I won this book through LibraryThing's Member Giveaway, and I've been far too long in getting to it. I blame a Kindle malfunction which wiped out my collections, so that I lost track of it. That's my story, anyway.
The original cover made this look like a bad PNR. It's not. Not bad, not PNR (well, there is what could be called a paranormal element, and there is romance, but – no, it's not a PNR). This is a beautiful, beautiful fairy tale, set in Cymru-that-is – perhaps Wales of old, perhaps not – and playing off any number of old stories without ever locking into "retelling" of any one. It is sensual without being explicit, bardic without resorting to archaisms, funny when it isn't busy breaking your heart. There's a sting in the tale, though.
It begins with the birth of a girl with a startling head of blood-red hair and equally startling green eyes. Her mother does not survive the difficult birth, her father rejects what must because of that coloring be a changeling child, and the midwife, rather sadly, takes her away to leave her by the ocean. Through a sequence of events that tends to confirm that the baby has faery blood, she survives, and lands in the care of a wisewoman, Tesn, who adopts her, names her Áine, and raises her as a daughter and apprentice.
Meanwhile, the twin sons of Brychan, Chief of Llynwg - Idrys and Emyr – never exactly homebodies, get themselves into trouble one evening while hunting deer. They've roved too far from home, and are startled to find themselves following a beautiful woman with blood-red hair and – no, not green, but silver eyes. She is no changeling, this one, and no halfling, but full-blooded faery, with nothing human in her, and she takes a fancy to the handsome princelings. This, as many tales suggest, is rarely a good thing. And so it proves for the boys. She takes them both to her bed, and there they remain, night after night. During the day they are left to their own devices, and despite the pleasant oblivion they find with Seren, during the day they are painfully aware that they are captives, and that their beloved parents must be missing them, and that though just days seem to be passing faery is notorious for running on a different clock: what seems like a week to them might be months outside. The two manage to escape, but she finds them quickly, and punishes their ingratitude with a curse: each twin will spend half his life as a large, black hound, Emyr from sunset to sunrise and Idrys from sunrise to sunset.
By the time Áine comes into their lives, they have seven years in this state – both living as Emyr, with the story going that Idrys was killed on that hunt that left the twins missing for months, the hound being a gift from the hermit who nursed the survivor back to health. Áine slowly falls in love with, she believes, Emyr, who is warm and a little sad during the day, and much more prone to dark moods at night. Because of the special abilities that set her apart, along with some keen observation, she figures out the basics of the situation (the only person to ever do so), and – in love with both aspects of Emyr and so both twins – she looks forward to settling in the village for a time of happiness for all of them. This is almost immediately thwarted when she is presented with the possibility of breaking the curse. And any pain the protagonists experienced before that moment is dwarfed by what follows. It was already clear from her treatment of the twins that Seren is cruel; the four tasks she sets for Áine, to retrieve the components for items needed to break the curse, are evil.
The writing is simply lovely. It manages to blend a contemporary feeling ("Morning," Áine said … "Sleep well, I hope?"…) with a genuine feel of Welsh bardry. The voice is warm and sympathetic, and Áine is a beautifully built character. She was born different, and raised different, and the latter both emphasizes and ameliorates the former; the fear that meets her coloration is balanced by the respect all feel for the healer and wise woman. She is alone in the world but for Tesn, but has learned – she thinks – to accept that. When she meets Emyr – so subtly different at night from how he is during the day – the aloneness begins to look more like loneliness, and things begin to change.
The world of Cymru -that-is is lightly sketched in, with enough color and shape to set off the brilliant characters and not so much as to overwhelm the reader. The humans and fey (and in-between) who populate the land are the focal point, and they're vivid and alive. Even characters who are only seen briefly bring their stories with them – Blodeuedd (who has her own painful tale) is sad and spirited; Bran the Raven King is vivid and kind and wicked, and unfathomable. Seren herself is more of a blank; there is very little more to her than malice and lust – but really, that works. It fits in with an uncomplicated view of Faery as completely lacking in humanity, as completely Other and alien. (Which also helps, a little, with the terrible decision forced onto Áine; I'm still processing that one.)
I'm extremely torn about this book. My feelings fluctuate wildly between that was the only way it could go and I can't believe that happened. It manages to both feel right and to just demoralize me. This is not a children's story, or one of the old stories cleaned up and Disnified into prettiness. What is done, what is required before the end, is horrible. What is gained by it is … suited to Celtic myth, actually. Happily Ever After? I can't answer that, and not just because of spoilers. I loved this book right up until the moment things change irrevocably, and finished it in a sort of numb state; now, writing the long spoiler-filled thoughts below, I'm just a little angry about it. Oddly, I'm not so much angry at Annie Bellet, the author, as I am at Áine. There had to be another way.
Okay, actually I am a little put out with Annie Bellet. There are arcs that begin in this book which are beautifully completed – and others which hang in midair, dangling unfinished. There are threads which could have been woven from the beginning throughout which might have changed the ending. There are guns, in the Chekhov metaphor, which go unfired. (And one small thing: Áine takes a knife from the giant fairy smith, and says "I'll see it returned to you." Was it?)
Would I recommend this (if I recommended books)? I honestly don't know. With Goodreads firmly embedded in my habits now I had five golden stars firmly in mind through most of the read. I can't stress enough how much I enjoyed the writing. But. Big, huge, nasty but.
I definitely want to read more of Annie Bellet's writing. But it's like the fey – beautiful, but I don't know if I can trust it.
There's a bit more, spoiler-filled, on my blog.