Delightful is the word for Juliet Marillier's Wildwood Dancing and Cybele's Secret, the first two books in what promises to be a compelling historical fantasy series for young adults. If you're one of the unfortunate souls (like me) who hasn't yet discovered Marillier's adult fantasy epics, these tales of a spirited group of sisters with connections to the seductive and perilous "Other Kingdom" are the portal you've been waiting for.
Portals to mysterious realms figure heavily in both novels, but the true coup de grace is Marillier's exquisite historical settings. Wildwood Dancing, set in 14th Century Transylvania where gorgeous elder sister Tatiana, practical Jena, flirtatious Iulia, scholarly Paula, and young Stela are coming of age in an ancient castle called Piscul Dracului, is a feast. While the central motif of faery glades and enchanted forests is certainly familiar, Marillier's use of Romanian language and folklore gives it a distinct flavor, and the descriptions of life at Piscul Dracului—the exotic Romanian cooking, superstitious village traditions, and penchant for characters living at the crossroads of Euro-Christian and Ottoman traditions to know the language and philosophies of several surrounding countries—give the story a sense of freshness and realism. It's a fantasy story where the earthly realm is just as thrilling as that which lurks beyond the veil.
Wildwood, which concerns fifteen-year old Jena's attempts to protect her family from forces both domestic and otherworldly while her merchant father is away on an extended period of convalescence, is perhaps the more powerful of the two books. For nine years, Jena and her sisters have used a magical portal to cross over to the Other Kingdom on the night of the full moon. But just as Jena's father leaves to convalesce, a delegation of "Night People" appears at the faery court. Among them is a tormented young man named Sorrow who stirs strange fancies in sixteen-year-old Tatiana.
At the same time, a tragedy in Jena's family leaves her and the other girls at the mercy of their domineering cousin, Cezar, a young man unsympathetic to the intellectual freedoms they have been allowed beneath their father's roof. Slowly, Cezar begins to strip away Jena's control of the household. He is embittered against the Other Kingdom, which he blames for the death, in childhood, of his brother Costi, and begins to speak of cutting down the forest surrounding the castle, as it is a known gathering place of enchanted creatures. Naturally, the machinations of the scheming (and scary) Night People don't help the situation.
In Wildwood Dancing, themes of female independence interlace with a pair of emotionally charged love stories—but don't think this is all mush. Admittedly, it is hard to imagine a thirteen-year-old boy sitting down with this book, but Marillier's portrait of a young girl trying to find her power in a patriarchal society reads as achingly true, especially when Jena begins to grapple with romantic prospects from a trio of disquieting sources. And while Cezar grows increasingly vile and anti-feminist, he is never less than human, harboring understandable motives and earning our grudging sympathy even as he and Jena struggle against one another in a riveting contest of wills.
Strong, independent YA heroines have been a cliché ever since Disney's Belle sang about wanting "much more than this provincial life," but there's a reason they continue to sell books and movies. Young boys may not be ready to root for a heroine whose priorities are the safety of her family, the chance to love freely, and the opportunity to dance with any number of smolderingly attractive faerys, but a female audience will instantly recognize the hallmarks of their own experiences and romantic desires. Marillier's story is powerful because it plays to the most important questions of girlhood: Can I maintain my independence in the face of adversity? Are my duties to my family first, to my lover, or to my own heart? What happens if I kiss that enchanted frog?
The frog motif—indeed present in Wildwood Dancing—is no accident. From The Frog Prince to The Twelve Dancing Princesses, fantasy aficionados will recognize several nods to classic faery tales here, which, as most young girls are raised with such tales as the basis of all romantic experience, is certainly fitting. When Jena finally kisses her own frog, Marillier cannily stands the classic tale on its head, resulting in a portrait of young love so real I can only defy anyone who has experienced the joy, wonder, and misunderstandings of such relationships not to shed tears. Like life, Marillier's romantic and familial conflicts don't always have an easy resolution. Young readers will be in no danger of feeling talked down to as Wildwood Dancing heads towards a resolution both triumphant and bittersweet.
Cybele's Secret, which picks up several years after the events of Wildwood, is another robust and beautiful story that never patronizes its audience. An altogether more earth-bound tale (indeed, the title refers to a pagan goddess associated, suggestively, with caves and bees) it is not quite the emotional powerhouse of its predecessor, but that may be because this time the protagonist is Jena's younger sister Paula. Enlightened by the strife of her previous encounters with the Other Kingdom, Paula feels like an older, wiser character than Jena was—and when she starts to see mysterious visions on a trading expedition to Istanbul, she knows to expect the unexpected. A keen scholar, determined to someday own a book trading company, Paula is also more cerebral than Jena—at least until she meets a dashing pirate named Duarte and a soulful bodyguard named Stoyan.
This time out, the faery realm is used more sparingly (though no less enjoyably) than in Wildwood Dancing. YA or not, blood, sweat, and lust (for love, knowledge, or power) coat the pages, taking prominence over enchanted visions. The result is a simpler story, driven by human interaction and exploring dilemmas more familiar to the mortal realm: the pursuit of knowledge, the resolution of past sins, the pull of physical attraction, and the danger of crossing the wrong people. But once again, Marillier's exotic choice of setting adds to the romance and intrigue of the story. As Paula enters Istanbul, the description allows us to feel her wonder at this unfamiliar culture:
Poets described [Istanbul] as a city of porphyry and marble, a jewel among jewels, its mosques and palaces rising above the water as if reaching towards the heavens. ...
To a girl who had never traveled beyond the borders of Transylvania, the sea path towards that pale forest of minarets and towers, with the sun breaking through the heavy clouds above us and the water surging past the Stea de Mare's sides, was nothing sort of magical. (Cybele's Gift, p. 10)
Amen to that. From here on in, Paula is a traveler in a realm of sensuous detail: diaphanous colored veils, yards of sleek silk, steamy bathhouses, and red-sailed ships. She mingles with a delightful cast of characters: the sultry Irene of Volos, a powerful socialite and fellow scholar, the playful and possibly deadly Duarte, and the classically tortured Stoyan. With so much ripe sensuality on display and two hunky men competing for Paula's affections, the story almost resembles a Harlequin romance. But Marillier's graceful prose—reminiscent of Patricia McKillip—and wonderful characterizations are frank, not florid. (Still, Harlequin junkies would be advised to try this more sophisticated confection, whatever their age.) Duarte and Stoyan are distinctly drawn, each offering his own unique attributes and deficiencies as a romantic partner. Paula's struggle with her emerging attraction is never tiresome but, rather, the glue that holds the whole caper together. One is every bit as interested in the fates of Marillier's lovers as they are in the scenes of piracy, pursuit, and tests of bravery—of which there are (thrillingly) plenty.
In both books, however, the real punch is the skill with which Marillier gets her characters in and out of emotional jeopardy. Cybele's Secret has its own heartrending torment as Paula's ideas about love and loyalty are tested to the extreme, and a previous sub-plot involving Tatiana continues to unfurl, suggesting that there may be a few more journeys for Jena, Paula, and company before this saga comes to its hard won happy ending. As Jena says near the end of Cybele: "One of the lessons we've all learned is how difficult love is and how hard we have to keep on working at it."
May Marillier's brave, beautiful heroines keep on working at it for a long time to come.
Hannah Strom-Martin currently lives and writes in California. Her pop culture writing appears regularly in the North Bay Bohemian. Her latest short story will soon appear in On Spec. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writers Workshop.