Fionn: Defence of Rath Badhma, by Brian O’Sullivan

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Rating – 7/10
Author’s website
Publication date – February 18, 2014

Summary: Ireland: 192 A.D. A time of strife and treachery. Political ambition and inter-tribal conflict has set the country on edge, testing the strength of long-established alliances.

Following their victory over Clann Baoiscne at the battle of Cnucha, Clann Morna are hungry for power. Meanwhile, a mysterious war party roams the ‘Great Wild’ and a ruthless magician is intent on murder.

In the secluded valley of Glenn Ceo, disgraced druid Bodhmall and her lover Liath Luachra have successfully avoided the bloodshed for many years. Now, the arrival of a pregnant refugee threatens the peace they have created together.

Based on the ancient Fenian Cycle texts, the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series recounts the fascinating and pulse-pounding tale of the birth and adventures of Ireland’s greatest hero, Fionn mac Cumhaill.

Review: I’ve read a couple of different stories now about this legendary hero, whose name goes through a different spelling just about every time (Fionn mac Cumhaill, Finn MacCool, it’s all good…) Every story puts their own twist on the tale, whether going for accurate retelling or modern interpretation, and honestly, this is something that can make a story straddle that fine line between fresh and stale. You can only hear the same story told so many times, however many little differences there might be, before you grow tired of the story. However, it’s the little differences, or sometimes big ones, that can make a retelling worth listening to, to see how it differs from old narratives and to see what it brings to the table.

Fionn tells the beginning of the story, with the birth of the great Irish hero, and the events that surrounded that birth. Mostly the surrounding events, really; aside from being born, the son of Cumhail doesn’t really do anything here. We start off seeing his mother, still pregnant, fleeing from her enemies, making her way to Rath Bladhma, where her ex-husband’s sister lives. Bodhmhall, a druid capable of premonition and sensing the life energies of things, reluctantly takes her in, giving her shelter and limited peace to birth her baby, whose life blazes brightly; Bodhmhall foresees that this baby will be great, but aside from that we don’t really get any indication of destiny or what have you. Yes, a war party and a Tainted One are hunting down Muirne Munchaem and her baby, but there’s only speculation as to why, and the reasons could be political as much as they could be supernatural.

Fionn is one of those historical fantasies where the fantasy aspect rarely comes into play. Bodhmhall’s powers and the presence of the Tainted One are pretty much the limit of fantasy elements, and those are incorporated in such small ways that you could remove them entirely and the story wouldn’t really change. If the reader is unfamiliar with any of the stories of Ireland’s great hero, they might be left wondering what this is really all about. A woman flees her old home for her own reasons, seeks refuge elsewhere, and then a wandering war party attacks the settlement where she took refuge. Fionn could be summed up that way, and really, that does give you the gist of what happens. It feels a bit like the prequel to a much greater story than a part of that story in itself, the sort of thing you really only appreciate when you already know what comes next. Those unfamiliar with the legend might find Fionn a bit hard-going.

Despite that, the book does have a very obvious strength early on: the vivid detail. O’Sullivan heaps great amounts of detail on the reader, just this side of ponderous, but it leaves you feeling like you really know the land and its people when you finish the last page. You can practically smell the livestock of the settlement, feel the chill in the air, expect to hear certain voices from the distance. Even if you’re not captivated by the story itself, you’re taken in by the setting and the way it comes alive.

Plenty of Gaelic names and terms might confound readers, too, but honestly, I’m not holding this against the book or its author. We don’t read fantasy novels to be confronted by the distressingly familiar — we read them, in part, to have our minds stretched a little bit. The words may be a mouthful, but that doesn’t take away from the story. (And happily, when I checked the pronunciation guide on O’Sullivan’s website, I discovered my guesses were often pretty close to how things were intended to sound anyway.)

