before I load up on more πŸ˜€

    • More Marillier is basically my reading motto these days, haha. I need to take a page out of your book and focus on her series I’ve already started too (Sevenwaters is such a beast as a whole body of work though), but I was too tempted by this one as a standalone!

  • Hey! Finally a YA fantasy book you’ve reviewed that I’ve also read! I really liked this one too. It was very atmospheric, and I loved the heroine. Interesting that you felt this wasn’t up to the standards of her adult books. That only means I need to pick up some of her adult titles! WHERE TO START THOUGH, DANYA?

    • OMG yes, it’s finally happened! Haha. I’m so happy you like Marillier too, Nick. She’s my favourite author! Her books tear out your heart and then slowly build it up, but the pain is so good! LOL.

      That’s a tough question…I love Dreamer’s Pool and Daughter of the Forest (two separate series starters and two of my favourite books ever) equally, but they’re really different. Dreamer’s Pool follows two middle aged protagonists and it’s a story about people who’ve lost everything and want revenge/penance, and Daughter of the Forest is about a young girl who has to go through hell to get her family back. Just depends on your mood which one works better, imo. Heads up, major TW for rape in Daughter of the Forest.

  • MaddalenaSpaceandSorcery

    I found myself nodding emphatically at the point where you write that Marillier’s writing is so atmospheric: she can indeed create places in our mind’s eyes with her very evocative words. After becoming a staunch fan with the very first book I read of her Blackthorn & Grim series, I know I will not let this one pass me by… Thanks for sharing!!!

    • Yes, it’s so true! Marillier is the queen of atmosphere, and I really think she pulls of Celtic settings better than any other fantasy writer. Blackthorn and Grim is such a fantastic series! I love those characters and their journeys. I really liked Heart’s Blood, but I’ll warn you that it’s not *quite* up to Marillier’s usual standard of writing in my opinion. I’m very curious to hear your take on it, Maddalena!

      • MaddalenaSpaceandSorcery

        Thanks for the warning! Maybe knowing I can’t expect the usual level of excellence will help me overcome the differences with B&G. πŸ™‚

  • I’ve seen a couple of folks say they prefer Marillier’s adult books rather than her YA so you’re not alone in that. That being said, it sounds like it was a really good book despite some of your reservations and one which has been on my radar for a while. It’s actually available to request at my local library so I will definitely be putting in a request sometime soon (I’m thinking I should wait until I’m reading more than one book a week, though).

    • I’ve seen other people say that too, it’s why I’ve avoided her other YA series Shadowfell despite owning all the books. And I think it’s a totally valid critique, but honestly her writing (even dumbed down) is still so much better than most other authors. I think her books are worth it, adult or YA!

      What is going on with your reading these days??? You’re normally such a power reader. Maybe your brain is just telling you that you need a break for a bit.

      • I know, cry for me. I miss my reading! I think this week is the week for it. The slump will end!

        And I’ve got Shadowfell sat on my shelf too. I’ve put off reading for the same reason. I am going to read this one and then I will try Shadowfell (or I might do it the other way around) and I will not be daunted by Marillier books.

  • Ugh this book sounds good. I don’t know how Marillier does it but her writing and storytelling is amazing. I’ve only read one series by her (her most recent trilogy with Berkley – Blackthorn & Grim), and I loved the books. I want to try some of her older books too though. Any specific recommendations? πŸ˜€

    Have a great weekend, Danya. =)

    Alyssa @ The Eater of Books!

    • It’s SO good! The best Beauty and the Beast retelling I’ve ever read, that’s for sure. YES ALYSSA, I’m so happy to hear that you loved the Blackthorn and Grim trilogy! It’s one of my favourites. πŸ˜€ I absolutely love Daughter of the Forest too (although there’s a very disturbing assault scene, FYI) and recommend that one for sure. I’ve heard Wildwood Dancing is also great but I haven’t read that one myself!

      Have a good one, Alyssa! πŸ™‚

  • I haven’t yet read anything by Marillier but you make me think I need to know about her work in general after reading this review.

    • Oh my…you’re in for a real treat, Verushka. Marillier’s one of those writers who comes to mind whenever you think about writing as craft, you know? I will warn you that her adult works are quite dark, but they’re still hopeful and beautiful.

  • This sounds amazing! I’m very fond of B&B retellings, I’ll have to check this out someday.

    • You definitely should, Tammy! It’s Marillier, so of course Heart’s Blood is top-notch. πŸ™‚

  • I think Juliet Marillier and Beauty and the Beast were made for each other and its exciting to hear that she really made the story her own. Those are always the best re-tellings even when they don’t entirely work and it sounds like this one works in spades! Plus I love an Irish setting, always. I’m excited to read it!

  • I love retellings! And I especially love Beauty and the Beast retellings, so clearly this one is headed to my TBR. Thanks Danya for adding a little more epic to my proportions there, as always!

    I actually haven’t read anything by this author before but it really sounds like it needs to be on my radar.

    P.S. I LOVED Uprooted. πŸ™‚

    • Normally I’m not a huge fan of retellings (I knoooow, I’m such a grinch) but there’s something about the Beauty and the Beast trope that always sucks me in, regardless of genre. Juliet Marillier is an absolute queen. Her books will rip your heart out and then make it whole again, no lie.

      P.S. ME TOO! Agnieszka is the best.

  • I love fantasy retellings, and I’ve loved the two Juliet Marillier books I’ve read so far (Daughter of the Forest and Son of the Shadows), so this is one I’ll definitely have to add to the TBR list! I didn’t even know she had written a Beauty and the Beast retelling, so I’m pretty excited about this book now!
    Great review πŸ™‚

    • OMG, Daughter of the Forest is one of my favourite books of all time! If you love Marillier, I highly recommend this one — and her Blackthorn & Grim series. Thanks so much, Laura! πŸ™‚

  • I’m not usually drawn to BatB retellings in particular, but I like the sound of this one! The atmosphere, the Irish setting, the characters, it all sounds great!