Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Fantastic Firsts: Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht

How to describe Stina Leicht's Of Blood and Honey? Imagine, if you will, a single delicate flower thrusting up from the cracked asphalt of a derelict alley in a war zone. Of Blood and Honey is that flower. Stina Leicht has penned a haunting and complex tale of urban fantasy set in the turbulent time of the Troubles in 1970's Ireland. But this first installment in The Fey and the Fallen series, is not your typical urban fantasy novel. There are no wisecracking detectives with magic crackling from their fingertips or ass kicking heroines with a taste for supernatural sexcapades here at all. Sure, there are fallen angels, fey warriors, shapeshifting, and a secret society operating under the auspices of the Catholic church but even these elements take a backseat to the meat of Leicht's tale. For all the wonderful flavor they add to the telling, it is the heart wrenching story of a young man battling against a world he hardly understands that makes Of Blood and Honey a strong contender for this year's Campbell Award, not the special effects.  

Sorry for the Amazon pic blurb but this was the best image I could find.
Amid the turbulence of violent conflict between the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland, Liam Kelly is becoming a man. Raised by a violent and brooding stepfather and a mother who never speaks of his natural father, Liam seems set adrift in those all too critical years for a boy approaching manhood. When he falls victim to a senseless act of persecution by the British Army and finds himself in prison he finds himself nearly buried under the weight of the sins of his presumably dead father.

Liam's father is Bran, a Fey warrior, who fell in love with Kathleen Kelly many years ago, but abandoned his mortal lover and their child to wage war on the Fallen. These fallen angels were brought into the Fey's lands with the spread of Christianity and the war for dominance had waged ever since. Bran's enemy, the Redcap has sworn retaliation against Bran's loved ones and young Liam is his unwitting victim. Bran may only warn Kathleen about the potential dangers, because of an oath he swore forbidding him from contacting his son. But Kathleen's fear of telling Liam the truth about his heritage leaves her half-breed son exposed and woefully unprepared for what he finds in prison.

While jailed in Kesh, known for its harsh conditions and brutal treatment of Catholic inmates, Liam is singled out by guards in the employ of the Redcap. The harrowing victimization that Liam experiences at their hands awakens Liam's otherworldly heritage. It emerges with a savagery that protects Liam from the immediate danger but is both terrifying and a cold comfort to the demons his prison experience leave behind.

Once he is released from prison, Liam sets out to build a life for himself. His hatred for the British army leads him to join the IRA, which promises steady employment and a chance to avenge himself against the injustices committed against both himself and his neighbors. He finds support through a surprisingly diverse group of fellow IRA members, his new wife Mary Kate, and surprisingly his long time priest Father Murphy, who has known about Liam's true parentage for years.  But Liam's troubles are far from over. The Redcap hasn't given up, and Liam's involvement with the IRA promises its own dangers, and all of those pale to the voice of his primal self that batters at his mind in time of stress. Add in a secret branch of the Catholic church, that has been tracking and watching Liam for years and Leicht has quite the pot boiler on her hands.

Be forewarned. In spite of a premise that seems rife with potential action, Of Blood and Honey is a slow burn If I have any quibble at all with the book it is this. I felt a little cheated that things never seem to quite boil over. But it's a minor quibble, but largely forgettable because the pacing of this novel is pitch perfect and manages to make the lack of a more pronounced crescendo of an ending the only way the tune could possibly end. Something tells me the next novel in the series will more than address this possible criticism.

Now on to the good stuff, and there is lots of that. Since the story is set in setting not so different from our own, Leicht's world building is almost invisible. Better yet, she wrings as much atmosphere as possible out of the setting. From the constant mentions of check points and continuous harassment by the police to the threadbare descriptions of the living spaces of every character we see, we are reminded of how tense and desolate Liam's world can be. The image of Bran appearing from behind a gravestone in the shape of Celtic Cross saves the reader from being taken out of the story with misplaced exposition, using context instead. Even the bits of Gaelic thrown in, add a sense of realism and are well placed so as to merely remind readers of the setting without being the least bit jarring.

The diverse cast is exquisitely drawn with no one-note characters making an appearance. Liam runs the gamut of human experience and emotion, from moments of heartbreaking love to the darkest depths of grief, loss, and despair. Father Murphy is torn between his need to assuage his anger and his conscience. Kathleen has her own regret and guilt as constant companions. Even Liam's criminal cohorts in the IRA are nuanced and sympathetic. The rare exception to this rule are the supernatural elements to the story. Both Bran and the Redcap seem more like forces of nature than anything else.  In contrast, the police and other more mundane threats are shown to be viscerally dangerous and loathsome than anything seen from their supernatural counterparts, serving to point the reader's focus onto the more human heart of the tale.

Leicht handles the fantastic elements in her story with very little exposition. My favorite example of this is the subtle way she conveyed the ill effects of iron on the Fey. Especially when you see it through the experiences of Liam as he navigates the unknown waters of his supernatural parentage. I get a feeling that this series, like George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, may see a slow revelation of more and more magical elements as the series continues. I enjoyed having to keep a keen eye out for clues, since I couldn't just wait for Bran to tell Liam all about the benefits and limits of his Fey blood.

Leicht's prose is sparse yet busting with character with surprising bursts of unexpected imagery. I find that to be my favorite aspect of this excellent novel. Leicht has a strong authorial voice that is part Neil Gaiman and part Cormac McCarthy. An elegant bleakness, not unlike a flower bursting forth from war shattered stone. I'll be anxious for the sequel and the chance to spend a few more hours with Liam Kelly and friends.

1 comment:

  1. This is a powerful book. It is not for the squeamish who want their fey flighty and friendly. It will make you think; it may make you cry; it will not leave you unaffected.

    Cath Brookes
    Time to check Real Thin Brick