I can't tell you how much I've loved the original Sevenwaters trilogy, all of which are still among my favorite books. For that reason I've read most of Marillier's other works, which range from good to mediocre. Seer of Sevenwaters was disappointing, but I hoped it was an outlier: after all, Seer is a middle book and Marillier wrote it during cancer treatment. And I'd been hoping for years for a book about Maeve. As it turns out, Flame is a lot like Seer.
In Flame of Sevenwaters, Maeve--the sister injured in the fire in Child of the Prophecy--returns home after ten years with her aunt and uncle. The first half of the book focuses on Maeve's homecoming, her discomfort in her parents' household and her bonding with a pair of stray dogs. In the second half Maeve journeys into the Otherworld, and we get the conclusion to the Mac Dara plotline begun in Heir to Sevenwaters.
In all fairness, this book does wrap up the dangling plot threads left by the previous two and presents a reasonable end to the story. But even by Marillier standards it takes a long time to get going, and while the action eventually picks up, the plot never grabbed me. Which is symptomatic of a larger problem: the characters. Marillier relies heavily on our previous affection for them, but in this book itself they don't come to life. They're all alike--thoughtful, sensitive, open with their feelings--leaving them a bit flat and recycled rather than real and human. With everyone working hard to anticipate and accommodate each other's feelings, there's little conflict in the first half of the book; and in the second, the Fair Folk play a large role, but don't seem as foreign and menacing as they should because they have all the same behaviors and speech patterns as the humans.
And the humans are all as democratic and considerate with everyone else as if they all lived in a modern hippie commune, even though they're supposedly lords and servants in the 9th century. Their values and interactions scream 21st century, from egalitarian employer/employee-type relationships between masters and servants, to chieftains personally seeking out dependent female relatives and asking deferentially if they might speak with them, to lords and ladies with modern western views of parenthood and who forget their social positions at the drop of a hat. Certainly the original trilogy is set in a medieval Ireland more mythological than realistic, and I loved it, but here the anachronisms are too jarring for me to overlook.
As for Maeve herself, she was mostly disappointing. Again, in fairness, Marillier does a good job handling Maeve's disability: it affects her but doesn't define her, and she works around it without self-pity. Simply having a disabled heroine is great. But there isn't much that does define Maeve--a lot of recycled traits from previous heroines, plus a very modern view of pet ownership. (I might have been more impressed by her courage if she hadn't talked about it constantly; the characters never miss an opportunity to call each other brave.) And the romance: I was eager to see what Marillier would do with a disabled heroine, but the love story comes out of nowhere and is immediately resolved, with none of that slow-burning tension that normally makes her romances so good.
I could go on: about the way we barely see some characters who play important roles here (Cathal for instance), the frequent, self-conscious talk about having "happy endings," Maeve's crucial choice that makes sense only because the alternative would have unfortunate implications for readers (but her decision is bizarre in her actual situation), and so forth. By which I mean Maeve's rejecting out of hand the Fair Folk's offer to fix her hands, claiming that would "be too easy." I fully understand why Marillier has her reject it--because in the real world, you can't "fix" a disability with a wave of the wand, and it would be insulting to real people who face similar challenges to imply that Maeve can only have a happy ending if she has a perfect body. But still, who in Maeve's position wouldn't leap at the chance if it was actually offered? Nobody, that's who.
But here's the crux of the problem. The original books had enough danger and suffering to make the happy parts genuinely meaningful, and were never fluffy. In those books, main characters could be victims of vicious attacks, children were neglected, the heroines were often isolated and in dire situations. Flame lacks that darkness and emotional intensity, leaving it predictable and saccharine.
It saddens me to say this, but I think I'm done with Marillier. Her new books just don't have that old magic. This book has clearly pleased some readers, and if you loved Seer you'll probably love Flame, but for me it was just too much.