Fionn: Defence of Rath Bladhma is a relatively short book that takes place over a short span of time, but never the less feels like it carries some weight. The characters are interesting and have decent variation, the tension and action work well to really set the whole scene, and in terms of writing style, O’Sullivan clearly has skill. I definitely wouldn’t mind checking out more of his writing, at any rate. So while this book may not appeal to everyone, especially those who haven’t encountered much in the way of Irish mythology before, it still is a good book, and it’s worth giving a try.

SPFBO Review: The Music Box Girl, by K A Stewart

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Rating – 7/10
Author’s website
Publication date – April 19, 2016

Summary: FOR THE LOVE OF MUSIC

Steam and steel are king, nowhere more so than Detroit, the gleaming gem of the world’s industrial crown. A beacon of innovation and culture, it is the birthplace of the mechanical automatons, and the home of the famed Detroit Opera House. It is where people come with their dreams, their plans, and their secrets.

A young man with the voice of an angel and dreams of stardom.

A globe-trotting heiress with a passion for adventure and memories of a lost childhood love.

A mysterious woman with a soul made of pure music and a secret worth killing for.

Beneath the glitter and sparkle, something sinister lurks at the opera, and three lives will collide with tragic consequences.

Review: It only took reading a few chapters for it to start dawning on me just what this book was. It’s a genderflipped steampunk Phantom of the Opera. With robots.

Really, that could be the 2-sentence tagline of The Music Box Girl. If you’re familiar with the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, at least (I can’t say much about the original novel, as I haven’t read it), then just about nothing in this story will come as a surprise. There are a few pieces of curiosity here or there, such as wondering just what little differences there are between the book and Phantom, but beyond that, it’s all fairly set in stone from the moment you realise the story’s inspiration.

The Music Box Girl gives you three character perspectives from which to watch the story unfold. Anton, who starts off as an opera stagehand, quickly attracts the attention of a mysterious women — known to many as the opera ghost but who gets names Melody by Anton himself — who offers to train his singing voice, to get the skill that will allow him to replace the opera company’s ageing tenor. Bess, Anton’s childhood friend turned adventurous globetrotter who is at the centre of no few scandals, reunites with her friend and they kindle a romance that has lain banked since they separated so many years ago. But Melody takes exception to Bess’s arrival and Anton’s attraction to her, and jealously seeks to keep the two apart so that she and her plan for Anton can stay central in his focus.

Melody is, of course, not human, but in fact an automaton, gears and switches in a human shape, with all the strength that comes with being made of metal. In the steampunk Detroit that Stewart sets up, automatons are physically stronger than humans, which is why they were created in the first place, but require human assistance to stay active. They also possess what’s known as an aether core, which houses their memory, the sum of their experiences, but after a while, imperfect machinery being what it is, when an automaton has experienced enough to develop a personality of their own, those memories also begin to clog the core and become disconnected, erratic, and the automaton becomes dangerous. As such, aether cores are often wiped clean, preventing a personality from forming so that the automaton can stay an obedient servant to human needs without any pesky moral issues of slavery coming into play. Melody is unique, an automaton that has no need of humans to keep her running, but has thus developed that dangerous personality. She hears voices from those in her past who are no longer there, the memories accumulating in her aether core coming and going at random, and she strives to overcome that as she teaches Anton to hone his singing voice.

It was interesting to note the subtle ways in which Stewart referenced the original Phantom story, even when dealing with new elements. For instance, Melody’s face isn’t disfigured by scars or anything of the sort, as she’s made of metal, but instead one side of her face is warped and tarnished, a callback to the reason that, well, the mask is so iconic. Stewart provides a fresh SFF look at a story that has been ingrained in public consciousness for years, melding familiar content with new twists.

The Music Box Girl‘s main drawback, though, is that it doesn’t so much pay homage to its source material so much as it just rewrites it. It’s basically a retelling, albeit with a steampunk flair and some very good crisp writing. And as much as there’s nothing inherently wrong with retelling an old story, it does unfortunately come off as being derivative. It’s not a nod to a franchise that can be appreciated by fans in the know, but, as I said in the beginning, a genderflipped Phantom of the Opera, with robots. If that’s what you hear when going into this book, very little will surprise you. You’ll know how the story will play out, because you know the story of Phantom.

