The Dark Mirror and Blade of Fortriu are the first two books in Juliet Marillier’s Bridei Chronicles. In The Dark Mirror we see the rise to kingship of Bridei, a 6th Century Pict as well as his relationship with Tuala, his half-human foster-sister, and in Blade of Fortriu two of the minor characters from Mirror, Ana and Faolan take center stage in a story that mostly develops their own backgrounds and futures, with one of Bridei’s significant battles forming a secondary backdrop story.
These stories are based on real historical characters (e.g. Bridei I of the Picts), with more overt magic than stories like Stewarts’s Merlin stories, but still maintaining a generally realistic feel. This is a form of historical fiction that I particularly enjoy, although not knowing much about the history of the Picts the relationship to real history mostly passed me by.
The central characters of The Dark Mirror are compelling enough that I enjoyed the novel, although the outcome is never really in doubt to the reader, and of little doubt to most of the characters too. The story never truly captivated me, however, and felt slightly rushed at times, moving quickly from age to age. The quirky cast of characters that educate Bridei as a child were all interesting, but none very fleshed out (I got the impression that they might be recognisable characters from Pictish history, but I wasn’t able to verify this).
I expected more of Bridei (especially given the name of the series) and Tuala in Blade of Fortriu, although Marillier’s sequels often leave behind the central characters of the previous stories. Bridei and Tuala do feature, but are decidedly minor characters. I found the story of Ana and Faolan less interesting, with Ana’s development particularly dull (although the characters note how much she has changed, I didn’t see much change at all), and Faolan’s background less interesting than Mirror suggested it might be.
A love triangle features strongly in Blade; I don’t have any objection to this trope in general, but it wasn’t well done here. Other than his magical nature and exceptional good looks, there was nothing appealing about Ana’s other beau, even though it was obvious throughout that she would end up with him, rather than Faolan. Perhaps there’s some sort of redemption and superior love waiting for Faolan in a later book (the end of the story suggests that he might feature centrally in a later novel in the series), but I was rather unsatisfied that he came out of the triangle so poorly.
I’d recommend reading The Dark Mirror, at least – it works well as a standalone novel – and would recommend Blade of Fortriu to anyone that enjoyed Mirror. However, if you’re new to Marillier, I’d suggest starting with the superior Wolfskin/Foxmask or the Sevenwaters novels.