Thursday, June 13, 2013

And Blue Skies From Pain by Stina Leicht

Stina Leicht was one of the first authors that I reviewed and interviewed when starting the blog last summer. Since then she has been generous with her time, contributing not only our original interview, but also a guest post for the Spec. Fic. 101 project, and is currently pitching in on a top secret project that will be coming soon. Needless to say, I think Stina is a wonderful person, and one of the most compassionate, articulate, and intelligent people I've met since my journey as a reviewer began. I waited quite a while, almost a year before diving into her second novel, And Blue Skies From Pain, mainly because I didn't want to review two works from the same author too close together, and then my copy was shelved and I quite literally forgot I had it. I'm kicking myself for that decision now. And Blue Skies From Pain shows not only Leicht's considerable talents as a fantasist but incredible growth as an author as well. Fans of Charles De Lint and Emma Bull are probably well aware of Leicht's The Fey and the Fallen series, but if they aren't, they should waste no time in rectifying that fact.

The publisher's synopsis follows:
Northern Ireland, 1977. Liam Kelly is many things: a former wheelman for the IRA, a one-time political prisoner, the half-breed son of a mystic Fey warrior and a mortal woman, and a troubled young man literally haunted by the ghosts of his past. Liam has turned his back on his land’s bloody sectarian Troubles, but the war isn’t done with him yet, and neither is an older, more mythic battle between the Church and its demonic enemies, the Fallen.

After centuries of misunderstanding and conflict, the Church is on the verge of accepting that the Fey and the Fallen are not the same. But to achieve this historic truce, Liam must prove to the Church’s Inquisitors that he is not a demon, even as he wrestles with his own guilt and confusion, while being hunted by enemies both earthly and unworldly.

A shape-shifter by nature, Liam has a foot in two worlds and it’s driving him mad.

Sequels are frequently dicey affairs, especially when the first novel was so well received. The sophomore slump is a constant fear, but Leicht turns in a remarkable moving and hard charging return to the world of Liam Kelly. The pathos, unflinching realism, and eye for authenticity that permeated Of Blood and Honey are all in attendance here, but in this go around Leicht turns the volume up loud enough to rattle the windows.

Liam Kelly is a hard luck case, make no mistake about it. And from the opening pages, it's obvious that his suffering is just started. Convinced by Father Murphy and his father Bran, Liam agrees to be studied by the Catholic Church in an attempt to prove that the Fey are not one and the same as the demonic Fallen, and should not be targets of the militant arm of the Church as they have been for centuries. But prejudice and politics rear their ugly heads and once again Liam finds himself prisoner and in greater danger from these men of God than he would be out in the turbulent streets of Ireland during the Troubles.

In many ways, Leicht mirrors the real world political strife of 1970's Ireland through her explorations of the inner workings of the Catholic Church as well as the war between the Fey and the Fallen that takes place in the magical world the mystical beings inhabit. This mirroring tactic serves the narrative well, allowing for precious little info dumping and leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusions. Leicht never spoon feeds her readers, confident that they are intelligent enough to put the pieces together.

Liam is a pawn, caught up in a war he doesn't understand and as is his character he bucks the system at every turn. But it's not his conflicts with the Church or even the revolutionary army that he used to be a part of that really drive the narrative. Leicht wisely chooses to focus on the internal conflicts of her main character, not shying away from the damage done to young Liam's psyche by the merry-go-round of loss, grief and shame that has been his life since he was imprisoned in the infamous prison of Long Kesh. There's a lot more pain than blue skies for Liam, but more so than in the first installment, Liam finally decides to take a more active role in deciding his place in the world. He's still stubborn and youthfully foolish, refusing help when he so obviously needs it, but he's growing up, even if it is painful to watch. Leicht doesn't shy away from even Liam's darkest moments and that is the real genius of her writing. Liam is not a collection of words on the page, he is a person with failings, baggage, pains and joys. Through the uncompromising lens of the narrative we get to see them all.

There are more urban fantasy tropes in this volume, with Liam spending time with the Fey away from the real world and the Fallen are much more in evidence. But Leicht handles them with a remarkably light touch, never giving explanations or background the reader doesn't need. We may want it, but the information only serves reader curiosity rather than the story and Leicht wisely doesn't take the bait. The resulting novel has absolutely nothing in common with the throngs of run of the mill urban fantasy offers with a scantily clad woman with a sword, gun, or bullwhip on the cover. And Blue Skies From Pain would be more at home next to the latest Stephen King novel.

With the collapse of Night Shade books, I'm fearful that we may not see any more of The Fey and The Fallen, but am pleased that Leicht closes this novel in a natural place that while leaving readers wanting more allows the story a natural place to rest. Whether or not I ever see Liam Kelly again or not, I will continue to follow Leicht's career with great interest.

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