BRIGHTFALL by Jaime Lee Moyer (BOOK REVIEW)
When I first heard that there was going to be a magical Robin Hood story that picked up years after the heyday of the Merry Men, and focused on Maid Marian as a hedgewitch, I was pretty much in shock, because you could not find a more perfect concept for me. I’m pleased to say that Brightfall was actually even better than I imagined, and has become a firm favourite I think I’ll return to many times over the years.
Brightfall is written in a lyrical, but never overblown, style that perfectly evokes the landscape and world of medieval England, and layers magic in so seamlessly that you feel like anything could happen. It reads like a fairy tale, which I think is helped in part by the similar-but-not-the-same almost-familiarity of the characters – we know what we’re expecting, and it’s delightful to see it twist away from us.
The story picks up with Marian twelve years after the Merry Men hung up their tights, and she became one of my favourite heroines I’ve ever read shortly after she first appeared on page. She’s the mother of twins – fathered by Robin, though not parented by him – and her quiet life as a mother and hedgewitch is shaken by the discovery that the ex-Merry Men are dying one by one. Friar Tuck asks her to try to solve the mystery and deal with any curse she finds, which requires Marian to team up with Robin, with whom she has an extremely complicated relationship. Robin himself is deeply unwilling to help – due to his commitment to the church (which he abandoned Marian and their children to serve), he wants little to do with magic. Solving the mystery will force them both to confront their own demons, the Fae, and the continuing changes to England that are coming about as magic wars with the movement of history.
Marian is one of the most realistic women I’ve ever read – she’s had to rely on herself to get by for a long time, and she is deeply competent as a witch, as a mother, and as a general human being. She’s kind, and clever, and capable, and bitter about the hand that Robin has dealt her. She’s respectful of magic, and therefore magic is, to a certain extent, respectful of her. As someone with a deep interest in witchcraft and the magic of English woods, I loved every one of her interactions with the Fae and other magical folk of the forest – the folklore research is evident, and deftly woven into Marian’s character. What I loved most about her is that she’s no sunshiney, ideal heroine, just a woman getting on with what she has to do. She feels strong and real – how wonderful to have a slightly older heroine with some genuine experience informing her actions! The supporting characters are wonderfully drawn too, and I don’t think there was a single one who wasn’t a beautifully realised, realistic person (even down to the tame-ish vixen who lives with Marian). Another of my favourite things is also true in this book: the landscape itself has a personality, and it’s richly and vividly evoked in every scene.
This is a quiet book, for all it has murder, mystery and plenty of action. The meat of the story is between the lines: in the strained relationship between Marian and Robin; in the way the Fae view humankind; in the way Robin’s religion wars with his heart. Brightfall may have fae lords and dragons, but it’s about people (and dragons are people too) in all their messy, tangled, emotional glory. I don’t know if I can sing its praises enough, given how much I utterly adored it – it feels like a walk in the woods, or story told around the campfire. It’s the absolute epitome of what I look for in a book – a rich feeling of a story, where you’re having fun while you read, but subtly, underneath, the book is changing you, nestling in your heart. It is gorgeous. Marian is a heroine I will treasure, and I feel like every time I read this, it will take me back to that wonderful feeling. It’s unmissable.