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Disillusioned healer Blackthorn and her companion, Grim, have settled in Dalriada to wait out the seven years of Blackthorn’s bond to her fey mentor, hoping to avoid any dire challenges. But trouble has a way of seeking out Blackthorn and Grim.
Lady Geiléis, a noblewoman from the northern border, has asked for the prince of Dalriada’s help in expelling a howling creature from an old tower on her land—one surrounded by an impenetrable hedge of thorns. Casting a blight over the entire district, and impossible to drive out by ordinary means, it threatens both the safety and the sanity of all who live nearby. With no ready solutions to offer, the prince consults Blackthorn and Grim.
As Blackthorn and Grim begin to put the pieces of this puzzle together, it’s apparent that a powerful adversary is working behind the scenes. Their quest is about to become a life and death struggle—a conflict in which even the closest of friends can find themselves on opposite sides.
I had a few issues with Dreamers Pool (Blackthorn & Grim #1), so I had some hesitation in picking up Tower of Thorns - but I’ve always really respected and enjoyed Juliet Marillier’s work in the past, so I thought I’d see whether this installment would kick things into gear.
In some ways this is a much better book than Dreamer’s Pool, but honestly, I still had some of the same problems with Tower of Thorns. There is still that repetitiveness of notion and narrative in Blackthorn’s chapters, which starts to make her point of view flat-line. Watching a character halted so fully in her evolution, brings out my impatient side. Character growth is hugely important to me, it’s one of the reasons I love fantasy so much; because in most circumstances, character’s must evolve in order to survive.
Blackthorn is so stuck, and I understand the reasons why she is written as she is, however it causes issues with pacing when there is so much repetition, so much rehashing. Imagine catching a train that when arriving at a station, regularly reverses back to the start of the line and gets stuck there for some time, before rocketing forward to get to the station it was supposed to arrive at next. That ‘stuckedness’, as I like to call it, does become part of the plot in Tower, so it felt a little less frustrating, a little less like I was re-reading chapter after chapter of the same thing. Unfortunately that part of the plot, which I think was supposed to be ‘mysterious’ was actually quite obvious.
Part of my problem with both the B&G books, is that the mystery elements just don’t work well enough. I think it’s the way Marillier structures her alternating narratives (I'd say more, but then it becomes spoilery), especially in Tower, so that it’s all very obvious, very quickly. Maybe I’m just a good guesser? I don’t know, so maybe it will work quite well for others; but I don’t think anybody will be shocked or surprised by how things turn out.
So when the mystery isn’t all that mysterious, you tend to rely on the characters to make a book shine. But, when you’ve got stunted character growth, and a mystery that doesn’t pull it’s weight, what makes the book actually work?
Grim makes this book work. Every chapter in which he is given the point of view shines like a beacon, and there is so much more weight to his presence in Tower, compared to Dreamer’s Pool. I can’t express how much Grim’s narrative, voice and story stuck under my skin and blew away my emotions.
Grim’s voice is incredibly unique. The way Marillier has chosen to write him with that halted, quiet, stumbling, almost childlike voice - but with such an underlying intelligence and empathy, is utterly brilliant.. He made me cry. No kidding, Full blown blubbering messy crying. Watching him struggle with his emotions and war within himself, makes the heart hurt! The reason his narrative works so much more effectively than Blackthorns, is that even though he tends to relive moments, his character still has forward momentum -he evolves throughout the book.
If you’ve ever known a person with PTSD, and wanted to understand their experience, you need to read this. I don’t know if Marillier knows somebody that has/had PTSD, or is an incredibly empathetic researcher, but she hits this manifestation of it so well. It’s spot on!
I love that Marillier subverts the traditional male and female tropes in this series; Blackthorn is the one belting full steam ahead, throwing things at everything in her path, loud, brash and generally driving the plot. Grim quietly struggles on the path, supporting Blackthorn, and supports the plot.
The two characters are opposite forces, dealing with horrendous pasts in totally different ways, and I think the book attempts to balance out the two points of view with that juxtaposition of the character’s traits. It does works on some level, otherwise one character would’ve drowned the other out entirely. However, it doesn’t seem to quite hit that sweet spot, where the balance would make both point of views as weighty as each other.
In the end, I would’ve been quite happy if the whole book was entirely in Grim’s point of view. Blackthorn is absolutely needed, but I feel like even though she is the driving force plot wise, that lack of growth made her presence seem like a secondary character in Tower. Her point of view felt a little redundant. (Gods that sounds harsh, but I can’t think of a better way to explain it!)
What also works incredibly well, is the relationship between Blackthorn and Grim. The understanding between the two, and the support they give each other through the things they go through when dealing with their past, and how they tackle the future. Sometimes that support is just letting things stay silent, but being ready to listen if ever one of them wants to talk; and there is a sweetness in that, that looks like true friendship should. I think those moments, are the overall starring parts of the book. The moments when they come together, and chop some herbs to make a ‘brew’, to settle thoughts and emotions.
The quietest scenes tend to be the most powerful in this book!
I know this review is as up and down, as I felt the book was. It was probably as confusing to read, as it was for me to write! However, it’s hard to write a really cohesive review when you feel extreme awe in some parts, and the opposite in others. It’s akin to writing about two different books and smushing it all together!
I will hopefully get the chance to read the next installment, because I am invested in these characters now, and I really would like to see a resolution to their struggles.