After a lifetime of disappointment—from Jurassic Park 2 to the second season of Heroes—I should be prepared for sequels that don’t live up to the original. But instead I choose to inflate my hopes impossibly high and have all my dreams crushed under the brutal boot of reality later on. Example: The new Star Wars is going to be amazing and finally live up to the legacy of the original and bring the magic of the Millennium Falcon to the next generation.
Which brings me to Tower of Thorns, the second book in Juliet Marillier’s Blackthorn & Grim series. I didn’t have Star-Wars-level expectations for it; I was just hoping it would mimic the first book, Dreamer’s Pool, and give me a well-stuck-together medieval fantasy featuring myths and magic and women doing cool stuff (read my review here). Although Tower of Thorns had some of the same basic ingredients—and some really lovely retold fairytales—it was ultimately weighed down by clunky pacing and predictable plotting.
The gist: Blackthorn and Grim met in the first book as prisoners of a corrupt chieftain. As a condition of her freedom, Blackthorn made an oath to a Magical Elf Dude that she would help those in need and forgo her revenge for seven years. Tower of Thorns begins by presenting Blackthorn with a damsel in distress—a noble woman whose land is terrorized by a monster locked in a tower—and proceeds to shuffle Blackthorn and Grim through a series of plot devices until they solve the mystery and break the curse.
There are a few other things going on, including the resurrection of Grim’s murky past and Blackthorn’s temptation to go seek revenge on her old enemy, but the broad strokes of the book are really that simple. Upon reflection, it might have been that simplicity that made Tower of Thorns feel so slow. I’ve never accused a Marillier book of dragging its feet; they skate from adventure to adventure in a most satisfactory manner. But not here. We spend pages and pages eating breakfast and pondering the same (obvious) clues, following dead ends and denying the inevitability of the plot.
The pacing might also have been a function of the characters themselves. While there’s lots of mention of how observant and clever Blackthorn is, she rarely did more than narrow her eyes when someone did something obviously suspicious. “What is she hiding?” she might wonder to herself, before shrugging and eating her stupid breakfast. Now, obtuseness-as-plot-necessity isn’t an uncommon failing in mysteries, but I couldn’t help but feel someone like Miles Vorkosigan would’ve had the curse broken and monster retrieved within the first two chapters. I prefer to swim in the wake of a clever protagonist, rather than wait for them on the other side, tapping my foot.
The writing itself also suffered. Now, I’m not claiming that Marillier usually achieves great literary heights, but I expect a certain workmanlike clarity of prose to march me through the book without drawing attention to itself. Both the Blackthorn & Grim books are written from alternating first person perspectives. The two voices are largely distinguished through syntax and sentence structure: Grim begins his sentences with verbs (as in: Saw that super suspicious lady today. Wondered what she’s hiding). Grim’s voice can get annoying, sure, but overall it’s a functional system. Except that, towards the end of the book, Grim’s syntax started slinking into Blackthorn’s chapters. Maybe it was an effort to demonstrate the increasing closeness between the characters, but it felt more like simple slop.
These are mostly mechanical flaws, which interrupt the careful suspension of disbelief so necessary for good fantasy writing. But they don’t totally undermine the good stuff. By “good stuff,” I mean the way Marillier weaves old mythological tropes into new fairytales. The central mystery of the book has elements of Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty and a thousand other stories about monsters and curses and transformations. It feels familiar, as if you half-remember the story in a Grimm anthology. And Grim and Blackthorn themselves remain solid characters, unusually old and embittered by experience for the genre.
So, we’re not talking about a Matrix Reloaded level of disappointment here. If you have a deep weakness for medieval fantasies you’ll still find plenty of satisfaction in Tower of Thorns. But don’t get your hopes too high.