Heart’s Blood is actually a case of one retelling of Beauty and the Beast that I didn’t manage to finish during that rampage. As a matter of fact, as I was running out of time I ended up putting it aside on account of how depressing Juliet Marillier can be. (I’d read Daughter of the Forest and two sequels before I acquired Heart’s Blood, and knew that Juliet Marillier has a fondness for abused female heroines. So when I had to pick one book to set aside during in that batch, I chose the one that I was pretty sure would depress me, even though it was a retelling of my favorite fairy tale.)
When I was in a bookstore in Zürich a few years ago, there were a few reasons why I decided to buy this book. One was that it was based on Beauty and the Beast, of course. Another was that the dark, gloomy beginning was incredibly powerful, promising secrets and mysteries with the finesse of a beautifully crafted Gothic novel that I hadn’t forgotten in the half year since I’d read the first mere ten/twenty pages. Another was that the main character was a woman scribe in a world where most people don’t know how to read—and women reading and writing is virtually unheard of.
The powerful beginning which made me resume reading this novel was barely the tip of the iceberg. It grew deeper and darker with every page, and told its tale in the style of a mystery. Certainly, like every version of Beauty and the Beast it is no secret that there had been a curse cast on the family and home of the beast (who is named Anluan). But the details of the curse are taboo, which gives the impression that if someone would only speak the mystery could be solved.
What makes this story so amazing is the fact that when the climax arrives, it has the effect of a slap in the face because all the puzzle pieces were right there all along, and if I’d taken a moment to reflect I probably could have pieced them together. (The problem with this style is that people who do end up piecing the puzzle together before the main character might end up a little annoyed that it takes her so long.)
While the novel is written in the style of Gothic horror, it’s not actually horror per se. It uses suspense and terror as devices expertly, leading the characters through their trials and growth until their happily ever afters (it is a fairy tale, after all). But this is Juliet Marillier, so her main character has indeed been subjected to abuse by family members (the gory details are left to the reader’s imagination). Yet unlike some of her other works, the abuse is mostly just used as a shadow of the past which the main character must overcome. It even comes with the benefit of the protagonist confronting her abusers, which I always find refreshing. (There’s a scene somewhere in the middle where her family comes to take her back with mean little lackeys that we never see again after this episode, and it has the effect of a cudgel because it comes out of absolutely nowhere—but the family goes away and the story makes sense again. I pretend that was a hallucination that magically affected everyone at once, because it’s far too contrived otherwise.)
It’s a memorable, powerful storyline about a timid young woman growing up in the face of multiple levels of adversary. (Believe me, there is no shortage of antagonistic elements: the girl’s past, Anluan’s past, the curse, the memories behind the curse, the cursed souls, the girl’s family, wars…) Sure, she scores around a 36 on the Mary Sue litmus test…but her score is mostly accounted for by her prettiness (which she doesn’t believe exists) and her past of abuse. Seeing as how her being based on Beauty explains the one and the authorship of Juliet Marillier explains the other, I don’t consider this much of a flaw.
I rank it right up there with some of Robin McKinley’s work. Marillier’s style is entirely different from McKinley’s, but McKinley wrote three of the best versions of Beauty and the Beast out there, so she deserves an honorable mention. One of these days I may get around to reviewing some of her books as well.
I would give this an 8/10.