Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier

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Welcome back to Fairy Tale Friday!  It’s been far too long.  I need to get better about posting these regularly. Today we’re looking at the first “Beauty and the Beast” retelling of this feature.  Juliet Marillier is an author I just discovered this year, and she is amazing.  The other two retellings I read by her were wonderful, and, as expected, Heart’s Blood was more of the same.

Side note: can you believe I’ve never owned an illustrated copy of “Beauty and the Beast”?!  I now feel like my parents failed me when I was a kid.  So I had to settle for the rather boring first page of the story in my copy of The Blue Fairy Book.  I think it might be time to buy some more illustrated fairy tales…

My Rating: 5 stars

Warning: Contains spoilers

As a Retelling:

Heart’s Blood is a fairly loose retelling of the fairy tale and actually has enough deviations and original content to stand as it’s own story.  The most commonly known versions of the fairy tale begin with a father going on a journey and receiving the request from his youngest daughter to bring her back a rose.  The father stays in the Beast’s castle on his way back and takes a rose out of the garden, provoking the Beast’s anger.  In order to spare the father’s life, the Beast demands Beauty come live in the castle with him.  This is a very far cry from the beginning of Heart’s Blood.  Caitrin, our Beauty, is fleeing the abusive relatives who took over her home after her father’s death and comes to the strange settlement of Whistling Tor.  Upon hearing the chieftain, Anluan, is seeking a scribe, she goes up to his fortress to ask for the job.  She winds up in the garden and comes across heart’s blood, a rare herb that can be used to create purple ink.

The scene in the garden is one of the closest to the original fairy tale with the heart’s blood taking the place of the rose and Beauty herself interacting with it instead of her father.  Though a rose is the most common item found throughout different variations, it is not the only one.  In a Swiss version, the youngest daughter asks for a grape, and in a German one she asks for a “clinking clanking lowesleaf” (don’t ask me what that is; I don’t know).  Anluan appears and accuses her of trying to steal the plant.  As an abuse victim, Caitrin is afraid of his angry demeanor rather than his appearance, which I’ll discuss in the next paragraph.  After this point in the fairy tale, the rose or other plant does not appear again.  However, in many retellings the rose continues to play an important role, as you can see in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Robin McKinley’s Rose Daughter.  The heart’s blood continues to appear throughout Marillier’s novel.  It becomes part of a bet between Caitrin and Anluan on whether she will stay through the summer to finish the scribing job; if she stays, he will allow her to use the heart’s blood flowers to make ink.  The plant also plays a vital role in the climax.  I don’t want to say more than that to avoid spoiling the whole book.

Anluan is our Beast, but he is not very…beastly.  “Beauty and the Beast” is an animal bridegroom tale, so the main character’s suitor is not human at the start of the story.  The two most well-known versions of the story, one by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve and the other by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont just describe him as a beast.  However, other folklore variants have different creatures.  A common one is a bear, featured most notably in “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.”  Other forms include a horse, a serpent, and a dog. Anluan, on the other hand, is completely human.  He is disfigured, something the people in the village believe is caused by the curse on his family.  However, his disfigurement is unrelated to the curse.  As a result, there isn’t the typical transformation one finds at the end of “Beauty and the Beast” tales.  This isn’t unprecedented in retellings; McKinley’s Beast in Rose Daughter chooses to remain as he is, and the Beauty character in Angela Carter’s “The Tiger’s Bride” transforms into a tiger to match the Beast.

As you can guess from Anluan’s lack of animal form, Marillier has changed the nature of the curse from the original story.  The curse in every variation of the tale is the Beast’s appearance.  Many versions don’t go into why he’s been cursed.  The Beaumont version mentions a fairy placing the curse, but doesn’t go into the details.  The curse in Marillier’s book is a result of Anluan’s ancestor Nechtan, who used magic to bond spirits of the dead to him.  These spirits, called the host, are under Anluan’s control, but only while he remains on the hill.  When any of his ancestors left the hill, they lost control of the host and it ended in disaster.  Knowing this, Anluan remains on the hill, isolating himself and causing ill will toward him in the village.  We find out later that this loss of control stems from a curse laid while Nechtan performed the ritual to bind the host.  It is a curse of 100 years of bad luck, sorrow, failure, and being haunted by the one who placed it.  Once she finds out about it, Caitrin makes it her mission to find a way to reverse the binding spell.  In the Villeneuve and Beaumont versions of the fairy tale, the curse is broken by Beauty falling in love with the Beast and agreeing to marry him.  While Caitrin does fall in love with Anluan, it is not what breaks the curse.  Caitrin puts a lot of effort into finding the way to sever the bond, and it is done through a ritual and a sacrifice by two members of the host.

Mirrors appear in many variations of “Beauty and the Beast.”  Villeneuve mentions a hall of mirrors in the Beast’s palace.  Beaumont’s, along with several others, involves a magic mirror that allows Beauty to watch her family while she is with the Beast.  Marillier makes use of both concepts.  Anluan’s fortress is filled with magical mirrors, two of which are important to the plot.  The first shows her the events that occurred at the time the documents she is translating were written. This mirror is how Caitrin is able to piece together what happened with Nechtan 100 years ago.  The second she finds in a tower that holds items of women who once lived in the fortress.  This mirror functions in a similar way to the one in Beaumont’s tale.  However, she doesn’t watch her family while living at Whistling Tor; she watches the people of Whistling Tor while she is back home.  The mirror also works like this in the Danish tale “Beauty and the Horse,” and it shows Beauty an image of the horse dying.  In the Villeneuve and Beaumont stories, Beauty sees the Beast dying in a dream.  As in the Danish version, Caitrin sees a vision of Anluan dying in the mirror and sets off for Whistling Tor again.

My Thoughts:

This is my favorite of all the retellings I’ve featured here so far.  It’s actually the first of the Fairy Tale Friday books that I’ve rated 5 stars!  I love Marillier’s writing and the way she weaves her stories together.  All of her books are historically based even though they are fantasy.  Heart’s Blood is set in Ireland as the Normans are starting to invade.  Historical fantasy is a subgenre I’ve become very fond of in the last year, and Marillier is definitely one of my favorite authors of it!

Caitrin is a wonderful main character, and I really enjoyed her growth through the novel.  She is the survivor of physical and mental abuse.  While she did manage to flee her abusive home, she always feels she isn’t brave enough.  She has a hard time speaking up for herself and easily freezes up in conflict.  However, her time at Whistling Tor helps her find her voice again and speak up for what she believes in, even when it makes Anluan upset.  When she returns to the town she’s from, she faces her abusers despite her fear and is able to regain her home.  I also liked that she takes great pride and joy in her work as a scribe and that it is so ingrained into her personality.  She examines everything through the eyes of a scribe, including handwriting and plants.

The romance between Caitrin and Anluan is excellent.  If you like slow burn romances, this is definitely the book for you!  One review called it “bittersweetly realistic,” and I agree with that.  It’s a quiet kind of love story.  They are both closed off due to past traumas, so it takes a while for them to get to know each other.  They have misunderstandings and arguments.  But both try to do what is best for the other, whether they agree or not.  It’s a deep relationship that feels very real, and I think it makes for a beautiful story.

Other Reading Recommendations:

The starred titles are ones I have read myself.  The others are ones I want to read and may end up being future Fairy Tale Friday books.  To keep the list from getting too long, I’m limiting it to four that I’ve read and four that I haven’t.

Other Retellings of “Beauty and the Beast”:

More Retellings by Juliet Marillier:

About the Fairy Tale:

This review is also posted on aliteraryprincess.tumblr.com

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