Earlier this year, I pledged to participate in the Australian Women Writers Challenge — essentially a commitment to read, review and generally plug published works by Australian women. It’s taken me a while to get my act together, but here — finally — is my first official review towards this challenge.
I selected Dreamer’s Pool by Juliet Marillier because it won the 2014 Aurealis Award for fantasy novel. It also has one of the most beautiful covers I’ve seen (not that that should have any bearing on the book, of course). With all the ‘extra-curricular’ reading I’ve been doing over the past year, Dreamer’s Pool seemed like a good place to start my reconnection with contemporary Australian fantasy.
Dreamer’s Pool is at heart a very simple story, told elegantly and without flourish in three distinct voices. Blackthorn is a healer, or wise woman, with a traumatic past. She’s salvaged from a dark dungeon by an enigmatic Fae, who gives her a seemingly noble mission in return for her freedom. She’s bitter, acerbic, reluctant — but has a good heart.
Grim, a fellow prisoner with a mysterious background, finds in Blackthorn a purpose for his life and appoints himself her protector. He’s a man of few words and hidden depths. Meanwhile, young Prince Oran is wrestling with the challenges of rule, independence and an impending arranged marriage…
When Blackthorn and Grim settle near one of the villages Prince Oran rules over, he ends up enlisting their aid in a matter of some perplexing delicacy.
It must be said this book takes a fair while to get going. I found its gentle pace a little… gentle, although I enjoyed the journey for all that. Marillier spends a great deal of time establishing the three primary characters and setting — a fantastical interpretation of early Britain. It feels very much like the beginning of something, although exactly what it’s difficult to tell. The motivations of Conmael, (the Fae who rescues Blackthorn and sets her on this path) are veiled, and Grim’s background is very murky indeed. I can only assume all will be revealed in later installments.
Dreamer’s Pool is actually a bit of a fairytale mystery — which I liked. Unlike the current trend in modern epic fantasy, this tale has a narrow and localised focus; it’s about ‘real’ people dealing with real and very personal issues. There are no grand battles and there is virtually no politicking. It’s about friendship and second chances and loyalty and healing. All wrapped up in a haunted air.
I was most fascinated by the character of Grim, who seems to be running from something in his past. He comes across as a little simple at first, but you come to realise he just has simple needs. His narrative voice reflects this and I loved reading his chapters. Blackthorn is also an interesting character, although not always particularly likeable; but she’s been through a lot, so you can forgive her. She seems to be the main character, although the primary plot of this novel at least is driven by Prince Oran and his growing disquiet about the woman he’s pledged to marry.
Overall, I enjoyed Dreamer’s Pool, despite its gentle pace and my uncertainty as to where the ‘Blackthorn and Grim’ series may be headed. It’s nice to be reminded that fantasy doesn’t need a high body count or a cast of thousands to resonate.