by Michelle Ristuccia
Shadowfell by Juliet Marillier follows Neryn as she discovers her power and responsibility in the fight against king Keldec’s oppression of all things magic. The obstacles she faces on her trek include her body’s frailty, her own ignorance, and her discernment of others. When she meets Flint, a king’s soldier who insists that he wants to help her escape, she must discover for herself whether he is worthy of her trust, or if he means to destroy Alban’s waning hope.
I was instantly enthralled by Shadowfell‘s mature themes and realistic setup, from Neryn’s alcoholic father to Marillier’s detailed picture of a land under tyranny. The introduction dives right in to Alban’s rough setting by showing a protagonist that is already dead-tired, starving, and running from The Cull, an indiscriminately murderous army sent by the king. As the book progresses, Marillier lays out a feast of poignant details describing the difficulties of traveling on foot through Alban under Keldec’s oppression. I admire that kind of realism because it solidifies my immersion in the story, while simultaneously making me very glad not to live there. If I am not envious of a protagonist’s godlike power, the author has done something right.
Shadowfell is equally psychologically heavy. The definition of a “good” character is sketchy at best in a land where saying one word against Keldec can mean your life – physically or mentally. Neryn expects no help from the average citizen, let alone a king’s agent like Flint. Shadowfell questions whether it is the means or the end result that is most important. Can a spy ever be a true and trusted friend, and is it ever necessary to do evil for the sake of a good cause? Shadowfell is no wishy-washy world of rainbows and unicorns, but one where characters have to make impossible decisions and hope to keep themselves intact at the end of each morally ambiguous act. The decisions that Neryn faces in Shadowfell of life and death, right and wrong, are clearly only a taste of what she will encounter throughout the series.
Yet, never once did I feel that Shadowfell is not YA. Neryn maintains the kind of hopeful outlook that I like to see in YA fiction, for whatever trials a teenager faces, they stand on the cusp of possibility and discovery. Young adult hood means coming into the power to shape the world around us into something meaningful, and if Neryn can harbor that bright flame of hope against the shadows of her tribulations, then what do I have to complain about in my world of running water and free speech?
Shadowfell is like a YA sister to the Thomas Covenant Chronicles, one of my favorite adult epic fantasies. Like Stephen R. Donaldson, Juliet Marillier puts her characters’ noses to the grindstone with long distances on foot and a powerful and pervasive evil headed by a big, bad antagonist. For readers who don’t care for antiheros, Neryn is the positive, bright red cherry on top.
Learn more about Shadowfell and Juliet Marillier’s other works by visiting her website at: http://www.julietmarillier.com/