The Well of Shades begins right where Blade of Fortriu left off; those who haven't read its predecessor should start there. Stylistically, it's much like Blade of Fortriu, and it's a good, entertaining read. There's a new central character, though: Eile the impoverished, angry teenage mother. I never really warmed up to Eile, which partially explains why I was less than delighted with this book. The first two books in this series followed basically the same people, but here our #1 viewpoint character is a girl we've never heard of, whose #1 priority is her 3-year-old child... whom we've also never heard of. Admirable as her devotion to her daughter is, and interesting as it is to see King Bridei's court through the eyes of an outsider (who... doesn't even speak the language...), I was irritated that the focus on Eile & Saraid was at the expense of characters I already cared about. That said, Eile's character development is extremely well-done; no one can say Marillier is afraid to delve into the psychology of battered women, even when the results aren't pretty.
As for the rest of the book....
What I Liked:
Like Blade of Fortriu, The Well of Shades follows several different characters over their own personal story arcs; it does so well, and Marillier handles difficult points of view (Breda, Brother Suibne) skillfully.
There was actually a villainous character with understandable motives... okay, the Widow is hardly the major villain here, but she's a nice break from the random practitioners of mindless cruelty that we see elsewhere. I had some sympathy for her.
There are a handful of little, true-to-life moments that just made me smile, like Eile practicing her Gaelic by discussing the weather with the king's bodyguards and her hilarious conversation with Conor when he still thinks Faolan is a bard.
And there are some great minor characters. Would have liked to see more of many of them (Ferada, the teenage Bedo and Uric, Conor, Liobhan...).
Anyone who's read the Sevenwaters trilogy knows that Marillier is a genius when it comes to writing about families. You find yourself caring about the main characters' relationships with their parents, siblings, uncles, etc. But bizarrely, aside from main characters' relations with their spouses and/or young children, she seems to be avoiding families here. People's reunions with long-lost relatives happen off-stage and leave much to be desired; even Tuala and Broichan's surprising relationship isn't really dealt with on a practical level.
And then there's Faolan's character. Why change what was so good? He was interesting in the first two books, but by the end of this one might as well have changed his name, since he was unrecognizable. It seems like the same end could have been achieved while staying a little more true to character.
There's a plot device one writer I admire calls the "Cliff of Justice", where the set intervenes and kills the villain (i.e. he fortuitously falls off a cliff) at the key moment in order to save the hero from moral quandary. It is always a cop-out; this book is no exception.
Of course, if you read #2, you'll probably read this one no matter what anyone says, and don't get me wrong, it's a well-written book. For me, though, it lacked the emotional resonance of some of Marillier's other work, which was disappointing.