This is a fairytale, complete with godmothers, evil stepparents and mothers who sacrifice themselves for their children. There are magic potions, volcanos, thieves, mysterious keepers and a faceless enemy always watching. What more can you want? If you want an entertaining, easy read, read this one.
It took me some time to really get into to this book, to become eager to reenter its world after a reading session, to want to spend time with and learn about its characters. The reason is probably that in the beginning the events and world-building feels a unconnected and it becomes difficult to follow the book’s red thread; We meet two old women waiting for a child in modern London, a minister in 18th century Iceland, and a household terrified by its mistress – the story seems to be all over the place. But about one-third through the book I started to understand how the characters, times and locations were connected – they are tied together by a boy called Rafe, whose body has some strange and mysterious powers.
Rafe’s story begins on Iceland on a remote (even by Icelandic standards) farm in the early 19thcentury. On this farm, a community of people lives. They have drunk from a particular pool of water, and now they do not age. Their bodies are unchanging, and although they can be hurt and their bodies can sustain permanent damage, they seemingly cannot die. They seemingly cannot reproduce either. But then Rafe is born. The little redhead is welcomed, but the community know that the child is in great danger from a Danish family, who will go to any measure to become immortal like the community. They have already snatched people to experiment on, and so, for his own safety, Rafe is sent to his mortal relatives in London.
His aunt Clovis and uncle Finn have no idea why they are instructed to pretend to be Rafe’s parents, why his identity must be kept hidden, why the child’s welfare must be reported on to the mysterious man Benedict, or how Clovis’ poor sister in Iceland can afford to pay them a fortune for raising her child. Neither Clovis or Finn want children or especially care about the baby, but they welcome the money. Soon it becomes clear to his adoptive parents, their servants, his two English goodmothers and the local apothecary, that Rafe’s is special. He is doing something to them and their lives will never be the same.
In most fantasy novels, young Rafe would be the main protagonist of the story, as the main character of this fairytale. But he is not. The focus of the novel is how immortality changes the people around him. Some are forced to outlive their spouses, some forced to never be released from oppressive lives and some must endure centuries of longing for love. How many fairytales consider the feelings and amount of work that goes into being a fairy godmother? Rafe’s godmothers, Verity and Connie, love their godson more than anything, and their sole purpose in life as become ensure a happy life for the boy. But this takes a toll on the two women, and when Rafe is cruelly snatched away from them, what is left for them in life?
In addition to the murderous family in Denmark, Clovis is the great villain of the story. She is everything a classic evil stepmother should be! She is vain, manipulative to the extreme, exidingly beautiful, uncaring and willing to do anything, sacrifice anyone, in order to achieve her ambitions. And like many other great villians, there is a tragedy to her personality. She clearly is incredibly clever, but uses her brains to become wealthier and gain more power over the people in her life. She is also lonely, creaves love and does not seem to see how her machinagions are exactly what is preventing her from receiving this love.
Other people are also looking for love, either to be loved or to love. The Lawless sisters, Rafe’s goodmothers, have lost their parents, husbands and sons, and hope for a child to care for and that can give meaning to their lives. The servant girl Wylla hopes for a life without disabuse and constant fear, but she must find her inner strength and love for herself in order to break free (her story arch is probably the most satisfying of them all), and Chinese servant Jonsey hopes for a golden prince that will save him, love him and take him away from the situation he finds himself in.
I am a sucker for immortal characters living through several time periods, so of course I enjoyed this book. It always fascinates me to read about characters that remain through a world that changes almost beyond recognition – and here we see how Rafe and the people in his life reacts to life in London through the centuries, but only in glimpses. I probably would have loved the book more had it dwelt more on the characters’ reactions to technological innovations, societal changes and more about people they meet and must leave behind as they remain unchanged (these story threads are only mentioned in passing). We also never get to meet the Danish family, who is always looming in the background of the main story, and the mystery of the magical pool is never explained either. World-building is one of the most enjoyable parts of reading fantasy, so to create such an elaborate world and then not explore it properly, seems a bit of a waste to me. But that is only my pet peeve – The Parentations is a good read: entertaining, but not too interested solving all of its questions or mysteries.