Author: Janet Lee Carey
Genre: Fantasy, Historical/Arthurian, Fairy Tales, Young Adult
Publisher: Dial (Penguin)
Publication Date: January 2012
Hardcover: 407 Pages
Wilde Island is not at peace. The kingdom mourns the dead Pendragon king and awaits the return of his heir; the uneasy pact between dragons, fairies, and humans is strained; and the regent is funding a bloodthirsty witch hunt, hoping to rid the island of half-fey maidens.
Tess, daughter of a blacksmith, has visions of the future, but she still doesn’t expect to be accused of witchcraft, forced to flee with her two best friends, or offered shelter by the handsome and enigmatic Garth Huntsman, a warden for Dragonswood…1
Stand alone or series: Can be read as a standalone novel but is actually book 2 of the Wilde Islands chronicles
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: To be honest, the cover seems a little silly, though it is eye catching – what really caught my eye was the review from Kirkus that said of Dragonswood, “A fairy tale for those who have given up on believing in them, but still yearn for happily ever after.” How on earth could I resist that!?
For all seventeen years of her young life, Tess has been certain of just a few things: that her father is a brute that takes out his rage on his wife and daughter with his fists, that she would rather grow old alone or run away to the confines of the forbidden Dragonswood rather than be married off to any man, and that she must never ever reveal her secret ability to see the future in fire. Beyond the beatings, fear and hate Tess has for her father, the blacksmith, her family has also been torn by tragedy – her six baby sisters and brother have all died, consumed by inexplicable illness. Then, when the beautiful and fierce Lady Adela rides into Tess’s small village on a crusade to expose, torture, and punish witches, Tess’s small, unhappy life will be plunged into greater darkness. Tess is accused of being a witch, guilty of killing her family and hexing others, as well as consorting in the Dragonswood with Satan. Though Tess vehemently opposes these charges, she is taken away for terrifying questioning. Under Lady Adela’s cruel torture, Tess betrays the names of her two best friends, Poppy and Meg, confessing that the three of them had gone into the forbidden Dragonswood.
Escaping her own trial by wit and luck, Tess and her friends must now flee their village, before the witch hunter can find them. Under the guise of lepers, the three girls leave their homes and search for help. Then, the women stumble across Garth, a woodward charged with guarding the Dragonswood for the King – and a man that Tess has seen with her firesight. Garth offers sanctuary, but Tess finds it hard to trust in his aid. She knows that Garth is hiding something – what she doesn’t know, however, is that his secret, and her own secrets, will change the course of destiny for the entirety of the Wilde Island Kingdom – human, fay, and dragon alike.
Well…wow. Dragonswood is an amazingly potent novel, with rich imagery, vivid characters, and a refreshing tendency against the obvious. This is a book that could so easily have been a formulaic regurgitation of any number of pale romantic YA fey/fantasy novels on the market – but instead we get a careful, atmospheric novel that has its own happy ever after, but that comes at a price. In many ways Dragonswood is reminiscent of one of my favorite fantasy authors, Juliet Marillier. The Wilde Island kingdom – a subset of Britain (I’m assuming?) – feels very much like the isolated and magical Sevenwaters, where the fey are meddling, fickle with their favor, and utterly dangerous with their own plans and machinations. Like Sevenwaters, Wilde Island has its own potent prophecy that will change everything, though the cost of that prophecy, and the truth of its form, is deceptive. It is this prophecy that is the impetus for the story (though our protagonists hardly realize it); it is this outlawed tale that changes the destined paths of our heroes in Dragonswood.
And truly, what would a tale called Dragonswood be without those eponymous beasts? Fear not, dear readers – here be dragons. And they are wonderful. There is an intricate balance of power between the dragons, the fey, and the humans in this kingdom, and I love how the royal line (the Pendragons, naturally) is descended from dragons and takes on their appearance with scales on some part of their bodies.2 For all that these iconic creatures are very traditional in their appearance and portrayal in this novel, Ms. Carey’s imaginative story and gorgeous writing make these mythologies feel fresh and exciting. In addition to featuring these different characters, there’s also a loose bond to the Arthurian legend, as Merlin, the Pendragon clan, and they fey of lake and wood, all are woven into this book.
