It’s never easy to say farewell to a beloved series and its characters, and the final book in Juliet Marillier’s Blackthorn and Grim saga makes that even more difficult, because – in my opinion – it’s the best and most poignant of the three. Granted, I’ve read some news about the possibility of continuing the series, should the author’s publisher be interested, but for now the stark reality is that there will be no more stories about these two wonderful characters, and I find that quite saddening…
Some time has elapsed after the events of Tower of Thorns, and Blackthorn and Grim have settled a little more comfortably into their new home, even though the ghosts of the past still come to haunt them both, and in this instance they are hard-pressed to keep them at bay since circumstances place the two of them apart for long stretches of time, putting their inner balance to a serious test: Grim has been hired by a neighboring landowner, Master Tóla, to build a special kind of house, and Blackthorn is entrusted with the care of Tóla’s daughter, Cara, a problematic girl which her father wants away from home while the building is in progress, so he foists her with little ceremony on Oran and Flidais’ household.
It’s clear from the beginning that there is more here than meets the eye: Cara exhibits some uncanny abilities – like communing with birds and trees – and suffers greatly the forcible removal from her home, where she is treated like someone precious, indeed, but at the same time as a dim-witted child in need of constant supervision; her inability to express herself properly with some people speaks loudly about a deeper trouble, and it does not take long for the reader to suspect that the heart of it resides in Cara’s own home, since Blackthorn’s gruff ministrations manage to easily bring the girl out of her speech impediment in no time at all.
Just as quickly it becomes evident that Master Tóla is not simply a brusque, unpleasant person, but that he harbors a few secrets: the magical house he wants built on his land, one that requires the use of every kind of available wood to exert its beneficial properties, is not the first Tóla requested. Fifteen years prior he commissioned the work to Bardàn, a talented builder with a little fey blood in his veins, but before completing the assignment the man disappeared from the face of the earth and has returned, as if from the dead, only recently – with maimed hands and an addled mind, but still in possession of the know-how for Tóla’s project. Enters Grim, in his capacity as skilled builder, under Bardàn’s instructions, and also as the wild man’s keeper, since Tóla makes it quite clear he does not trust the poor man, and suffers his presence only out of necessity.
As the past is revealed bit by painstaking bit, we start perceiving the complicated web of lies surrounding Tóla’s domain of Wolf Glen, while both Blackthorn and Grim work to unravel the complex tangle of deception and silence that surrounds the events of fifteen years before. As an added complication, unexpected developments concerning Mathuin of Laois, the cruel chieftain that was their jailer and tormentor, come to light re-awakening Blackthorn’s never-tamed need for vengeance and the pain from the scars on her soul.
Much as this narrative thread stands at the basis of the series, and sees its fruition in this book, Den of Wolves is very much Grim’s story in my opinion: if I loved his character before, I totally fell for him here, where the depths of his soul and the fundamental goodness of his heart come to the fore, belying once and for all the outward appearance of the lumbering simpleton that the shallow-minded use to define him. Once Grim gets to know Bardàn, he sees a man tormented by old ghosts and deep guilt, a man who could be a mirror of his older self and one who needs a helping hand to come out of such darkness. I was deeply touched to see how Grim goes out of his way – and against Tóla’s express orders – to connect to the remaining sane part of Bardàn’s mind and help him find himself again: in a way, Grim is also trying to compensate for the lack of Blackthorn’s presence – the two of them have been helping each other face their nightmares, and having someone else to comfort is vital to the big man’s still-delicate hold on balance. His use of fairy stories as a means of reaching Bardàn is both a poignant choice and the way to show how Grim’s thought processes work, how he can perceive the bigger picture and its implications:
Tales from prisoners and down-trodden women and ordinary working folk. Like a lot of threads, frayed and weak, they might be woven into something big and strong and beautiful. And powerful.
Blackthorn, on the other hand, appears as her crusty old self – not that I want to complain about that, I love her exactly for that reason, because she breaks out of the usual mold for the genre’s heroines – but at the same time she has become more thoughtful, more settled: where at the beginning she was so consumed with the need for vengeance that she did not care about consequences, both for herself or others, she is now able, and willing, to consider those consequences and to adjust her needs accordingly. Where the pain of her loss made her self-centered and blind to the needs of other people, she has learned to look beyond herself and to accept self-sacrifice for the good of those she cares about. That’s the main reason the resolution of the past injustices feels fully earned and right, even more so thanks to Grim’s encouragement and blessing given with a short sentence that summed up their past history and moved me beyond words even more than any other emotional circumstance:
“Go on, Lady. Do it for all of us.”
These three books have managed to turn me into a huge fan of Juliet Marillier, and I look forward to reading more of her works: I don’t know if they will be as engaging as Blackthorn and Grim’s volumes have been, but I know that her writing will ensnare me once more into her wonderful worlds, and I believe that will be enough.