A Heart in Sun and Shadow – Annie Bellet

OK, the laptop isn’t 100% – don’t ask – but most of the keys are back on (don’t ask) and I can work around the rest. So here I am, back with a ridiculously long review…Spoiler-free till I give a heads-up. 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.

Don’t let the terrible cover put you off. It looks 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.

a better cover

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.

Spoilers on the other side of the black hound.

For her final task, Áine has to collect the tears of a faery woman in a little bowl and bring them back. She finds the faery – but the woman has been turned into a willow tree, and it appears that the only way to make her cry would be to kill the woman’s three children. The fairy smith Trahaearn had told Áine that there is another way to break a curse: kill the one who did the curing. Unfortunately, in this case, that would require Áine to take Seren’s place in the little house by the lake (the drychpwll), never able to leave. (Seren “cannot stray far … wields great power from there, but her reach in either Cymru is small. If you kill her you would be bound to the drychpwll in her place, immortal but unable to leave her domain.”) And so she has to decide whether to go back and kill Seren, or kill the three innocent children of a woman who never hurt her, or just give up.

I hated the choice Áine had to make; I was shocked at the choice she did make. I kept expecting some third, clever alternative … Saving Bran on the way back from the first task was an act of kindness typical of Áine, something done with no thought of reward, but it was rewarded. Her aid to the giant was done partly to accomplish her goal, but also – mainly, I think – because the sight of the man’s pain was more than she could bear and she had to help him; if this had been rewarded with more than the requested clasps – if, perhaps, Trahaearn had given her a harp that made music of surpassing beauty, and Áine was able to use it to wring tears from the tree-woman, or … anything, really – it would have been fitting. Or if the fairy steed, the March Cann, had had something to do with solving this problem, it would have felt right. Or if there had been some other incidental act of kindness that came back around to her. Or if she had wept at the foot of the willow tree and told the tale of her dilemma – how, especially having danced with the three fairy children, she could never consider killing them, even if it meant that she had to go back and kill Seren and take her place, and this had wrung tears from the fairy woman … I don’t know. I waited for an alternative right up until the moment Áine cut the first child’s throat, and then just kept reading in something of a state of shock.

I think this is the problem, in fact – I was disappointed and taken aback that a touch of reality intruded here, and there was no clever solution. The appearance of a perfectly made fairy tale was so strong up to this point, so well done, and this was so jarring, that while I never considered closing the book – I needed to know the ending – the heart was sucked out of it for me. So much is made throughout the book of a wisewoman’s duties and single oath: To do no harm – and yet here, to break a curse which when you come right down to it wasn’t hurting anyone and which the twins had lived with for years, she is faced with killing either Seren or the children, and decides to kill three children – and three children who had just danced with her and brought her great joy, and nestled up next to her to sleep, trustingly. She killed them in their sleep. I think any alternative would have been better than this. And, too, how could this lead to a happy ending? It can’t. And it doesn’t. Which is also dismaying.

What happens is this: Áine completes the tasks and brings all the components back to Seren, and Seren creates two necklaces. These she gives to Áine with the instruction that they must be put over the heads of the twins at sunset of Midsummer Day as they are about to change. The obstacles to this are that Áine is transformed into an old woman, toothless and mute (and the twins, her loves, will have to recognize her before sunset for her to get her own shape back), and sent back into the real world more than three years after she left to pursue her dream, and on Midsummer Day. She makes it to the village with help, Idrys (in hound form) recognizes her scent, Emyr finally twigs to her identity at the last second, she can’t get to them because one of their men is blocking the crazy old lady and so throws the necklaces; in classic Seven Swans fashion one settles neatly over Emyr’s head, but Idrys’s doesn’t quite connect, and it hits the ground and vanishes. So he will continue to be a hound in the daylight… Oh, and by the way, Áine arrives just as Emyr is about to get married. And neither she nor Idrys can prevent it. And while she’s a smart girl, Emyr’s wife, she won’t have his cursed brother and his faery girlfriend – who also happens to be the beloved of her own husband – around tempting Emyr and scaring off trade opportunities. So: Emyr, married to someone else, Idrys still a part-time hound, and he and Áine – an infanticide three times over – basically banished. Was killing three children worth this ending? Really?

As the main body of the book ends (there is an epilogue), Áine can’t tell them what she had to do to break the curse. She promises to tell later, though – and I simply can’t believe Idrys – or Emyr – would accept it.

In skimming the text for the Welsh names that would not stick in my mind, I was painfully reminded of this:

Trahaearn, on the knife he was commissioned to forge: “It was not until I’d finished that I realized what I’d made. Once sharpened, that knife would be capable of killing any fey. The Wind’s Daughter is petty, her ire easily raised. To give her a weapon such as this, well, I could not agree.”

No more curses, no more hurting.

Needless to say, I would have done things very differently. Clever alternative, as above – or, simply, fine, if she’s going to have to give up being a wisewoman she needs to go kill the evil bitch who cast the curse, and suck it up and take her place. Seren was never closely confined, obviously: she was able to reach out to the twins and ensnare them in the first place. I could see this option going one of two ways: either Áine selflessly gives up her vocation as a wisewoman to kill Seren and then selflessly gives up her claim on the men she loves to take Seren’s place and never see them again – – or she selflessly etc. and kills Seren and gets some kind of message out – through Bran, or through the March Cann, or through Blodeuedd, or something – for the twins to come to her periodically (since Idrys is, literally, dead to the world, maybe he could go live with her?) … I don’t know. Anything but this.

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2 Responses to A Heart in Sun and Shadow – Annie Bellet

  1. Annie Bellet says:

    Thank you for the review (I’m the author).

    There is a second book, titled The Raven King, in this series. It was never meant to be a stand-alone. In the second novel, all those dangling threads and what happens at the end of the first novel are dealt with in one way or another. It should be out in early 2013.

    (And thanks for posting the new cover as well. I much prefer it to the old one :) )

  2. stewartry says:

    Thank you for coming by. I had seen something about this being a series, or duology, but it seemed to be pretty self-contained; I will definitely be on the lookout for The Raven King.

    If nothing else, I think the level of my upset about what happened is a compliment to your writing; if it hadn’t been so good, I wouldn’t have cared.

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