Sixteen-year-old Neryn is alone in the land of Alban, where the oppressive king has ordered anyone with magical strengths captured and brought before him. Eager to hide her own canny skill–a uniquely powerful ability to communicate with the fairy-like Good Folk–Neryn sets out for the legendary Shadowfell, a home and training ground for a secret rebel group determined to overthrow the evil King Keldec.
During her dangerous journey, she receives aid from the Good Folk, who tell her she must pass a series of tests in order to recognize her full potential. She also finds help from a handsome young man, Flint, who rescues her from certain death–but whose motives in doing so remain unclear. Neryn struggles to trust her only allies. They both hint that she alone may be the key to Alban’s release from Keldec’s rule. Homeless, unsure of who to trust, and trapped in an empire determined to crush her, Neryn must make it to Shadowfell not only to save herself, but to save Alban.
I’d been meaning to pick up a book by Juliet Marillier for years before chance allowed me to get an early copy of Shadowfell. I’m so glad I started here. Ms. Marillier’s prose is evocative and beautiful to read, with lush descriptions that immerse you in the world and make you care about these characters. Shadowfell is a pretty classic quest story, with Neryn setting out to learn her powers, accomplish tasks – which she doesn’t know details about – and finding a place where she can be who she is.
Neryn is a character that I instantly related to. She made the decision long ago to live life, something that is much harder than it sounds in the bleak world that Keldec has made of Alba. On the run for much of her life, seeing atrocities that would break others, Neryn let all of that strengthen her resolve. Added to this, she’s unfailingly kind, protective, and smart – if a bit naïve. At just 15 (or 16, the text of my ARC copy did seem to waver on that), it all felt real. She’d experienced some things that made her grow up more quickly than she should have, and she still had an innocence about her that could frustrate me. She did spend a good deal of time sick, and relying on others for help, but I didn’t hold that against her. This was the first time she was really learning about what she was, and assistance was needed. What I loved here was that she still stood strong on her beliefs, needs, and what she needed to do. It endeared me to her. As I’m sure it did Flint – even while it frustrated him to no end.
Flint is a very conflicted character. Though I was fairly sure of his true allegiance throughout the book, there was just enough doubt thrown in there for me to question, just enough that I understood when Neyrn didn’t trust him and took some rather risky chances. I would love to see a bit more from Flint’s point of view, but I think the lack of that made me really appreciate what I did get near the end.
While the pacing isn’t fast there is a lot happening in Shadowfell. It’s a long journey, and Neryn has to accomplish many things along the way. I was pulled along, desperate to see what happened next, and how Neryn would beat these almost insurmountable odds to make it to her destination. One slight warning, while the book does end at a good stopping point, this is definitely not the end of Neryn’s story. There is a lot more to be told in the next two books. I didn’t think anything of this, because it seems pretty common in fantasy novels, but wanted to be sure others knew that the overall storyline is not tied up in these 400 pages.
Shadowfell is the best young-adult fantasy I’ve read in a long time. I enjoyed the story immensely, and connected with the characters. But the world is what will keep me coming back for more. Ms. Marillier has a gift for writing, one that I’m happy to have finally discovered – and I can’t wait for the next book in this trilogy.