This book was a pleasure to read.
This review was originally posted by me on Goodreads and has been edited for clarity. The book is by Gregory Maguire, the author of Wicked, and is part of the same universe. It is the first book by Maguire that I have read. I gave it four stars.
The prose is almost like poetry, but not purple. Not hard to plough through; it draws you through. The psychology is amazing. So is the portrayal of a sort of ancient-Greece-based world. I picked up this book for the brides, who are sort of like pagan nuns (Vestal Virgins?) living all alone on a remote island, performing bloodletting and weaving rituals in order to guard a sacred artifact.
Every morning, the “brides,” who range in age from ten to about eighty, troop down to the seaside where they use sawgrass to cut crosshatched lines into the soles of their feet. Then they sit with their injured feet in the salt water and tie seaweed into a net. This ritual supposedly “weaves time” so that the world can go on. The brides are almost entirely self-sufficient, keeping gardens, goats, chickens, and an orchard. None of them have ever seen the mainland. They are brought to their island, called Maracoor Spot, as babies. There are always seven brides, so whenever one dies, a baby is brought to replace her.
The way Maguire introduces all this information is magical, as if he were weaving a spell. There are lyrical (but not sappy) descriptions of the island’s weather, the sea, the rain, the clouds, interspersed with descriptions of the brides’ suffering at their morning ritual. This slowly expands to show us their names, ages, personalities, and daily routines. They sleep in the outer part of a small marble temple, the inner room of which houses the terrifying artifact.
By the time Maguire was finished showing us the brides and their way of life, I was hooked. I knew I was going to finish this book.
The moral lessons, at least to which the story seemed to be heading, weren’t ones I could completely get on board with, however. So now let’s to spoiler town (though I should add that there are vast swathes of this book I haven’t addressed, so this is not a complete spoiler).
Rain, who seems to be the character we are most supposed to identify with considering that she is the one who comes from a beloved earlier series, makes the argument that Acaciana (“Cossy”) can’t be tried for murder because she is a 10-year-old child who has been raised in the very restricted environment as a Bride of Maracoor, not having a natural family, not having been given any chance to develop a conscience. She argues that the whole setup with the brides living on an island and ritually mutilating themselves every day, in service of the country’s religion, is inherently unjust and oppressive, and thus Cossy can’t be expected to know right from wrong.
It’s true that there are some troubling things about the “brides,” who are brought to the island as foundling babies and know no other life, being deprived of the chance to marry and have families and live in normal society. However, I can’t tell if this is a critique of ancient pagan customs such as the Vestal Virgins, or of there being traditions or religion at all. Obviously some religious customs are more oppressive than others. The brides are better off on Maracoor than if they had been made into temple prostitutes, for example.
It’s also not entirely true that Cossy was raised without any family at all. Cossy had a grandmother figure in Helia, who did some significant parenting, both good and bad. She had a sister in Scyrilla, and aunts in the other brides. Though there are only seven of them, the brides form a definite human society, with all the benefits and problems that come with that.
This raises the other point that Rain overlooks: no one gets to choose what family, society, or social station they are born into. The brides’ life might be more restricted than most people’s, but no one’s life is completely unrestricted. No one has infinite choices, and everyone has obligations placed upon them that they didn’t choose and don’t at first fully understand. These can be just or unjust, and we can argue that on the merits. But we should remember that they are not unjust simply because they are restrictions, obligations, and unchosen. Since the brides are all foundlings, we can assume that if they had not been brought to the island of Maracoor Spot, they would have either died of exposure (the fate of so many unwanted Greek and Roman babies), or been raised in some kind of institutional environment like an orphanage, where their lives would have been just as restricted, but without any sacred purpose.
Actually, I happen to agree that Cossy isn’t entirely responsible for the murder she committed, but it’s not because she was raised in an odd, isolated environment. It’s because Helia, her beloved grandmother figure, implicitly encouraged her to do it, told her exactly how to do it, and almost physically walked her through the steps. Helia is morally responsible, not only for the death, but also for taking an impressionable ten-year-old girl who is curious about death and making her into a murderer … and then throwing her under the bus. I don’t blame “the system,” I blame Helia.
That said, you can’t argue that Cossy absolutely did not know right from wrong or that she was in no way responsible. Witness how she falls apart after the death. She knows that she has done a terrible thing from which there is no going back. If she herself had not really committed murder, thus really changing her own character, then what Helia did to her would not have been such a terrible thing.
This book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. There are lots of unanswered questions, such as the nature and fate of the Hammer of Mara, whether Maracoor is going to continue sliding into paranormal chaos, and whether Rain is going to get back to Oz. For me, there are also unanswered questions about Rain’s back story, though I suppose those answers are already known to faithful readers of Maguire’s previous books.