Juliet Marillier’s work first came to my attention through my obsession with fairy tales. In particular, the tale popularized by Hans Christian Andersen as “The Wild Swans” has always captivated me, so when I heard about Marillier’s novel-length reimagining of the story, Daughter of the Forest, I had to track it down. (To give you an idea of my excitement, this was back in the days when “track it down” was more complicated than buying an instantly delivered eBook.)
It’s rare to find a writer whose work feels like it was created entirely for you, and Marillier is one of those authors for me. She has gained well-deserved recognition amongst fantasy fans over the last couple of decades, but her fiction still does not seem to be as widely known as it could be. But her fans are fervent, and finding another Marillier lover means I have found another book soulmate, someone with whom I will always be able to talk to about, if nothing else, stories I love. With her delicious prose and an impressive catalog of fairy tale-influenced series and standalone to choose from, any Marillier book is a treat.
But where to begin? There are multiple series and companion novels, as well as standalones. With such a rich smorgasbord of reading pleasure available, I’m here to offer a bit of guidance and some possible places to begin…and if you like these suggestions, all I can say is that I’m delighted to introduce new readers to Marillier’s glorious fairy tale adventures, filled as they are with rich characters and delightfully well-developed romance. I know you will find it a wondrous feast…
This is where I began, and frankly, it’s still one of my favorites. This title is the first book in the Sevenwaters series, which explores the lore of a bit of hidden Ireland, focusing on the eponymous family that are the custodians of a forest where the human world and the shadowy Otherworld exist side by side. The six-book series begins with this beautiful retelling of “The Wild Swans,” as I mentioned above, but beyond that, the series travels its own path, the stories guided by the characters and their desires. Although the Sevenwaters books continue to evoke the fay and Irish mythology, none of the other novels in the series cling so closely to a recognizable fairy tale.
“The Wild Swans” is a story of trauma and sacrifice, and the novel depicts sexual violence and other potentially upsetting moments, but Daughter of the Forest is also a story about healing and love. Sorcha’s commitment to saving her family sustains her through years of suffering, leavened with a slow-burn romance. It’s as important for her to let this into her heart as it is for her to help her brothers, and the ending will leave you on an achingly bittersweet note.
Although Marillier has a couple of series aimed at young adult readers, this duology is my favorite of her YA fantasy. Wildwood Dancing, the first novel, is a spin on “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” with hints of Dracula (it’s set in Transylvania); it also evokes the familiar (and slippery) trope of fairy bargains. Jena, the second of five sisters, spends her days exploring the wild forest around her home and delights in the dance that takes place every full moon, when the mystical portal in their home opens and allows the sisters entrance into a mysterious fairy land. When her father falls ill, the sisters are entrusted to the care of their cousin Cezar, who certainly does not seem to have their best interests at heart. Jena must outmaneuver him while also trying to protect her eldest sister, who has fallen into a dangerous union with a creature from the Other Kingdom.
This is certainly a softer and easier read than Daughter of the Forest, but there’s plenty of complexity as well, and the sisters and their relationships are rendered in delightful strokes that allow for the many ways that women can relate to one another. (And for what it’s worth, I enjoyed the second book in this set, Cybele’s Secret, even more than the first.)
Another one of my favorites, this retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” is a standalone novel, with no series to follow (though I would happily dive in if Marillier ever expanded on this story). Caitrin is a scribe who finds sanctuary in the fortress of Whistling Tor, which needs her as much as she needs it; the household is caught in a curse that generations of Anluan’s family have not been able to break. It will take both of them to grow and trust each other to break the curse.
I started reading this with some trepidation because of the (original) marketing about the young chieftain Anluan’s childhood illness leaving him disabled—I am wary of stories in which someone’s body or appearance is magically “fixed” at the end of the tale. However, Marillier handles the whole storyline with compassion and skill, creating a tale that both reflects the influence of the original fairy tale and allows for a more sensitive and humane treatment of long-term illness in the novel.
If there’s a particular fairy tale that you’re seeking, here are a few other excellent options:
Dreamer’s Pool is a rather dark retelling of “The Goose Girl,” interwoven with the story of Blackthorn—whose abilities as a magical healer make her something of a witch—seeking vengeance after been wrongfully imprisoned by an evil chieftain. Another two books follow the further adventures of Blackthorn and her companion Grim through other fragmented fairy tales (including “Rapunzel” and “Red Riding Hood”).
Wolfskin is shaded with the rather more obscure fairy tale “The Singing Bone,” woven skillfully with elements of Norse folklore. The second book in the duology, Foxmask, follows a generation later with more of the cultural blend and clash of the Norse warriors and Orkney islanders.
Although Marillier’s writing is often dark and full of sorrow, she fortifies her well-balanced love stories with hope and healing. The women she writes about are richly realized, powerful figures who make their mark in their worlds, worlds where the odds are stacked against them. They are challenged and wrenched out of their element, and rise to face the many obstacles and antagonists in their path through hard work, sacrifice, and intelligence—all while clinging to the hope of coming to the end of their trials having earned their own happiness and love.
If you’re already a fan, please share your own favorite Juliet Marillier stories below—and if you’re new to her work, let us know where you’re going to dive in!
Rachel Ayers lives in Alaska, where she writes cabaret shows, daydreams, and looks at mountains a lot. She has a degree in Library and Information Science which comes in handy at odd hours, and she shares speculative poetry and flash fiction (and cat pictures) at patreon.com/richlayers.