Narrator: Natalie Gold, Nick Sullivan, Scott Aiello
Series: Blackthorn and Grim #1
Published by Audible Studios on 11/4/14
An engaging fantasy novel that smoothly incorporates a bit of mystery and a dash of “whodunit,” Dreamer’s Pool broke me out of a listening slump and I found it easy to become invested in the story and characters. Three narrators deftly shift between the three points of view at play and while all bring different strengths in terms of delivery, all three added to the listening experience.
I started my listen of Dreamer’s Pool expecting a pretty traditional fantasy story built on Irish mythology and folklore. My expectations were incorrect and this is one of the rare instances in which that was a good thing. This audiobook struck me as a mix of fantasy and mystery and was far lighter on magical elements than I anticipated. The mystery wasn’t just in terms of the more-than-one “whodunit” plot lines, it was also in the way in which the characters’ backstories were woven into the overall tapestry of the story.
As the story introduces us to Blackthorn and Grim – imprisoned and facing torture or death – events begin their rush forward and it’s only with some skillful weaving of backstory into ongoing events that we begin to learn some of the history of our main characters. Making a bargain with Conmael, a fey nobleman who offers Blackthorn her freedom (for reasons known only to him) in exchange for her agreement to three conditions, the healer and her fellow prisoner—a taciturn giant of a man named Grim—find themselves free and heading to Dalriada where Blackthorn is to set up as a healer and wise-woman.
There, they cross paths with Oran, the Dalriada prince and the future king of the realm. Oran is an intelligent and unexpectedly romantic figure who has agreed to an arranged marriage and is awaiting his future bride in his holding of Winterfalls. With his intended’s arrival in advance of the hand-fasting, though, comes questions the prince needs answers to. Through her work as a healer, Blackthorn and Grim become embroiled in a sordid investigation involving abduction, murder, and arson. Their success with the investigation leads the prince to seek their help solving the greater mystery of his intended bride and Dreamer’s Pool.
Blackthorn is a hardened and bitter woman whose past has taught her to distrust those in authority. She’s sympathetic overall but that consistent core of anger may make her a frustrating protagonist for some. Her character arc isn’t one of self-discovery so much as it is one of re-discovery: how to trust again, how to be among people again, and (I’m projecting to future books here) how to let go of her anger and desire for revenge against the man who wronged her and learn to build a fulfilling life. Her experiences have made her distrustful of men and blind to the truth on some issues. Although (or perhaps because) I was particularly engaged with this book, I reached a point where frustration made me stop listening for almost a full day when Blackthorn took actions based on those bitter influences from her past in that way that we never recognize in ourselves in real life but get so frustrated with in our fictional characters.
Grim’s character arc is the most nebulous of the three—not because it was poorly written or because he was an incomplete character but because the author was able to make him integral to the story while letting Oran and Blackthorn fill out the majority of the gradual weaving of the tale. The story was neatly wrapped up with no cliff-hanger but there are more than enough threads, many of them Grim’s, for me to look forward to the next in the series.
Oran was an unexpected character for me. Part of that is due to how the narrator voiced him, which I’ll get to in a bit, but I found him to be the most complex character of the three. He was an intelligent and fair-minded ruler but relatively young with a streak of romanticism and poetry in his soul that struck me as atypical (in my experience with the genre) for the character who possessed the most agency and secular power in the world-building structure.
There was one significant point of break-down for me and minor spoilers will be necessary in the explanation that follows. Two threads to the story incorporate violence (physical and sexual) against women. While that’s a theme I’m getting a bit weary of personally (at least it wasn’t used to justify character flaws or toughness,) from an historical and world-building standpoint I can understand the placement of it as well as the inclusion of an attitude reminiscent of “she was probably hooking up with a boy already anyway so she got what she deserved.” It did strike me as an odd contrast to Blackthorn’s more modern view in defense of the victim via a clear statement that it didn’t matter if the victim has slept with everyone or no one, rape is rape. That progressive (for the times) attitude then seemed at odds with her later attitude towards a false accusation of rape. Not that Blackthorn the character wouldn’t have logically fell victim to an issue that hit a personal trigger but that the transition was from historically accurate “women as chattel and not deserving control of their bodies” to the very modern “no means no regardless of the victim’s character/dress/etc.” to a muddying false rape accusation. All that likely says more about me as a modern reader that it speaks to a flaw in the writing but it was… disturbing to me.
Overall, the story is, if not fast, then certainly well-paced, both in terms of a smooth and story-appropriate shift in character perspectives as well as in terms of forward momentum in plot. I was wrapped up in the tale and the characters and the narration was an enhancement to the experience of the written word.
All three narrators are skilled and delivered a listen-worthy (vs. a “go with the text” recommendation) experience. Although I have a few specific complaints, the amount of text I dedicate to them below is not at all indicative of their impact on the audiobook as a whole. For all the narrators, character differentiation was always excellent; voicing the opposite sex never sounded forced or unnatural to me, especially when combined with the “here and now” narrative skills of all three; delivery was smooth and corrections were nicely blended with the original tone and dialogue ebbed and flowed with a pretty natural give and take.
In addition to the above high notes, Natalie Gold has a pleasant voice that meshed well with the age and experience of the character. If I had one complaint, it would be that Blackthorn is, as mentioned, a woman whose life experiences have hardened her and while she showed moments of softening, the emotion I pulled from the narration was delivered more consistently from inflection that vocally highlighted the textual emotion rather than from a wholly organic read of the subtext. This was less problematic for me here than in many of my past listens but it had the unfortunate effect of blunting the impact of what should have been some really great moments. When Blackthorn allows her past to color her perspective on everything she had learned up to a critical point, the fact that vocal inflection is a mask rather than a transformation became evident and her anger didn’t translate as betrayal or a bitter pill swallowed whole against the ways in which her new experiences had been wearing down the edges of her past, it was just a slightly amped up version of the anger she’d carried all along.
If I had been asked to describe how Oran sounded, it wouldn’t have been at all what Scott Aiello delivered… so thank goodness I’m not an audiobook director because Oran’s character was complex and that came though nicely in (or perhaps was truly best illuminated because of) the vocal delivery. I’m tempted to break out into an in-depth wine analogy about top notes and subtle undertones but I’ll spare you and boil it down to the fact that in addition to varied cadences that made each of Mr. Aiello’s characters incredibly distinct, his ability to express the wide emotional range that can be crossed not just in a single character but sometimes within the arc of a few sentences made for a very organic and natural feel to Oran as a character.
I imagine voicing Grim came with its own set of challenges for Nick Sullivan; I know it did for me as a listener. With a deep voice for Grim and as a character with very little to say and a tendency to do it in short sentences, Mr. Sullivan had two text-imposed limits that affected how his delivery struck me. Terse sentences combined with the gravelly, lowered voice invariably set up a hard-boiled noir detective vibe at the start of each section from Grim’s point of view. This set up a disconnect between the actual genre/mood and my immediate interpretation. It’s an artifact forced strictly, I would argue, by the translation from text to audio but it was nevertheless a momentary disruption to my ability to wholly immerse myself in the listening experience.
Overall, though, three strong performances. I would listen to more audiobooks by any of these narrators.