Book review: The Rose Daughter by Maria Lewis

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

Having the weight of destiny sitting heavily upon your shoulders is not easy for anyone.

But it’s particularly onerous for Dreckly Jones, the protagonist of The Rose Daughter by Maria Lewis, a woman of supernatural origins – her father was an earth elemental and her mother a selkie – who has spent her entire life flying right under the radar and doing her utmost not to be hero.

Well, not the hero that her supernatural cohorts want her to be, anyway.

As the novel moves between past and present – there’s a lot of past to be covered by the way with 140-year-old (ish) Dreckly, who only looks a spritely 44, having lived a lot of life already – we come to understand how Dreckly’s beginnings in a prison and her escape at her father’s self-sacrificial behest have influenced the way in which she has approached her entire life.

All too aware that her start in life and her gifts as an air sprite have painted a great big target on her back as far as the governing body of the supernatural world, the Treize, is concerned, Dreckly has made it a point to live life quietly on the margins and to never stick her head above the parapet, no matter how much somebody might want her to.

But as we all know, life has a way of screwing with what we would like to do, and after Dreckly is approached by dissident supernatural beings who have tired of the Treize’s cruelly authoritarian ways, she has a a big choice to make or does she step up and embrace her destiny?

“‘I’m not a hero,’ Dreckly murmured, not bothering to look up from the passport she was doctoring. ‘So put those heart eyes back in your head.’

‘You are’, the man purred. ‘You’re my hero for this, truly.'” (P. 5)

This might sound like the plot of a thousand other fantasy novels but what distinguishes The Rose Daughter, quite apart from Lewis’ brilliant worldbuilding and undeniable gift for affecting characterisation, is that we get to know Dreckly very, very well throughout the novel and come to understand why this choice is such a hard one for her to make.

Dreckly is such a fully-formed and well-round character that by the story’s end you feel as if you know her intimately – we are privy to the great love affair of her life, her loving if traumatised start in life, her life lived in the place between the supernatural and human worlds, and her talent for artwork and forging that is so sublimely good that no one can tell her creations are not the real thing.

But that is both Dreckly’s great gift and her great curse.

She has spent her life staying low, pretending to be what she is not, and hoping no one really notices because if they do, her relatively happy house of cards will come tumbling down and the life she has built for herself, one based on not being noticed by those with the power to destroy it, will come to nothing.

There is a great trauma at the heart of Jones’ life, and thus at the poignant emotional centre of The Rose Daughter,, a trauma so pronounced and long-lingering that even over a century later, Dreckly is all too aware of its devastating presence.

Maria Lewis (image courtesy official Maria Lewis Twitter account)

One thing that Lewis has always excelled at is infusing humanity into her novels.

They are ripe with what her books’ blurb calls “feisty female heroines”, action aplenty and a propulsive sense of forward momentum that means her narratives rarely idle in place, but even in the midst of the full speed ahead or intense moments, we never lose sight of the people involved.

The Rose Daughter very much reflects the deep humanity of all of Lewis’ novels which insightfully understand that while tales of supernatural creatures beyond our usual view of the world are thrilling and exciting, they will amount to nothing if we don’t love the characters involved.

And you love Dreckly Jones; you really love her because for all her toughness and capability and brazenness willingness to take anything on – as a forger for many supernaturals who is looked after by a motorcycle gang at the Sydney Fish Markets where her boat is moored, she has to be fearless or she’d never get any work done – she is at heart a broken, vulnerable and lonely person, someone who has lost more love than she has held onto and who has found it safer, for a whole host of reasons, to keep people and the full extent of the supernatural world to which she belongs, at a remove from her.

“You’re not a hero, she told herself, yanking the caged doors shut and throwing the lever down to take them upwards. It wasn’t promising at first, but they eventually shuddered towards the top level. The movements were violent enough that they stirred Amos, the selkie groggy as he strained against his confinement.

‘hey, it’s okay,’ she said, leaning over so he could see her face. ‘It’s me. I’ve got you. We’re getting out of her.'” (P. 168)

So, while The Rose Daughter is all about a gathering groundswell of rebellion against the Treize who have forgotten they are in power and what their role really is, and we are caught up in the initial steps that Dreckly and the others take to make their dissension known, it is really all about how one lost and lonely person finally finds her place in the world.

It’s that simple and yet so emotionally powerful.

We are not simply bearing witness to a great and epic series of events, and trust me there are some epic sequences in his brilliantly readable novel, but getting to know the person who sits at their heart and how who she is is going to influence greatly how the rebellion proceeds.

Reading The Rose Daughter you come to fully appreciate why the people in a story matter every bit as much, if not more, that what the narrative is; you can have all the tension, action and movement in the world but if you don’t have a compelling central character who you care about deeply and without reserve, the story will ultimately amount to nothing.

There’s no such issue with The Rose Daughter which is poignant, heartfelt, action-oriented and contemplative and completely its own wondrously involving adventure even while adding superlatively to the world Lewis has created in the Supernatural Sisters series which is as much a celebration of what it means to be human, or really non-human, and gloriously different as it is an epic action tour de force which appears to be heading for the best of all endings.

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