Sibeal is a young druid-in-training, with the powers of a Seer. Her family has long been of the druidic faith, but no one is sure about Sibeal being a druid because of her extreme youth, only seventeen. So, to ensure her suitability for being a druid that young, she has been sent to Inis Eala, the isle of warriors, where reside members of the raiding pirates once led by Bran, Sibeal's uncle, who left off raiding to marry Sibeal's aunt, Liadan. Now the island is where the warriors who protect Ireland are trained in wielding the new iron weapons, much lighter and easier to swing than those of the past.
Sibeal wants nothing more than to serve out her time and return to the druidic camp known as the Nemetons to take her final vows. But when she and the others witness a horrible accident, a longboat sinking in the middle of the harbor on Inis Eala, they take in the survivors: Knut, Rodan, and Svala, a beautiful woman who is in a dreadful state. Later that day, Sibeal finds another survivor, a man without a name who she finds freezing and nearly dead by the sea. Keeping him alive with her warmth, her cousin Gareth rescues them both, and the man (who Sibeal eventually names Ardal, meaning Great Courage) is taken to the infirmary to heal.
Knut, the only man who can speak some Irish, tells a story of how the boat came to crash and the survivors, claiming that Svala is his wife, and that he doesn't know the name of the man who Sibeal rescued, but that he and four other men had taken a journey on the longship together, and were presumably some sort of scholars, but as a mere crewman, he doesn't know any more about them.
When Ardal comes to, he can't remember his name, but he does feel that Knut is telling a lie. He remembers that one of the men on the ship was his brother, Paul, and that Knut was responsible for Paul's death. As he heals, he begins to remember more, including his real name, Felix, but keeps it secret from everyone, including Sibeal, who he has begun to have feelings for. Especially after Knut comes to him one night when he is still weak and sick and threatens his life if he tells anyone what really happened on the boat.
Slowly recovering, Felix must remember what happened on the fateful voyage on the longboat, including what Knut doesn't want him to remember. And while Sibeal struggles with trying to connect with Svala, she must understand the woman if her and Felix's journey is to have any successful end, and at the same time, she has to deal with the feelings she is developing for Felix, feelings that might put an end to any hopes she has of becoming a druid after all- which will she follow, her heart, or her hopes?
I find myself of two minds about this book. Yes, i loved the prose, which had a very dreamy feel to it, and was almost poetic in its loveliness, but at the same time, not much happens in the book up until about 3/4 of the way through. And while I could see that the story was heading for an action-filled ending, the wait to get to that ending was very annoying. I could forgive the slow startup until about halfway through the book, and then it really started to drag for me. I knew where the story was going, but the endless wait to get there was making me antsy.
And if you liked the slow start, once the story started to move, that felt a bit strange, too. I figured out who Svala had to be long before the book actually got to the island, since tales of Selkies and other creatures that change skins aren't unknown in Celtic myth. Some parts of the solution eluded me, but I found myself out of charity with the waiting, and hoped for a quicker speed up than the book actually gave. I have read Juliet Marilier before, so I wasn't unfamilliar with her style, and I have read her other three Sevenwaters books, so I am not sure why this one gave me so much trouble with its slow unfolding style.
In the end, unless you are someone who has lots of patience with the story, I can't really see myself recommending this book too highly. It's too slow and hangs and drags too much for me to think that people would enjoy the ending after such a long buildup. YMMV, of course.