I always enjoy Marillier’s books though sometimes they can be a little slow to get going. The Dreamer’s Pool was an immensely enjoyable read and I found it close to impossible to put it aside for even a little while. She weaves a story rife with magic but grounds it in reality, which makes it even more relatable.
The Dreamer’s Pool is about a healer who is wrongfully imprisoned but finds herself with a second chance at life, her fellow inmate, a giant of a man of few words and a prince who finally meets his betrothed but senses that there is something amiss. The healer, Blackthorn strikes a bargain with Conmael, a fey nobleman, and in return for letting her escape the prison, she must spend seven years in the kingdom of Dalriada and help anyone who asks for it. If she reneges the terms she will find herself right where she started and if she tries to escape, an additional year will be added to her seven years of service. This isn’t as simple as it seems as the only thing driving Blackthorn is her thirst for vengeance against the local chieftain, Mathuin, who imprisoned her. She has no real choice in the matter, as her only options are either to accept the terms or die in that filthy prison. Grim, a fellow prisoner becomes her travelling companion. Prince Oran meanwhile is smitten with his betrothed, Lady Flidais, they haven’t met but have only exchanged letters. But through those letters, it is clear to him that they have a rare connection and he can’t wait to meet her. But on her arrival, things soon take a turn for the worse when the flesh and blood Flidais is a far cry from the one he fell in love with.
This book is told from three points of view: Blackthorn, Grim and Oran’s and of the three, in the beginning I preferred reading the first two. I found Oran’s pov so dull, it was almost mind numbing. While the first two dealt with complex characters and their difficult situation, Oran’s was all about how much he loved Flidais and that he couldn’t wait to be married to her. I am glad to say that as the novel progressed his part also became more interesting chiefly because of the mystery surrounding Flidais. The Dreamer’s Pool is a beautifully written book but is not over-embellished. It has the tone of a fairy tale but with very relatable characters. The story unfolds slowly but always keeps a steady pace so that the reader is never frustrated. It is so thoroughly engrossing that it is impossible not to lose yourself in the story. The main characters are all flawed in someway (some more than others) and that is one of the things I loved about this book. Especially with regard to Blackthorn and Grim, they had had such a difficult life and witnessed so much loss that it damaged them on a very deep level and Marillier did not gloss over them.
Blackthorn used to be a healer, a wise woman in her previous life. She ceased to be that person when she was imprisoned but when she was offered another chance, she had to find a way to the person she used to be. Not to be her, but to use those skills she had acquired. What I loved about Blackthorn was that she was prickly. She helped people because of the condition set by Conmael not because of the goodness of her heart. The only thing left in her heart was her hunger for vengeance against the man who stole everything from her and never had to answer for any of his crimes. She was prickly with everyone but she wasn’t cruel. When she and Grim first started travelling together, there were ample opportunities for her to turn him away with just a few words but she didn’t. She is a strong woman who paid the price of going against someone far stronger than her and her time in the prison has left her with very deep scars. Her innate distrust leads her to make mistakes but once she realises her fault, she apologises and tries to set things right.
Grim was possibly my favourite character. He was strong and loyal to a fault when it came to Blackthorn. In the beginning, he was certainly the more damaged of the pair but as the story progressed, we saw him become more sure of himself. He spent so long in that prison that he started believing everything the guards called him. He worshipped the ground Blackthorn walked on but he wasn’t afraid to stand up to her when he knew that she was making a mistake. And he also became a source of strength for her, his unwavering and unconditional loyalty helped her more than either of them realised for the longest time. It was heartening to see that in time, they really did become partners, two broken halves who managed to fit well together.
I found Oran very annoying initially but thankfully that opinion didn’t last long. I soon found him to be honest and just with the people under his care. He was kind and gentle, quite unlike what I was expecting. He was also intelligent and valued it in the people working under him. He just wasn’t quite as interesting as Blackthorn or Grim so in that regard he seemed a little lacklustre.
There are a bunch of secondary characters who were also very well conceived and those like, Flidais, Lady Sochla, Emer and Oisin (among others) stood out and were memorable. There is an antagonist here but it is not a simple case of black and white, and that was refreshing (if not particularly satisfying)
The Dreamer’s Pool was an amazing book and it makes me want to read more books by Marillier. Her unhurried style is a refreshing change from the action-packed books that I sometimes tend to read. This book would have worked fine as a stand-alone as well so I am curious where the second book will lead us and I can’t wait to find out more about Blackthorn and Grim.
On a side note, I loved the cover but the woman featured is clearly not Blackthorn (as I originally thought). Having read the book, the only person who looks like that is Lady Flidais and it doesn’t make a lot of sense having her on the cover nor does it fit any context… No idea why this should bother me but it does… Also, how old is Blackthorn? I have vague idea and if I had to guess I’d say that she’s in her mid-thirties. Very random I know…