Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Review: Melissa Marr, Darkest Mercy (HarperCollins, 2011)

This review begins rather anecdotally. A few years ago, when I was in the first year of my PhD and had just turned my attention to fairies in medieval romance, I bought a book on a whim. The book, which was shelved next to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, was called Wicked Lovely and the blurb on the back read:
“Rule #3 Don’t stare at invisible faeries.
Rule #2 Don’t speak to invisible faeries.
Rule #1 Don’t ever attract their attention.”

I was (reasonably) intrigued by this, and by the funky cover, so I decided to buy it.

I didn’t expect too much of the book. I thought that modern fairies would probably be saccharine, Disney-inspired creations. I had no experience of reading urban fantasy, and assumed it would be a sort of cross between sci-fi and high fantasy. Hard as this might be to believe, I was also dubious about reading a book aimed at young adults. I hadn’t read a book aimed at teenagers since I was 12, and I’m pretty sure that was Sweet Valley High. Still, I decided to give it a go.

I took Wicked Lovely to a festival, so I had something to read in my tent when the weather was bad. It might sound corny, but I really wasn’t prepared for the impact that book would have on both my reading habits and my career. Suffice to say, I didn’t leave my tent much at the festival, and I’ve been hooked on YA urban fantasy since. By the time I came home, I was determined to read (and write) much more YA fantasy.

Since then, I’ve completed a manuscript of my own YA novel, and begun work on the sequel. I’ve also written several articles on YA, including one piece on Marr’s fiction, and written numerous blog posts and reviews of new YA releases. During this time, Marr has published four more titles in the Wicked Lovely series, as well as number of graphic novels and audiobooks in the series. Where Wicked Lovely began by telling the story of Aislinn, a high school stalked by the Summer King Keenan, the subsequent books in the series (Ink Exchange, Fragile Eternity, Radiant Shadows and Darkest Mercy) introduced a whole world of characters and fairy courts: Niall, Irial and the Hounds of the Dark Court; Sorcha, the embodiment of Order, and her twin sister Bananach; Aislinn’s once-mortal boyfriend Seth and close friend Leslie; and Donia, the Winter Girl of Wicked Lovely transformed into the powerful regent of Winter.

Marr’s fairies – like those of Holly Black – are very much in the medieval (rather than the Victorian) mode. They are callous, haughty, cruel – but also seductive, attractive and joyful. They are bound by an inability to lie, loyalty to their courts and centuries-old vows and oaths. Marr consistently follows Celtic (mostly Scottish and Irish) traditions, bringing to life some of the darker beings of folklore (the Ly Ergs and the Gancanagh, for instance), alongside original creations (like the Dark Court’s use of tattoo-spells to bind them to mortals). In addition to this, Marr’s characterization is well-observed and compelling – it is easy to have sympathy for all her characters, despite their marked differences and occasional ‘wrong’ behaviour.

And now, with the release of Darkest Mercy, the series comes to a close – with a climactic finale that brings the stories of all the characters to a (mostly) satisfying endpoint.

Darkest Mercy begins immediately after the events of Radiant Shadows. Bananach has attacked the Dark Court, leaving Irial injured and the daughter of the Hound Gabriel dead. A new court, the Shadow Court, has been formed, and the veil to Faeries has been sealed. The various regents – Keenan, Aislinn, Donia and Niall – are all suffering various turmoils, and no-one truly knows how to deal with War (as Bananach is known).

As a series finale, Darkest Mercy ticks a lot of boxes. It resolves a number of the plot-threads that have run through the series. For example, since Book One, the love triangle between Aislinn, Seth and Keenan has been a constant problem, only made worse when Keenan began a relationship with Donia. This storyline, I would say out of all of them, comes to a satisfying conclusion in the final book. (The epilogue of Darkest Mercy is a very clever piece of writing, and will definitely make fans of the series smile.)

The book also offers some development of what has gone before, particularly in its further exploration of the relationship between Irial and Niall. Antagonists in Ink Exchange, these two fairies have been intertwined since the second book. Darkest Mercy offers us more of their history, which is both heart-breaking and heart-warming. The final hint of the resolution of the Niall-Irial-Leslie triangle (which has always been so much more complicated and, in my opinion, more moving than the Aislinn-Keenan-Seth storyline) is a nice, and rather brave, touch to this YA fantasy.

The fifth book still holds some new introductions though. After the events of Radiant Shadows, Keenan seeks support from fairies not attached to any of the courts. These fairies, though only making a brief appearance in the novel, are fantastic creations, and reminded me of why I am such a fan of Marr’s writing. And it was nice to finally meet Far Dorcha – the Dark Man who has previously only been spoken of.

Reflecting on the series as a whole, it should be noted that Darkest Mercy is the endpoint of a gradual shift in the focus of the series. While Wicked Lovely and Ink Exchange were very much urban fantasy, telling the story of ‘ordinary’ girls with one foot in the ‘real’ world and one (reluctant) foot in the supernatural, the subsequent books have focused more and more on Faerie. By Darkest Mercy, there is almost no mention of the ‘real’ world. Aislinn, the mortal girl with ‘Sight’ is now a powerful fairy embodiment of Summer; Leslie, who ended her book leaving her supernatural lovers and going to college, is now brought back into the otherworld. The only mortals who are mentioned in this final book are hapless bystanders, shielded from fairy conflict by Donia’s winter fey.

This is not necessarily a criticism, as Marr’s fairy world always seems to be grounded by the ‘modern’ and ‘human’ behaviours, mannerisms and language of its inhabitants. However, this shift made me realize how far the story had come, and how much the central characters have given up during their stories.

As a writer of YA fiction, Marr has always impressed me with her focus on the ‘adult’, rather than the ‘young’. While her books are more than suitable (and recommended) for teenage readers, they do not feel constrained or condescending. Marr tackles ‘difficult’ questions of death, addiction (to fairy love, if not to drugs or alcohol) and sexuality with a light touch. Her treatment of sex and sexual relationships is particularly striking, as her characters inhabit a range of identities (heterosexual, bisexual, polygamous and androgynous) without any heavy-handed moralizing or imposition of heteronormativity. I’d suggest that the only other YA writer who is comparable to Marr in this respect is Holly Black.

I am sad to say goodbye to the Wicked Lovely series. Darkest Mercy was a more than suitable farewell to characters I have come to love, and I suppose the good thing about books is that I can always read them again! My only criticism would be that not all the characters got to be a part of the finale. Some (Sorcha, Devlin, Ani and Rae) were notable by their absence. Still, this fills me with a little bit of optimism… maybe, one day, Marr will revisit those characters, and we’ll find out that the story isn’t quite finished.

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