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. Quoted from Goodreads
You know that part in Lord of the Rings after they leave Rivendell but before they reach the Mines of Moria? That is Shadowfell: lots of walking, getting to know the fellowship (characters), minor adventures, almost freezing, and the reader can't wait for the next chapter.
Seriously, I can't think of a more apt description. Juliette Marillier's writing is gorgeous as always. She has a way of weaving words together that is timeless and poetic as it transports you through the world she created. But this world is depressing. I understand that the king is a tyrant, but there is absolutely no light in this girl's journey and only a sliver of hope. Honestly, I forced myself to keep reading through the first third of this book because I wasn't having any fun. I admit, it doesn't help that I was sick while reading this, but I felt melancholy a lot in the beginning.
After Neryn meets Flint, things start looking up, and not in the, oh look, a pretty boy here to save her sort of way. Yes, he absolutely helps her, but it is the mystery stuff that got this book moving. Can she trust him? and Who is he really? That's what picked up the pace for me a bit. Plus, with him, she isn't starving and about to die from exposure all the time, which was a refreshing change. Don't get me wrong, I liked Neryn. She has good common sense and makes the best out of a bad situation. She learns on her journey and makes intriguing friends. She is kind and understanding, but she can't do this alone. In a better world, maybe. But not in the darkness that is Alban.
So back to my Lord of the Rings analogy, this book is a nice set up. There is good tension and near misses, close scrapes and unexpected surprises. I liked learning about Marillier's world and characters. I liked the mythology and different people's gifts. I liked Flint's ambiguous character and Neryn's struggle to trust. But I feel like this is just a great buildup to the real adventure. I am really excited for the next book to see where the story will go.
As far as writing goes, this book is a solid 4.5 stars, but as far as how much I liked the book, it's probably more like 3.5. This is the sort of book you read on a long, sunny afternoon, or curled up with a blanket on a cold, rainy day, not when you're sick or freezing. If you are, you may find yourself sympathizing a little too much with the Naryn's suffering, and Marillier puts that poor girl through a lot.