“Jena,” said Florica, “that frog’s eating my best plum preserve.”
Gogu had escaped the pocket and was approaching the nearest jam dish in very small hops, as if he thought this would go unnoticed. I picked him up as unobtrusively as I could and stuffed him back in the pocket.
“You still have the frog,” commented Cezar, frowning.
I could see he was about to launch into one of his speeches about how unsuitable a frog was as a young lady’s pet: an argument I had no answer for, because I could not explain exactly what Gogu was, only that pet was a woefully inadequate description for my dearest friend and advisor. It seemed a good time to change the subject.
Author: Juliet Marillier
Synopsis: Every full moon for years, Jena and her four sisters have been sneaking through a magic portal to dance with the fairies in the wildwood. Jena takes responsibility for keeping everyone safe, but when older sister Tati falls for one of the strange people there—not, apparently, a safe one—Jena’s difficulties begin. Between Tati pining and cousin Cezar trying to take over the family home in the absence of Jena’s father, for once Jena has more than she can handle. Her frog-friend, Gogu, is her greatest help—but Gogu has his secrets and troubles, too, and he cannot be her frog-friend forever.
Notes: One of the reasons I favor the fantasy genre is for its emphasis on dimensional worldbuilding, and Marillier proved her capabilities from the little note in the front that directs the reader to a short glossary in the back. As a reader, I don’t much care whether the book’s world is real or imaginary as long as it’s tangible, and Marillier’s combined Romania and fairyland set the mood from places like Piscul Dracului (Pis-kul Drah-koo-looy), which means Devil’s Peak, and Tăul Ielelor (Tah-ool Yeh-leh-lor; say aloud for full creepiness effect), which seems to share mythology with the Inferi-infested lake in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and the Dead Marshes in The Lord of the Rings.
Marillier blends several myths and fairy tales to create her story. Notable among them is Transylvanian vampire lore—carefully scrubbed of nearly all suggestions of Bram Stoker’s Dracula—as well as The Twelve Dancing Princesses and The Frog King. The blend is well managed, and thanks to the author’s worldbuilding skills, the tale succeeds better than most at portraying fairy revelry.
Mingled with the otherworldly material is the mostly human conflict between a determined, capable young woman and an unusually power-hungry, domineering young man. Protagonist Jena—I have to admit, it was fun to find a main character who basically shared my name—is neither the eldest nor the most beautiful of the sisters, but she has the intelligence and womanliness to carry her story well. Set against her is cousin Cezar, with whom she shares the memory of his brother Costin’s death. Cezar’s motives are mixed, but his villainy is decided and often irritating in an Umbridgean sort of way.
Any reader who has any experience with fairy tales will know from the beginning that the frog, Gogu, is not only not a frog, but is clearly Jena’s love interest. His character and relationship to his lady fair are thoroughly enjoyable, an exceptional rendering of the Frog Prince/King tale. Both his amphibian side and his human-boy side show themselves vividly to the reader, and he manages to come off as a truly good young man without degenerating into the Hot, Adorably Flawed But A Little Too Perfect And Definitely Unnaturally Romantic Teen Hero (surely there’s a shorter name for that archetype) so common in young adult fiction.
Marillier is a Druid of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, which order seems primarily to emphasize a spirituality of art and nature without establishing any universal form or object of worship. The tale contains no sign of neopagan practice as far as I noticed, and of course I don't know what the author's pantheon and practices are, but her interest in the relationship between humans and the natural world is nicely hinted at in a note about Transylvanian lore in the back. That would probably have been more apparent on reading the book itself had I known beforehand to look for it.
The main themes of the story appear to be trust in self and others, mutual respect, and ‘true love’ of the Princess Bride variety. There are a few hints of Christian ideals, thanks in part to Marillier’s good-faith treatment of Romanian Orthodoxy as part of the characters’ lives, and in part to the simple fact of there being Western fairy tale tropes involved. Mostly, however, it’s just an interesting story of character apotheosis and relationships, set in a place where this world and the Otherworld meet.
As such a story, I loved it. I hope it will be only the first of many Juliet Marillier books I read and enjoy.
Recommendation: Read it for a beautiful, well-imagined Transylvanian fairy story, with quality character development and happy romance.