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Take 5: Shadowfell, by Juliet Marillier

Kath here. Well, she’s done it again. Fantasy author extraordinaire, and valued WU contributor Juliet Marillier’s next book, SHADOWFELL [1], is the first book in what is sure to become another bestselling series for young adult readers. It releases today with huge buzz, and terrific reviews.

Tough-to-please Kirkus writes [2]:

Marillier’s deep knowledge of folklore and the early-medieval period shine through, but never overwhelm, her latest. In Alban, the Good Folk (widely varied, magical creatures) have occasionally intermingled with humans, and as a result, some humans are “canny.” Canny Neryn can see the Good Folk, which may only be the beginning. But tyrannical King Keldec has turned Alban into a realm of fear and hatred where canny folk are killed or used as weapons. Neryn and her father have fled the king’s Enforcers for years, haunted by their village’s massacre. When a mysterious stranger saves Neryn from her father’s drunken gambling and an Enforcer raid, Neryn finds herself journeying towards Shadowfell, the secret rebel enclave she hopes exists. Neryn’s struggles—to exist day to day, to make peace with the tragedies of her past and the uncertainties of her present and, above all, to grasp and even use her own terrible power—ground this tale. The slightest thread of a blossoming relationship winds throughout, while magic imbues everything but feels real; the Good Folk are other, but not, in this carefully detailed world, fantastic.

Proper fantasy, balanced between epic and personal; this promises to be an engrossing series, with intimations of bigger things ahead.

And Publishers Weekly says [3]:

Marillier presents a classic quest in the high fantasy tradition, but there are no noble warriors to be found in this first book in a planned trilogy. Neryn’s gifts lie in seeing, listening, and asking, and the turning points are marked by belief, not battles. The land of Alban is not a comfortable place, Flint is not a comforting man, and Neryn is up to the challenges of both.

Juliet’s storytelling means this is a not-to-be missed addition to bookshelves. We’re so pleased she’s given us a peek at her writing process and the inspirations behind SHADOWFELL. Enjoy this Take 5 with Juliet Marillier.

Q: What’s the premise of SHADOWFELL? 

Shadowfell is about freedom and rebellion. It’s about having the courage to stand up for what is right even when doing so may cost your life and those of your loved ones. Although the story is set in an imagined version of ancient Scotland, I was writing it at the time of the so-called Arab Spring, when we saw ordinary people rising up against repressive regimes, often at huge personal cost. That undoubtedly influenced me in creating the young freedom fighters of Shadowfell.

Q: What would you like people to know about the story itself? 

The protagonist, Neryn, is fifteen years old. When we meet her she’s destitute, alone and on the run. In the kingdom of Alban, the tyrannical King Keldec has outlawed the use of magic by all but his inner circle, and has banned contact between humankind and the Good Folk, Alban’s fey inhabitants. Neryn has a special gift: the ability to communicate with the Good Folk. This makes her a target for the king’s brutal Enforcers, and she must keep her ability secret. With the help of an enigmatic stranger, Neryn goes in search of Shadowfell and the rebel movement that is rumoured to exist there. For she is beginning to realise she may have a part to play in Keldec’s downfall.

Shadowfell is the first novel in a three part series. It’s a darker, grittier story than my previous books for young adults. Neryn lives in a place where saying one wrong word can mean torture, enslavement or death. She is forced to make some very hard choices.

 Q: What do your characters have to overcome in this story? What challenge do you set before them?

Neryn makes a double journey in Shadowfell. There’s the physical journey, a hard slog across the highlands, often in difficult weather, with the Enforcers always a step behind; and the emotional / psychological journey of coming to terms with what her special gift may mean for the future. A tough choice exists for the characters: can lesser evils be justified for the greater good? How long can a person keep carrying the weight of those acts before something breaks?

As for challenges, Shadowfell is a David and Goliath story – a band of young rebels taking on a powerful and unscrupulous leader who holds almost the entire populace of his kingdom in a state of terrified compliance.

 Q: What unique challenges did this book pose for you, if any? 

Shadowfell is pretty much pure fantasy, without the anchoring in ‘real world’ history that my other novels have. In the past I’ve relied quite strongly on that historical underpinning in my world building; in this book I’ve had to be a lot more inventive. The novel’s physical setting resembles the Scottish highlands, and readers will immediately pick up the Scots flavour once they meet the Good Folk (I couldn’t help myself with these characters, they insisted on talking Scots.) I’ve never considered world building one of my strengths, so I’ve had to work hard on this aspect of the novel. In particular I had to consider systems of magic and how they worked, and to make them appropriate to the setting and purpose. As a writer who is generally far more interested in the characters than the world, I found that a challenge and a learning experience.

 Q: What has been the most rewarding aspect of having written this book?

I’ve loved diving into this new world, and in particular I’ve enjoyed writing a story in which the characters really have to put everything on the line for what they believe in. I’ve relished the opportunity to create the Good Folk and the kingdom of Alban – I have Scots ancestry and it felt in many ways like going home. I’ve recently completed the second book in the Shadowfell series, which takes the characters further along the path to freedom, and I’m starting on the third. I hope people love reading the Shadowfell series as much as I’m enjoying writing it. A note: I’m hoping Shadowfell will work well as a crossover series, with appeal for both young adults (age 13+) and adult fantasy readers.

SHADOWFELL [1] is available now at all booksellers. Thanks for sharing, Juliet!

About [4]

Writer Unboxed began as a collaboration between Therese Walsh [5] and Kathleen Bolton [6] in 2006. Since then the site has grown to include ~50 regular contributors--including bestselling authors and industry leaders--and frequent guests. In 2014, the first Writer Unboxed UnConference (part UNtraditional conference, part intensive craft event, part networking affair) [7] was held in Salem, MA. Learn more about our 2019 event, ESCAPE TO WuNDERLAND, on Eventbrite. [8] In 2016, the Writer Unboxed team published a book with Writer's Digest. AUTHOR IN PROGRESS: A No-Holds-Barred Guide to What It Really Takes to Get Published [9] has been well-received by readers who seek help in overcoming the hurdles faced at every step of the novel-writing process--from setting goals, researching, and drafting to giving and receiving critiques, polishing prose, and seeking publication. James Scott Bell has said of the guide, "Nourishment for the writer's soul and motivation for the writer's heart." You can follow Writer Unboxed on Twitter [10], and join our thriving Facebook community [11].