Do I think that means The Music Box Girl isn’t worth reading? Not by a long shot. Given the source material, I think this will appeal massively to fans of Phantom, and believe me, there are plenty. But even aside from that, there’s plenty to like here. Stewart’s writing style, as I said before, is crisp, with plenty of clarity and detail, and it flows smoothly. The characters all feel different when you’re reading about them, and more than that, they don’t feel like they’re just rehashes of someone else’s characters. It’s a fun journey, even if you know the destination. Seeing things from Melody’s perspective — the perspective of an automaton, gives opportunity for great lines like this:

One voice, though, one voice stood out to her, and some apparent malfunction in her glass eyes tinted the world red.

The classic descent into obsessive madness, as told by a robot. It’s interesting, and I think I enjoyed reading Melody’s sections most of all, to see the perspective of someone who is both victim and villain.

So overall? Yes, definitely read The Music Box Girl. It may not be the most original, but it brings original twists to a familiar story, and it’s a smooth-flowing tale of ambition and sacrifice, which is exactly what I expected. It’s quick and engaging, the characters are interesting and very much themselves, and it’s quite enjoyable, at least from where I’m standing. I can see steampunk fans enjoying this dive into musical pop culture.

The Hidden People, by Alison Littlewood

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 1, 2016

Summary: In 1851, within the grand glass arches of London’s Crystal Palace, Albie Mirralls meets his cousin Lizzie for the first–and, as it turns out, last–time. His cousin is from a backward rural village, and Albie expects she will be a simple country girl, but instead he is struck by her inner beauty and by her lovely singing voice, which is beautiful beyond all reckoning. When next he hears of her, many years later, it is to hear news of her death at the hands of her husband, the village shoemaker.

Unable to countenance the rumors that surround his younger cousin’s murder–apparently, her husband thought she had been replaced by one of the “fair folk” and so burned her alive–Albie becomes obsessed with bringing his young cousin’s murderer to justice. With his father’s blessing, as well as that of his young wife, Albie heads to the village of Halfoak to investigate his cousin’s murder. When he arrives, he finds a community in the grip of superstition, nearly every member of which believes Lizzie’s husband acted with the best of intentions and in the service of the village.

There, Albie begins to look into Lizzie’s death and to search for her murderous husband, who has disappeared. But in a village where the rationalism and rule of science of the Industrial Revolution seem to have found little purchase, the answers to the question of what happened to Lizzie and why prove elusive. And the more he learns, the less sure he is that there aren’t mysterious powers at work.

Review: A murder mystery set in mid-1800s England where signs point to faerie involvement? Sign me right up! The premise behind Alison Littlewood’s The Hidden People caught my attention and played to multiple pet interests of mine, and so I was very eager to sit down and read my way through what I felt certain would be a fascinating trip into the past where the lines between the mundane and the supernatural were blurred.

Albie is a man who, upon learning of his cousin’s death at the hands of her husband, takes it upon himself to see justice done. He goes to Lizzie’s home of Halfoak to attend the funeral, only to find increasingly strange talk from the locals about how the Lizzie that was killed was not the real Lizzie at all, but was in fact a changeling. After the sudden and unexpected arrival of Albie’s own wife, who does not seem herself at all, Albie’s life turns on its head as he searches for the truth of what happened to his cousin, and what may well have happened to his wife.

The Hidden People is a “did it or did it not happen” kind of mystery, one that might frustrate readers who expect a clear progression of the story in which pieces of slowly revealed and the puzzle becomes more clear. The protagonist flips his opinion back and forth a dozen times through the narrative, first being sure that Lizzie was fully human, then doubting it, then doubting his doubt, then wondering if faeries may be involved after all, and so on. If you expect a story in which the pieces fit neatly together as Albie slowly figures out that mystical forces are present, then you’ll be disappointed. What this book offers is a look into a man who cannot fathom certain things happening for certain reasons, who doubts constantly and is unsure of anything, and who is dealing with an increasingly stressful situation in his life. In short, it’s magnificently realistic, for it’s a rare person who can find evidence of the supernatural and not at least consider that it may be a factor in things. Albie reacts as most people would to events and information, as sometimes it looks as though something supernatural may be at work, and at other times it looks as though everything can be traced back to superstition and willful ignorance. Until the end, it’s very hard to tell just what happened to Lizzie, and what is happening to Albie and Helena.

