Taking the Fairy Tale Train to a New Station by Amanda Boldenow
Fairy tales are enjoying a renaissance, but did they ever stop captivating the imagination? From Disney cartoons to Fairy Tale Theater with Shelley Duvall (my childhood favorite), the groundwork for our collective love of fairy tales has long been laid (and led to the success of recent re-tellings like The Lunar Chronicles and Once). We can thank Grimm and Anderson for the stories we are most familiar with, and we can thank Marvel for putting Norse mythology on the popular radar (and Chris Hemsworth’s abs). Now, Mark Tompkins has brought Irish mythology to the mainstream in his new book The Last Days of Magic.
Like the magic that the Catholic church tries to squash in Tomkins’s novel, Irish mythology was largely lost or transformed when Christianity pervaded the island. The novel revolves around the lives of Celtic religious and mythological figures, including the triplicate form of the goddess Mórrígan who is personified in two human teenage girls (and their unseen spiritual counterpart), and the Nephilim, descendants of angel-human hybrids. Tompkins pits these divine beings against the Catholic church, still in its early adolescence in the 14th century. The 1300’s in Europe saw witch hunts, outbreaks of the black death, the Avignon papacy, and the Hundred Years’ War, in addition to the expansion of the Catholic church’s power and reach. In Tomkins’s reimagining of the events of the 14th century, events where magic is real but has been written out of history by the victors, Ireland stands as the last great battlefield for dominance by the church and the rulers who swear her allegiance.
While quelling magic is part of the goal, it’s also the problem at achieving such a conquest. More plot-driven than character-driven, the novel follows the tactics taken by different groups, each strategizing to overthrow or secure control of all Europe, with Ireland as the last bastion of independence. Like any novel tied to historical events, we already know things will not end well for Ireland or its magical abilities and beings. The primary question Tomkins poses is not if Ireland can or will succeed, but what will be spared for our cultural inheritance in spite of its destruction? Here Tomkins divides his Celtic characters along party lines: those who are willing to give up the agency of both their country and themselves, and those willing to fight (for centuries, if necessary) to maintain their cultural and bodily autonomy. While anyone familiar with a modern map, the prevalence of Christianity, or the existence of magic today (none) knows what fate lies in store for Ireland, Tomkins still creates underdogs a reader will want to root for, but he'll make you wait till the next book to learn what happens to them from the present day forward.
A Writer's Dilemma: Series, or Stand-Alone Novel? by Lisa Mahoney
When agents and editors are asked what kind of manuscripts they are looking for, they often insist they’re looking for stand-alone novels (because if a book fails to take off, it will not represent a great loss of investment.) Yet editors and agents admit they are simultaneously hunting the next Hunger Games-type blockbuster series. In other words, they want manuscripts that carry the seed of a series within a complete story.
This presents writers with an interesting intellectual challenge: how do you wrap up exciting plot problems and transform characters, yet leave enough loose ends and room for character growth that the reader desperately wants to know what comes next? The reader does not deserve to be left hanging not knowing the fate of characters they’re invested in just so they have to buy the next novel.
One way SF/F writers deal with this is by creating a vast imagined universe with a complex and fascinating background, history and culture. The reader finishes a story feeling as if she had just had the pleasure of being immersed in an entirely new culture which she badly wants to revisit on her next vacation. Maybe she won’t go to the same corner of that universe, or hang out with the exact same people, but the writer aims to make her long to return.
In this scenario, a novel’s story wraps up satisfactorily, yet it also launches events that change the future of the world, providing ample material for several follow up books. An example is Lois McMaster Bujold’s excellent Five Gods world fantasy series. Secondary characters in the first book, The Curse of Chalion, (which won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature and was nominated for the Hugo, World Fantasy, and Locus Fantasy Awards for best novel) are the protagonists of her second novel in the series, Paladin of Souls (which won her fourth Hugo and second Nebula.)
