I’m pleased to see from the reader reaction to my review of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children that the lack of any obvious Welshness about the supposed setting has not marred most people’s enjoyment of the book. I still think it was sloppy work by Riggs, however, and one of the main reasons I think that is because I have a far superior example with which to compare it.
Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht is set in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. Obviously I’m not from there myself, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the voices and settings. The characters could easily be speaking Dublin Irish or Cork Irish and I’d not know the difference. But it is very clear that they are Irish, and that Leicht has made a real attempt to make them so. Indeed, she knows far more about The Troubles than I do, despite the fact that I lived through them, frequently had my commute messed up by bomb threats, and was less than half a mile away when an actual bomb went off (Bishopsgate, 1993). She even went to the effort of finding out what pop songs were popular at the time so she would know what her characters were listening to or whistling. There’s one glaring Willis-ism near the beginning where she assumes that soccer is a summer sport in the UK as it is in America, but apart from that I didn’t notice anything wrong. That’s not to say that there isn’t anything, but it shows that Leicht had made a serious effort to get things right.
Although the book is very clearly about the political unrest and sectarian violence of the 1970s, it is still a fantasy. The central character, Liam Kelly, is a young man from Londonderry who gets caught up in the rioting that leads to the Bloody Sunday massacre, and whose life goes down hill from there. He gets interred and badly treated by the British, his girlfriend gets politically active and decides to study law so she can be like Bernadette Devlin, they marry and move to Belfast where he joins the IRA. You can see that this is not going to end well.
Liam, however, is no ordinary boy. As far as he knows, his father was some bastard who got his mum knocked up when she was young and then ran off, leaving him to be brought up by a family that is ashamed of him, and eventually a step-father who resents him. Only Liam’s mother knows that his father is actually Bran, a lord of the Sídhe. Oh, and Father Murray knows, because one confesses things. Liam’s mum was not to know that the priest was secretly a member of Milites Dei, a covert Catholic organization dedicated to seeking out and killing demons.
My main reaction to the book was that it was carefully researched and powerfully written. The plot hums along, the characters are vivid, the family relationships are well handled, and so on. Given that the book is a debut, it is very impressive. There will, I am sure, be some things about Northern Ireland that Leicht didn’t get right. There will also be people from all over the political spectrum who object to some aspect of her treatment of the politics. It’s a no-win situation for an author taking on such a sensitive subject. Personally, and being no expert on the topic, I was pretty happy with it. We know now that a lot of bad things went on, and that they were by no means restricted to the paramilitaries. Reading about such things helps us maintain an attitude of healthy cynicism to government-sponsored brutality happening today, and that’s very valuable.
Where I felt that the book was lacking was in the fantasy elements. For a long time I thought that the book would have been better to have been entirely realist. Then Leicht went places with Liam that clearly wouldn’t have been possible in such a book, so I can see how she felt that his fairy nature was important. There are good ideas too. The identification of the red-beret-wearing paratroopers with the malevolent red cap goblins was a clever move, I thought. But overall, given the amount of care and attention that had been spent on the real-world aspects of the book, I found the fantasy set-up thin and unconvincing. I’ve read books that mix Christian and Celtic mythologies before, and have done it better. Or perhaps have done it just as well, or poorly, as they did other aspects of the book.
I should note that there is some fairly extreme violence in the book. It’s not graphic, and it is done because it needs to be done, not for entertainment, but its not the sort of cartoon violence you might get in an urban fantasy novel. Leicht needs to make very clear the cycle of brutality and revenge that drives the type of conflict she is writing about.
I’m happy to say that Of Blood and Honey is one of the most impressive debut novels I had read from 2011. I expect to see it turning up in award short lists for that sort of book. And I’m certainly looking forward to what Leicht does next. The only people I’d warn off this book are those who know a lot more about Northern Ireland than I do, those whose have strong political and/or emotional investment in The Troubles, and anyone who is somewhat squeamish about violence. Everyone else, do take a look.
Oh, and various people have been mentioning that Jeremy Lassen of Night Shade is overdue a nomination in Best Editor, Long Form. I’m pretty sure that this is one of his. Night Shade have also published books by Kameron Hurley, Martha Wells and Catherynne M. Valente that I loved in 2011. Please give the man your consideration.