Though in mentioning it, even at the end of the book, some things are still ambiguous. Albie certain thinks he’s gotten to the bottom of things, and for the most part the mystery surrounding Lizzie’s murder has been solved, but some events could be interpreted either way. Was Albie’s behaviour rational given that he suffered a loss, or was it wild and irrational and influenced by powers beyond the mundane? Was Helena influenced by changeling motivations of by her husband’s inexplicable attachment to a cousin he only met once? If there were no faeries, what caused some of the more bizarre things that Albie experienced? It’s easy to interpret the ending one way, to say, “Oh yes, it was this all along,” but there are so many coincidences that matched local superstition that you’re left wondering how much was truly mundane and how much was supernatural.

Littlewood weaves a great story here, with plenty of questions and atmosphere to keep readers turning the pages, hungry to see what happens next. There’s so much wonderful local flavour, too, with people in Halfoak speaking in that particular Yorkshire dialect (which I myself only heard for the first time about a month ago, so it thrilled me to see it in text and to know, “I know exactly what that sounds like!”) and bringing in colloquialisms and the clash of cultures that inevitably exists between big city folk and those from further into the countryside. Seeing the story from Albie’s viewpoint, which ranged from calm and rational to frantic and chaotic depending on what he had just discovered, was wonderful, since many of the dual-nature aspects of the story take place within Albie himself, an inner reflection of the outer world. The tone of the narrative was such that you can fall into it easily, reading it not as yet another first-person viewpoint with dozens of observations that people don’t actually tend to make for themselves, but as the memoirs of a troubled man, something that truly feels as though it could have been written by him years after the fact. It’s hard to say specifically what separates the two; something in the tone of the writing or the way Albie speaks or the way it all sounds very much like diary entries from the time period. But this is a problem I’ve pointed out in the past with first-person narratives, how it’s meant to draw the reader further into the story by placing them immediately within the head of the protagonist, but for me it often fails because said protagonist always thinks in ways that people just don’t on a day-to-day basis. Littlewood’s presentation of Albie was such that it felt like I was reading his confessions, something he deliberately endeavoured to tell, rather than that I was just along for the ride.

My only regret with this book is that the ending did turn out to be so mundane. Yes, I did mention previously that it was somewhat ambiguous and not all questions really were answered, and I felt like it was left that way deliberately rather than as some authorial oversight, but it’s so easy to look only at the surface of the story and conclude that there was nothing supernatural going on whatsoever. And I was hoping, from the back-of-the-book premise, that it was going to be more of a supernatural murder mystery than just a murder mystery that probably only has the supernatural connected to it because of local superstition. You can blame that disappointment on me as a reader, since the book offered me no promises of anything, but the presentation leads you to think that way, and then it doesn’t happen.

On the flip side, though, I think that gives The Hidden People a wider appeal, since those who enjoy historical fiction and mysteries but who don’t read much SFF can appreciate this book with or without its ambiguities. It’s not just SFF fans that this book will appeal to, and really, I like encountering novels that transcend genre.

But regardless of that one piece of criticism, overall, I really enjoyed the journey into the past that came with The Hidden People. The story was compelling, the characters interesting and complex, and it was an evocative novel that’s going to have a solid place of my bookshelves from now on. Definitely recommended for those who are looking for something beyond typical urban fantasy fare, for those who enjoy historical fiction, and also, for those like me who have a soft spot for genre-breaking fiction that leaves you hungry for more.

(Received for review from the publisher.)