A Shadow of Gulls (Ireland)

Shadow of Gullsby Patricia Finney

Apologia: First I was out the entire month of October with a cold/sinus infection, then I did my 50,000 word novel in November for Nanowrimo, and now I’m on day 4 of a brand-new job! It feels like I’ve been away from the blog forever. Sorry about that.

I guess I’ve been spoiled by modern fantasy writers like Jim Butcher, Kevin Hearne, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, because I was expecting a lot of magic from this 1970s classic set in Ireland. I got a lot of dark history instead.

The hero of this story is called Lugh mac Romain (pronounced Luke) and he’s a harper; a man driven by the demons in his past. Not an entirely good character – but then nobody in this book is. Something I didn’t like. His aunt, Queen Mab, is a wee bit mad at him, because his Roman father used to be her lover, and deserted her because he didn’t want to be “Mrs. Mab.” (So the mean old queen wasn’t especially thrilled when he slept with her younger, priestess sister.)

When Lugh accidentally kills Mab’s current husband, the Corn King, before he can be sacrificed, he fears Mab’s curse and flees for his life. But the people he takes refuge with have their own problems and blood feuds, and he ends up on the run again.

The Fighting Irish

Illustration of Dierdre from Wiki. She doesn’t look half as drippy as she is in the legend.

Like the Monty Python sketch goes: I’m looking for a copy of 1,00 Ways to Start a Fight, by an Irish gentleman whose name I don’t recall…

I was intrigued by the little dark-haired people Lugh takes refuge with who seem to be indigenous – before the Irish – and wanted to know MUCH more about them. I also liked how the superstitions of the people made the night countryside come alive with fear.

The book sticks closely to the hoary old legends of the Irish, as misogynistic and depressing as they are. But it doesn’t leap between the lines; it doesn’t go so far as to propose that magic is actually real.

That the Fey might be more than human. It doesn’t connect the lines of history in an alternative, empowering way. I know I’m a reader of my time – I know it isn’t realistic to expect books this old to deploy the lightness of heart of the Parasol Protectorate (steampunk) or gender-bending feminism of Elizabeth Peters’ mysteries. (The former is set in Victorian times; the latter around the turn of the century.)

Still, I wanted it. (Just like two winters ago when I wanted Anna Karenina to stop whining and get a spine. I kept fantasizing that she ran off to England to earn her own living as a governess. Realistic for the time period? Probably not. Great fiction for today? Absolutely.)

Female Characters

And your choices are:

  • stupid sluts (the slaves)
  • evil queens (Mab) or
  • helpless victims (Dierdre and Lugh’s mother)

Yep, I know that nothing good happens to or for the women in the original legends – part of the reason I never liked them. But this is a female author. I guess I expected better.

I was also bothered by the fact that it was never explained where the blonde slaves in the Irish households had come from – or why the main character, Lugh mac Romain, thinks they’re all dumb as bricks. Could be his personal problem, but that isn’t addressed.

To be fair, this is a good writer. I was really into the book for the first 100 pages or so. But it just got to be too much. Too much blood. Too much evil. Too much uncivilized behavior and not so much as a magic wand.

All in all, I think this is a book that you either love or you don’t. I didn’t. My apologies to all the people on Amazon and Goodreads who loved it. You’re nuts. (Just kidding.)

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