Award-winning epic fantasy author and WU contributor Juliet Marillier’s latest book, The Well of Shades, is being released today in the U.S. (it has already been released in Australia and the U.K.). Juliet’s books are an auto-buy for me thanks to her imaginative plotting, graceful wordsmithing and meaty characterizations. Though we’ve already had a thorough interview with Juliet, I wanted to know more about The Well of Shades in particular and thought you might like to as well. Lucky for us she agreed to this Quick Five interview, including a juicy excerpt. Enjoy!
Q: What’s the premise of your new book?
JM: That people can learn wisdom by recognising their own strengths and (more importantly) weaknesses. The Well of Shades is also about love in its many forms (mother and daughter, siblings, grandparent and grandchild, mentor and student, husband and wife, priest and deity, as well as romantic passion.) I hope the story illustrates that, although love can inflict terrible hurt, it is also the most powerful source of healing.
Q: What would you like people to know about the story itself?
JM: The Well of Shades is the third book in The Bridei Chronicles, which began with The Dark Mirror and continued in Blade of Fortriu. This book centres on two damaged protagonists, the king’s assassin and spy, Faolan, and a young woman named Eile. Interwoven with the dark personal journeys of these two is the diary of an Irish monk who is accompanying St Columba on his missionary journey to the Pictish kingdom of Fortriu. While awaiting these Christians, King Bridei faces unrest in his own court. An old ally has turned against him; his wise advisor has gone missing; and a young kinswoman is wreaking havoc. All threads of the story centre on issues of love, loyalty and trust.
Q: What do your characters have to overcome in this story? What challenge do you set before them?
JM: The principal obstacle characters must overcome is the weight of the past. The title The Well of Shades refers not only to an actual well, but also to the burdens people carry because of wrongs they’ve done or had done to them, especially within the family. As a result of past trauma, Eile cannot trust anyone. The intensely private Faolan carries a burden of guilt that cripples him emotionally. Other characters face their own demons as their paths converge towards Bridei’s court and a final weaving together of the story’s threads. Although this will be classified as historical fantasy, it’s primarily a story about family relationships.
Q: What unique challenges did it pose for you, if any?
JM: Writing dialogue for two and three year olds!
Q: What has been the most rewarding aspect of having written this book?
JM: The cast of characters for The Well of Shades ranges from two year old Derelei, son of Bridei, to the wise woman, Fola, who is around my age (that’s ancient by sixth century standards!) This is the first book in which I’ve included interactions and relationships over such a wide age range, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the depth this added to the storytelling.
And here, an excerpt from The Well of Shades.
As he came up to the doorway, he had the eerie sense again of an unseen presence behind him. Not being a man much given to superstitious fears, he turned calmly, reaching for his knife as the grey form of the emaciated dog came into view, slinking low, ears laid back in anticipation of a blow, coat bedraggled. It had followed him all the way.
‘If I had a crust on me, I’d give it to you,’ Faolan murmured, slipping the knife back in his belt. ‘But I’m all out of provisions. It wasn’t worth your while.’ He drew a deep breath. There was a dim light inside the small dwelling; someone was home. And he had the worst kind of news to give them, news that would be hard both in the telling and the hearing. Ah, well; best get this over with.
He lifted a hand to knock on the door frame; only a strip of stained felt covered the entry. An instant later, the tines of a pitchfork were a handspan from his eyes.
‘Get out, or I’ll push this through your head!’ snarled someone, and the thing jerked forward.
Faolan’s knife was in his hand again. He calculated the position of the speaker’s arms and shoulders as he replied. ‘I’m a friend. I mean no harm.’
‘Friend, huh! I know that trick. Now get out or I’ll set the dogs on you!’
Faolan did not look behind him. The cur that had tailed him from the settlement was silent; if there were indeed dogs within, they did not seem to be causing it concern. ‘Are you Anda?’ he ventured. ‘I’m seeking a woman of that name. I’m a friend of her brother’s. I’ve come a long way to speak with her.’
There was a silence. The dog came up to the door, stationing itself beside Faolan, ready for admittance. The pitchfork wavered.
‘It is the truth. I mean no harm to anyone here. My name is Faolan.’
‘Never heard of you. He never said anything about you.’ The felt curtain moved a fraction away from the door frame, and Faolan found himself looking down into a face that was angry, scared and much younger than he expected. Green eyes blazed defiance against grubby pale skin. He revised his guess. This was not much more than a child.
‘Is your mother home?’
‘A reasonable question under the circumstances. It’s very wet out here. We’re getting soaked. Do you think you could put that thing away?’
‘We’re getting soaked? You and who else?’ The pitchfork was back in his face. For such a small boy–girl?–the wielder was exceptionally strong.
