Can she save her father’s kingdom from an evil sorceress?
^^ that’s the blurb on the front of this book and while, technically, yes, also ugh no.
Set after the timeline sequel Wise Child but written after, Juniper follows the titular character on the first part of her journey from the spoiled, only child and princess of a local king/chieftain in England in the early days of Christianity to the powerful, peaceful, centered doran we know she becomes. And yes, she has to fight a sorceress who is threatening her father’s kingdom but that’s not the point.
Even the blurb at the back of the book gives equal importance to Juniper’s training and the eventual showdown. It’s as if the publishers thought there was a segment of the market who was put off by the slow, methodical nature of Wise Child and would be willing to read a book that’s ~10% less about churning milk into butter if there was a showdown about 5% more climactic sandwiched before the end. As it were, the actual final showdown is true to the spirit of these books and is much more about Juniper realizing who she is and what she wants than about any fancy footwork.
It’s interesting to come back to this book time and again and see how my views have changed. One of the central conflicts is within Juniper herself (also known as Ninnoc) as she wrestles with what it means to be the only child of a king but a girl (aka not in line to inherit the throne), appreciative of comforts and stability but wary of marriage as the only (stifling) route available to her, or interested in her godmother/mentor’s powers but uncertain of how it relates to her ambitions and desires. Unlike Wise Child, which about the larger societal forces that ‘other’ those who aren’t like us, the witchery in this novel is taken for granted. Of course bathing in clearwater provides protection against evil incantations. But is that what Juniper wants to do? Give up being a righteous, wise ruler for a nomadic existence where she’ll only ever touch the lives of a selected few?
As I grow older and experience more of life, I find myself less and less indignant that Juniper is forced to give up any claim to the throne (both because of her gender [and because her mother does eventually bear a healthy boy child]) and chooses a life of adventure and small comforts instead. Just because they’re small doesn’t make them less worthy. Just because Juniper will only ever help a village at a time doesn’t make her life less meaningful than if she’d become chief of Cornwall. Within the confines of the world she’s in, that she’s choosing at all means that she’s come into her own power and agency. It’s hard to argue that she chooses poorly, either, since we know the life that’s waiting for her.
Spoiler: [All I hope is that she gets to bone Finbar (or whomever, or whomevers) between this novel and Wise Child. For a book that’s all about the cycle of life and appreciating the spirit in everything, I assume that dorans are all about that sex positive life. I imagine Angharad and Euny are long time lovers and friends. Juniper seems very straight, but Trewyn I think has some strong gay vibes as well. ]