BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A man discovers his own nature whilst under British occupation in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s.
PROS: Excellent characters, setting, language and theme.
CONS: The plot of the final third of the book occasionally falls into cliched territory.
BOTTOM LINE: A vivid and accomplished novel with characters that will stay with you.
I read Stina Leicht’s Of Blood and Honey several weeks ago, and while that speaks to my deficiencies as a reviewer, it also speaks to the strength of the book. Characters, names, and plot details are still strong in my mind instead of fading into the bland fog of ‘fantasies I’ve read.’ That alone marks Leicht out as one of the strongest story-tellers debuting in 2011, and the novel as pretty much the best fantasy novel I’ve read this year.
Of Blood and Honey is technically a historical fantasy, but it feels much more relevant than that label may imply. The protagonist, Liam, is navigating early adulthood in occupied Northern Ireland in the 1970s. A hard place to be, and even harder if you have non-human heritage. His father was a fey, but he was raised by his entirely human mother and step-father. He was lucky to be befriended by a local priest–especially lucky since the church officially regards any fey as demonic. All of Liam’s coming-of-age narrative is tinged with the British occupation. In the very first scene of the book Liam is arrested as part of a crowd at a protest, held in degrading conditions and faced with dehumanizing treatment until being released. It is not his last encounter with the British forces and internment system, and over time it lead inevitably to his radicalization and joining the IRA. This is no mere historical curiosity–there are plenty of resonances between the British approach to fighting the IRA and our own present day struggles with international terrorism. Among other things, this story dramatizes some of the questionable wisdom of our current strategies in that conflict.
Despite his newly acquired criminal record, Liam woos and marries home-town sweetheart Mary Kate, a strong young woman attending university in Belfast and hoping to go to law school. It’s an odd pairing, since Liam was never good with book learning–his wild nature makes it a bit hard for him to focus–but they make a tumultuous and passionate couple. Once Liam is in Belfast as an IRA driver, his fey side becomes both an asset and a liability, and he ends up in conflict on multiple fronts: IRA vs. Britain, himself vs. Mary Kate as they start their married life together, humanists vs. church demon hunters, himself vs. the IRA when they believe he’s betrayed them, fey vs. fey when he learns more of his father’s family, and most importantly his human side vs. his fey side as he learns to accept and control his dual nature.
Leicht does a phenomenal job of capturing the passion and intensity of this man’s life. Much more than most books I read, Liam and Mary Kate spring off the page in full three-dimensional color. Even when you want to smack them around for being young ignorant kids making awful decisions and hurting themselves in the process, you still want to read more about them. The background texture is also very well done: Leicht captures the flavor of the 70s, with the rock n roll and drug culture giving Liam’s time in Belfast a background beat, the post-Vatican II Catholic church leading to some very conflicted priests, and generally giving a good sense of the rhythm of Irish and Gaelic language without getting bogged down in hard-to-read dialect. (This is also a hallmark of another wonderful historical fantasy author in the if-you-like-X-you’ll-also-like-Y vein: Marie Brennan and her Faery Court series set mostly in London: Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, A Star Shall Fall, and the forthcoming With Fate Conspire.)
That’s great, Karen, you’ll say, but then why not a five-star review if Of Blood and Honey is all that AND a bag of chips? Well, I took off a half star because of the last third of the novel–which makes it a little hard to talk about for fear of spoilers. Let me be as vague as possible: in the first two-thirds, I love the characters, the vividness, the world-building, and also the fact that I had no idea where the story was going. In the last third I love all the same things, but the plot falls into a recognizable channel that contains some slightly hoary cliches. It’s still very well executed, but from that point forward the plot beats are familiar territory. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the intrusion of the familiar on what had until then been entirely fresh and original (to me) was a little disappointing–hence the half-star penalty.
Nonetheless, the fact that a wonderful storyteller uses familiar tropes in no way makes her less of a great storyteller! I devoured this book in three sittings, reading about a third each night and reluctant to put it down each time. If this debut is at all indicative of Leicht’s skill with character, background, and theme, then we will be looking forward to all subsequent novels from her pen. Of Blood and Honey sets up smoothly for a sequel, but I would be happy to read either more about Liam or anything else that Leicht feels is worth writing about. I strongly recommend that you check out this not-just-promising, but downright masterfully accomplished book from this young author.