‘Me and the dog. I’d introduce you, but I don’t know his name.’
The curtain twitched further. The green eyes looked down and the dog looked up, mangy tail wagging. The curtain came aside at the base, aided by a foot, and the dog slipped into the house. Faolan made to follow, and the girl–he had seen the long, unkempt hair tied back with string–spoke again. ‘Not you. You’re a liar. Deord went away. He never came back. Why would he send you?’
Because he was dying, and could not say goodbye. ‘What I have to tell is for his close kin,’ Faolan said levelly. ‘When will Anda be home?’
‘Soon. Any time now.’
‘Then might I come in and wait?’
‘No. Take one step and I’ll whistle for my big brothers. They’ll make you wish you’d never been born. Go home. Go back where you came from.’
‘I do have news. She’ll want to hear it.’
‘Go away and take your poxy news with you. If he’s not coming back, he needn’t think sending his friends here with messages is going to make up for it.’
Faolan was thinking hard, but he could not place this girl anywhere in what he knew of Deord. The sister’s child? She did not speak as a serving girl would. There was something there that curbed his tongue; he saw the longing in her eyes, for all the furious words.
‘I won’t hurt you,’ he said. ‘I give you my word.’
‘You’d be better to give me your weapons,’ the girl snapped.
‘That’s before or after you set the dogs and the brothers on me?’ he queried, and instantly regretted it. Her small features tightened; there was a look on her face that sat ill in one so young, the look of a person who is accustomed to betrayal. He could not quite judge her age, but she was surely no more than thirteen or fourteen. An image of Áine came to him, and he willed it away.
‘Don’t you dare mock me!’ the girl hissed. ‘I know how to use this and I’ll do it. You’d better believe that. Now go. I’ll tell her you came. When she gets back. Aunt Anda, I mean.’ Then, seeing some change in his face, ‘What?’
Let this not be. Let me not have to tell her now, alone, at night. ‘Forgive me,’ Faolan said, ‘but does that mean you are Deord’s daughter?’ And, before she could reply, he saw that it must indeed be so; it was in the square stance, the hard grip on the too-large weapon, the way she held her head, proudly for all the filth and the fear. Deord had never spoken of a wife, of children. Only the sister. Gods, this girl must have been the merest infant when her father went into Breakstone. She would have been five or six, perhaps, when he came home and lasted only a season. ‘Is your mother still living?’
‘None of your business, but yes, that poxy wretch is my father and no, she’s not. He broke her heart. She strung herself up from one of those oaks out there. When you go back to wherever he is, you can tell him that.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Faolan said inadequately. ‘Is there nobody home but you?’
‘If you think I’m going to answer that, you’re even stupider than you look. Go back to the settlement. I’m not letting you in.’ And, as he turned away, ‘What is this news anyway? Tell me.’ He heard it again in her voice, a trembling eagerness she was fighting hard to hide. His heart clenched tight. He had viewed this as the easiest of his three missions. At this moment he would have given much not to have to reply. ‘Go on, tell me,’ she said. ‘Just say it. He’s not coming home, is he?’
Go back to Brennan’s, Faolan told himself. Wait for morning. See the sister alone and tell her first, not this quivering bundle of defiance and need. You can’t tell her, not here, not now.
‘Tell me the truth!’ she commanded, and in that moment he saw Deord’s face, dying, and the strength in the lone warrior’s eyes.
‘It’s not something I’m willing to say out here,’ he told her. ‘You need to be inside, sitting down. Here, take my knife. Hold onto that if you must have a weapon. Just put away the pitchfork. If it helps, you might notice the dog seems to trust me. Dogs are astute judges of character. Is he yours?’
She had paled at this speech; the girl wasn’t stupid. Now she leaned the fork against the wall and backed into the house, holding Faolan’s knife in front of her, point aimed accurately at his heart. ‘Sit there and don’t move. Now tell me.’
‘You should sit down. What is your name?’
‘Eile. I’ll stand. Just say it, will you? What? He’s not coming? Could have guessed that. He’s hurt? Not much I can do about that, since he never bothered to let me know where he was …’ She faltered to a halt, eyes on Faolan’s face. ‘Just tell me. Please.’ She sat down abruptly, and the dog came to stand by her. It was hard to say which was the more pathetic specimen; both were dishevelled and looked half-starved. The fire in the rudimentary hearth was barely alight, the wood basket near empty. Faolan could see no sign of food or drink in the place, just empty crocks on a shelf and a bucket of water.
He cleared his throat. ‘It’s bad news, I’m afraid. I had hoped to tell your aunt first.’
She waited, utterly still.
‘Deord–your father–I’m afraid he’s dead.’
Want more? Of course you do! Retailers nationwide will be stocking her book, or you can buy it at Amazon.com HERE. ENJOY!