Another SPFBO finalist makes its way into my eyes this week! This one is based on actual Irish mythology, specifically the Fenian Cycle, specifically-specifically The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn, which is something like a retelling of the early life of the mythological hero Fionn mac Cumhaill.
Also, firstly, I’m going to straight-up apologize in advance for when I almost definitely spell any Irish words or names wrong here. I’m making sure I extra double check, but since I manage to fuck up the English language pretty fantastically on any given day, I can only imagine what I’ll do to an entirely different one.
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 Bodhmhall 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.
“This is like chewing dog turds. I wish we’d brought some decent food with us.”
Liath Luachra rewarded his opinion with a look of disdain. Tossing the empty dock leaves aside, she slowly got to her feet and then twisted her hips so she could slip her right hand down the back of her woolen leggings. Bearach watched in growing bewilderment as she grunted loudly, forehead creased as though in immense concentration.
“What are you doing?”
“Be quiet. I’m trying to pull some nice fresh venison out of my ass for your dinner.”
Irish is one of those languages that is really difficult to grasp for native English speakers who have had no real interaction with it in our lives. This is, I assume, mainly because it is often phonetically very, very different than English, but still uses the same alphabet. So, of course we instinctively want to sound it out. That does not work with Irish without knowing some rules. I bet we come up with some creative guesses though. So, I’m super thankful for the quick pronunciation guide in the back, but I wish that it was easier to find in the ebook, because it is not really marked well and doesn’t come up in the menu (or didn’t for me.) Thankfully, the author’s website is chock full of actual spoken pronunciations (and thank god I live in the age of smartphones so I could listen to these stealthily at work).
But, I guarantee you that I still pronounced things in my head so, so wrong as I went. We’ll just pretend that I have total mental mastery over the pronunciation of this language for the next few minutes or so, okay? Okay.
Parts of this story read a bit like a language lesson, and that is not a criticism (rather the opposite, actually). It’s a really interesting way to give a real sort of realism in the story. Different words that are connected to the story or event are used, non-intrusively defined, and then used more throughout the story for context. A really neat idea that immersed me right into this world, and taught me some new vocabulary at the same time. Some new words are used and not defined, though their use within the context of what is happening makes it pretty apparent what they mean.
As I said, this story is based around the Boyhood Deeds of Fionn part of the Fenian Cycle. You may know that I am a huge mythology nerd, but I am admittedly not as familiar with the Fenian Cycle as I am with the Ulster Cycle (which follows, among others, another Irish mythology hero- Cúchulainn. There is a long story about what interested me in Cúchulainn’s myth, and that story, like so many others in my life, starts with a video game, lol). I knew the basics though. Fionn is born, sent to his aunt druidess (or bandraoi – see, I paid attention!) and her warrior woman companion to be raised due to danger of the guy who killed his father coming for him too, grows up, has tons of adventures. That’s sort of the gist of it.
This book starts with the pregnant Muirne Muncháem fighting her way through the forests and valleys of second century Ireland to get to Ráth Bládhma, where Bodhmhall the druidess, and her lover Liath Luachra the warrior woman live. I love that this story leaves no doubts about the relationship between Liath Luachra and Bodhmhall. The word ‘companion’ is used in mythology a lot, with various levels of ‘by companion, I actually mean lover’ (I’m looking at you, The Iliad). This story, while it does use the word companion sometimes, absolutely depicts them as lovers and rolls with it. I enjoyed that. It’s a small thing, but it made me smile nonetheless.
I also enjoyed being immersed in this story as a fantasy novel. I’m not sure I can explain what I mean by that, but I’ll try. I like it when my favorite myths are brought to life as stories or in media that aren’t quite as… classic as the myths they are based on are. Mainly books and video games. I’m a fan of those sorts of things. So, that feeling of knowing a story, knowing pretty much how it goes, or knowing how it ends, but nonetheless getting a real good telling of that particular story, whether it’s a modern retelling, or just a retelling that’s told in a modern way, with some individual interpretation from the author/developer/etc, is an adventure for me. This one was certainly an adventure, and it was quite a good adventure, and the characters were written in a way that I just loved. The world came alive in my head, and I loved how real the characters were with each other. They cursed, they spit, and they openly talked about fucking and masturbation. Little shit like that is what made it ‘modern’ for me, despite taking place in the second century. You don’t see that sort of stuff in classic fantasy.
It’s not overly long, and it doesn’t drag at all. It’s very well written and very hard to put down. Liath Luachra is legitimately hilarious, snarky, and badass AF, just as she should be. She’s not a superhero though. She’s realistic enough, and that just made the whole thing more awesome. I’ll definitely continue on with this series!~