A Work of Fantastical Realism
I read this book in a single, breathless, and spellbound sitting.
If I were to summarise my reading experience in a single word, it would be ‘depth’. I was drawn into the story straight away, because Smith avoids the common pitfall of trying to insert lengthy exposition with regards to world-building. We discover all we need to know when we need to know it, and not before. Moreover, much rests on suggestion rather than lengthy lectures, letting the reader experience the pleasure of deducing the finer points for him or herself.
This is not to say the book is lacking in detail. Protagonist Caoimhe’s quest to the wolf den, for example, demonstrates Smith’s exquisite descriptive powers, allowing the reader to walk into danger alongside Caoimhe and marvel at woodman Joss’s forestry skills, as well as realising how isolated the Vale of Rhwyn is on the edge of an untamed wilderness.
Another notable item which make Caoimhe’s world real, is the treatment of horses. Far too often I’ve seen our faithful equine companions treated as cars, handy vehicles to move from A to B which can then be parked and forgotten about until needed again. Not so in this book, in which characters like Caoimhe and Guerin clearly value their horses (respectively Balefire and Shadow), understand their moods and ailments, and never fail to be concerned about their care and well-being.
A touch which I really liked was the measure of time, denoted in ‘glasses’ and ‘grains’. Smith uses these terms without explaining them, a respect for readers’ intelligence and ability to glean meaning from obvious context which I can appreciate. The approach to horses and time are minor items in the story, but precisely the sort of finishing touches which lend a Fantasy story a touch of reality.
Another element of world-building which I really appreciated is the fact that this world isn’t a shiny brand-new creation trotted out solely for the purposes of this story. Rather than the bright and sparkling yellow-bricked and blue-tiled Camelot in First Knight, to use a film/tv comparison, this is the great hall of Winterfell, with the roof beams blackened by centuries of smoke and warped by the passing of time. One gets the sense that there is far more to this world than related to us by Smith, who does delve into history, but only there where it is relevant to the narrative.
On the whole, I was reminded of the Dark Ages and early Middle Ages, my mind’s eye specifically evoking the social settings from the Mabinogion, but Smith never specifies this or draws obvious parallels, leaving this to the reader’s imagination.
Yet all of this is just a small part of the depth I referred to earlier, for most of that is to be found in the characters, especially Caoimhe. The first person perspective gives us immediate access to the protagonist, and Smith uses this exceedingly well. At the end of the first chapter I was already rooting for Caoimhe. By the time we delve into her past by the means of flashbacks, I welcomed this a great deal because I was intrigued by Caoimhe’s character and her attitude towards life, as it was clear she is burdened by events in her past.
The flashbacks were fascinating because they bore a clear relevancy to Caoimhe’s present, and the psychological depth encountered here is stunning. One understands why she has developed the litany of: "Be a Rock. Be a Stone. Be no Living Thing." as a coping mechanism, although she does admit at one point that it's not always easy pretending to be a stone. The matter-of-fact manner in which Caoimhe relates her youth is far more effective in evoking empathy than an emotive plea for sympathy. Once again, this mirrors real life to me, because people I know who have truly experienced trauma tend to chat about the most terrible things as if they were ordinary, rather than extraordinary and deserving of some sort of entitlement regarding pity, attention or justification.
That sense of reality extends to combat. Caoimhe is a skilled fighter, but does not derive pleasure from defeating her enemy. Professional satisfaction at best, and nowhere is fighting and battle presented in terms of triumph and glory, instead the reader is reminded of the bloody reality: Pain, fear, destruction, death.
Smith employs the limitations of the first person perspective masterfully. We share Caoimhe’s frustration at not fully understanding what is going on all the time, share her apprehension at not knowing who can be trusted, and join in the second-guessing of other people’s intentions and motives. In that sense there’s a who-dunnit element to the book which I thought worked very well.
It also works well with the use of magic. The magic in this world isn’t the flashy all-powerful stuff summoned by the simple flick of a wand and perhaps a magic word or two, instead it’s earth magic of sorts, and best of all it’s barely understood by Caoimhe, who freely admits she’s a warrior and a practical kind of person, rather than someone with an innate ability to comprehend the supernatural, unless this is so prominently present that she cannot fail to sense it. I liked the fact that the magic remains somewhat mysterious and unexplained - because it heightens the ominous threat of it - how do you fight something you cannot fully comprehend?
As the story progresses, Smith skilfully weaves the past into the present and the present into the past, not forgetting the complexity of (changing) human relationships, court politics and other social aspects. Tension rises (as it should), the reader is eager (and apprehensive) about how it will all turn out for Caoimhe, sharing her fears, defeats and triumphs on the way and feeling well at home in this strange but somehow familiar new (old) world.
Definitely a book I can wholeheartedly recommend, and to be entirely honest, one that left me somewhat envious of Morgan Smith’s storytelling skills, which are simply exemplary.
© 2018 Nils Visser