A savage pant—almost a laugh—puffed foul breath that blew hair from Sanders’s forehead. Sanders raised a fist, but the beast caught his arm with ease and slammed it on the concrete floor. Liam felt bones give way with a sickening snap and was pinned between satisfaction and revulsion. Sanders howled. A talon plunged into the flesh beneath the man’s nipple, the screams changing timbre as flesh blossomed gory gashes. Hurried blows thundered against the other side of the locked infirmary door, announcing the arrival of the other guards. Shouts.
Sanders let out a high-pitched shriek. “Get it off me! Get it off me! It’s a monster! Get it off! Oh, God! I didn’t know! I’m sorry!” His eyes were no longer focused but round with madness.
The black beast straightened, standing on its—paws, haunches—the crawling electric pain returned, intensified and then vanished. Liam looked down in shock, reading against his will the crooked letters that had been etched into bleeding flesh. They spelled one word: F—A—I—R—Y.
I didn’t do that, he thought, backing away from the terrorized guard. I didn’t. It was a—
Wishing he could shut up Sanders, Liam wiped a hand slick with blood against the outside of his bare thigh. Gobs of skin compressed into hard lumps were jammed under his fingernails. Adrenaline jolted through his veins in violent tremors.
The door slammed open, and the guards swarmed in. Naked, Liam slipped to the floor and cowered against the far wall. A group clustered around the now gibbering, pointing Sanders.
“Kill it! Mah-mah-monster!” Three of the men turned to see where Sanders pointed.
Upon spotting Liam covered in gore, they descended upon him.
And the kicking began.
The past is a different country. This is doubly true when you are dealing with a foreign land, especially a time and place that is itself a character, contradictory, strange, violent, and difficult to sum up. The “Troubles” of Northern Ireland in the 1970’s, the era of Bloody Sunday, the IRA and religious and cultural tensions only at a low simmer today, is definitely a different country. It is in fact, very much like a fantasy land in that it is different than the experience of most people today, and yet speaks to our experiences today in the modern world.
That is one of the powers of Historical Fantasy, but Of Blood and Honey, the debut novel by Stina Leicht, is not a Historical Fantasy, even as it brings the world of 1970’s Northern Ireland to sometimes terrifying life. For, you see, William Ronan Monroe Kelly, Liam, is not entirely human. He is, in fact, half-Sidhe, half Fae. Not that he knows that, at first…
Of Blood and Honey is Liam’s story, as he suffers and survives the troubles of Northern Ireland, and comes to discovery and realization and terms with who and what he is. The book is not for the squeamish. Life is not fair to Liam, and some rather dark things happen, early, to him. He gets put into an internment camp, and later jailed, mostly for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Bad things, very bad things, happen during those incarcerations. Getting through those early chapters is important and necessary, for they are a crucible that helps forge Liam into the person he will become and make the decisions he makes later on believable, and even logical. As aspects of the mundane world continue to develop, and Liam and Mary Kate (the woman he woos, wins and marries) develop, so, too, the fantastic elements of the text develop as well. We slowly and carefully get the supernatural elements of Stina’s world unfolded for us.
The novel interpolates and interposes the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Northern Ireland with a supernatural one whose aspects, participants and sides are even murkier (if that was possible!) and only slowly revealed. The murky politics and conflicts and sides of Northern Ireland and the murky politics, conflicts and sides of the supernatural fight tangle with each other in complex and interesting ways. The complex relationship map between the factions and characters is very well done for a first novel, or any novel. Leicht is a long time roleplaying game GM, and it shows.
I was afraid, though, going into this book that Leicht was going to be parsimonious in dribbling out the supernatural elements, making this book really a historical novel with only a patina of fantasy. While she is careful in revealing these aspects, she keeps the novel fantastic enough to firmly plant Of Blood and Honey into the genre.
And really, even besides the fantastic elements, and the factions, there is fantastic worldbuilding here. It’s odd to use the phrase worldbuilding for a real time and place, but you really do feel the claustrophobic hothouse oven that is Northern Ireland. I as reader felt pent in, caged and wondering why everyone didn’t try to escape the stifling environment presented. And, almost as counterpoint, there is one of the best car scenes I’ve read in print, one that if translated to the screen properly would rank up with the scene in Bullitt.
And let me talk about the characters for a moment. They are three-dimensional, contradictory, complex, and with agendas, hopes, and fears of their own. Liam, of course, is first and foremost in this, given his dual nature, but that extends to his wife, his mother, his real father, his allies…and even his ultimate antagonist. The characters live and breathe. While we might not agree with the choices the characters make, especially when they make very bad ones. The humanity of the characters (and yes, that includes the nonhuman ones) is never in question.
Language, in the quartet along with Plot, Character and Setting, is also bright and well done. Leicht keeps a light hand on the Gaelic, enough to firmly put us in the world and give the dialogue flavor, but never so much that I felt out of depth with a foreign language. Besides the use of Gaelic, too, the writing is well done, a very good command of prose.
What didn’t work for me? The melodramatic end felt a little bolted on compared to the remainder of the novel. Granted, I can see how it would be difficult to narratively come to conclusion without the devices she uses (no spoilers!) to bring it to that ending. The other thing that didn’t ring quite true for me is the drug scenes and culture that Leicht depicts. Compared to the absolutely fantastic, realistic and gritty realism that she brings to everyday life in the Time of Troubles, Liam’s contact with the drug culture felt a little underdone. While the parallel between addiction to drugs and the addiction to letting his fae side loose is a powerful one, I never really felt the realism and the resonance of the addiction scenes and that plot as compared to everything else.
Those concerns and weaknesses, let me make it clear, are a patch on a strong and well written novel. This book is not for everyone and every reader. By no means. Although Leicht doesn’t dwell on the dismal details of the darkness, there is a heck of a lot of darkness in the book. That makes perfect sense in a novel where the now infamous Bloody Sunday is literally just another day for the characters in Northern Ireland. But for those readers willing to swim in these turbulent waters, there is rich text, characters and setting to be found.