As for the characters, I both love and am skeptical regarding protagonist Tess. Something that bothers me intensely in many historical novels is the imposition of very contemporary and learned attitudes. In Tess’s case, she begins the novel with the mindset of someone born a millennia later – she’s fiercely independent, will bow to no man, and yearns to make her own money and way in the world. While of course this is admirable and doubtless there may have been women with these same ambitions in the twelfth century, Tess’s singular defiance of convention feels false. This criticism said, as a heroine I did love that Tess is not infallible – from the opening chapters, she betrays her friends! But her actions are human and understandable, and I loved the genuine passion behind her actions, even when she makes her missteps. As for Garth, he’s also somewhat contemporary and forward thinking for his time, but to a much lesser degree than Tess, and I had no trouble believing in him as a character. Like Tess, Garth is not a perfect person and guilty of any number of understandable faults – his attention to beguiling beauty, his judgmental behavior when he learns of Tess’s betrayal. I love that these two characters are flawed, but ultimately with their hearts in the right place, and I love the way their stories intertwine.
What else can I say about Dragonswood? It is a beautiful, historical fantasy novel that delivers happiness without being saccharine, and introduces a haunting world where myths and legends cling desperately to their slipping power. I loved this book, and it is a shoo-in for my Notable Reads of the year – even possibly a top 10 pick.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the prologue:
I AM SEVEN years old. My father takes me to a witch burning. He runs in close enough to throw sticks in the pyre. The fire roars. The woman, Jane Fine, screams, flames snaking up her gown. Loud cracks of wood or bone. I am crying, choking on the smoke, the burning flesh. Too late Grandfather forces his way in, picks me up, and races back through the mob. I knew Jane Fine. She made pretty candles with flower petals pressed into the sides. They said Jane’s candles blazed with hellfire; that she danced with Satan in Dragonswood. Grandfather holds me close. I weep in his strong arms, bury my head in his cloak. Jane is consumed by fire.
I AM TWELVE years old. I run away, after my father breaks my arm. I creep into Dragonswood, though it is against the law to go there. I have come here before to escape my life, to scale a pine tree and feel the wind. This night I cannot climb; my broken arm is still in a sling. Brilliant shining specks swirl deep in the wood, will-o’-the-wisps fly ahead—tiny fairies, cousins to the ones that are human-sized. I laugh, chasing them. I am filled with a deep longing I have no words for. They dance in magical patterns as I run. In this moment I am free from my raging father, from my mother, who can’t protect either one of us from his anger, from my fettered life in town. I am wild as the fey.
I am laughing. I am crying. The fiery wisps vanish.
I AM SEVENTEEN years old. The sexton is burning a leaf pile in the graveyard. We have come to bury my baby brother, Adam. There are six other graves here, all my baby sisters from years past. My eyes are swollen from crying. I am holding my mother’s hand. I am her only living child. With her other hand, my mother rubs my back. Across the tiny grave my father stands, head down, his first and only son gone to earth. I glare at the midwife whose useless herbs did not save my brother.
Sparks whirl up from the burning leaves. The firelight draws me in. I grow still as still. I cannot feel my mother’s hand. The churchyard fades. All is flame. I know I am being pulled into a fire-sight. I have had visions before. When they come I am transfixed and I cannot look away. In the pulsing blaze I see a man swinging a sword. His body shimmers, green in the flames. I cannot make out his face, all dark shadow in the fire. Light flashes from his sword, cutting bright across my face and chest. I feel the blade’s icy light.
Rating: 8 – Excellent
Reading Next: Dead Reckoning by Mercedes Lackey, Rosemary Edghill, Jane Hodson
Buy the Book:
- Note: I’ve truncated the synopsis intentionally because it gives away a pretty huge spoiler! Not that it isn’t fairly obvious as far as twists go, but still. ↩
- Though, I’ll admit that I wasn’t aware that this actually was book 2 in a series until after reading Dragonswood – and then I found out that book 1 deals with this dragon-human heritage and that backstory. Needless to say, I’ve purchased that book, Dragon’s Keep, and I’ll be diving in very soon. ↩