Mystery novels deal with the stand alone / series problem in a different way. A writer develops a fascinating detective determined to solve each novel’s mystery. Successive novels begin when new clients with unique problems show up, but the reader is left satisfied with the solution of each book’s plot, and the detective gradually changes over many novels.
The Last Days of Magic uses a story within a story approach to create the feeling that a series is needed. The prologue and epilogue are set in present day London. A woman, Sara, receives a sudden phone call from her grandmother who warns her that the Vatican might kill to prevent photos of ancient Dead Sea scrolls hidden in Sara's apartment from surfacing. She flees with grandma's documents and boards a ferry heading for a secret meeting in Ireland. Then, beginning with Chapter 1, we are taken back to the 14th century to follow dozens of point of view characters as England, backed by the Vatican, invades a Celtic Ireland backed by faeries. I'd forgotten about this frame until the Epilogue, when folk from the Middle Kingdom appear to help Sara escape with little explanation of the perils she faces. Book Two may continue Sara's tale, or it may drop us back into another well-researched period of Irish history; I can't guess from the novel.
This Blessed Plot, This Earth, This Realm... Just Needs More Character by Sean Cassity
As strong as the pitch is for The Last Days of Magic, the book is an even better exemplar of how much a novel lives and dies by its characters. For all the depth of research into the details of Irish mythology and folk tales and the European history of the period, and the ingenious conceit of a shadow world of magic and Biblical apocrypha secretly driving world events, all the clever turns to be found in the mixture of plot and education lose their thrust when carried on the backs of these too many and too thinly drawn characters.
A tale of this scope may demand a breadth of viewpoints to display the crumbling faery and human alliances in Ireland as the Western Europe-wide sweep of the Vatican connives for England to overtake it. But perhaps it needs another 380 pages to make their character arcs feel motivated and meaningful. It is not enough to know each person’s role in society and what kind of sex they like to have. Hard turns of character are not as simply explained as they met someone or they lost someone. A good number of seemingly important viewpoints could be excised altogether without the book being the worse for it. The events they witnessed would be missed but their personhood would not.
One of the stronger characters is a secondary villain whose position as king of England has the real forces in the novel vying to manipulate him. Most modern audiences know Richard II, if at all, through Shakespeare's historical tragedy. In Shakespeare’s play, King Richard presents early as merely a king, acting royally. From others speaking about him, we learn Richard has been overtaxing the poor, forcing loans from the aristocracy, lending out public lands and managing to spend as much in peacetime as other kings have in times of war. Apart from his flatterers, King Richard doesn’t have many friends. So when the banished Bolingbroke returns to reclaim his father’s properties that Richard seized after his death to fund an invasion of Ireland, Bolingbroke has little trouble winning most of England to his side before Richard can return to put up any resistance. As Richard’s fall becomes a certainty, his royal façade slips away and we watch him slowly disintegrate until he is a broken man mockingly aping through the motions demanded of the usurpers to justify their regime. In Shakespeare’s hands, it is not hard to feel the pains of the fallen tyrant.
It is hardly fair to expect Shakespeare from every writer, but what frustrates in The Last Days of Magic is that Tompkins is often hinting towards some greater depth of his characters without the reader ever feeling that he actually goes there. Tompkins' Richard II is presented as feeble-minded, bisexual, and perverse. Mostly perverse. Everyone’s sexual habits are well defined in this book. There is a scene where Richard’s Queen Anne seduces her husband into misappropriating a large portion of the war funds into her private account by masturbating in front of him. Is the point of the scene the misappropriation or the masturbating? I kept expecting the compromises made to free up the diverted funds would turn the story in one direction or another, force a moment of introspection from Richard. Instead, it is never mentioned again. Near the end of the book we are told Richard was quite a valiant youth, but none of this informed the Richard we got to see.
The plotting and world of The Last Days of Magic are truly an achievement. But without engaging characters to experience them, it is so difficult to care.
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