the witches of eileanan

The one like = one book meme has quieted down a bit now, but for a week or so it overpowered my twitter feed. I like the idea of the meme (one like on the original post equals one book recommendation from the poster, sometimes multiplied by the hundred), but in execution it made twitter an unreadable mess.  So, I was against it.  BUT THEN… one of the recommended books caught my eye. I can’t remember who recommended The Witches of Eileanan by Kate Forsyth, but I do know they were convincing enough that I downloaded a sample.  I got hooked. The rest is history.

the witches of eileanan by kate forsyth book cover
Since the Day of Reckoning witches and magic have been outlawed on Eileanan. The great towers, once centres of learning, are now abandoned ruins. The penalty for practising witchcraft is death. Yet the Lodestar still calls to the Rìgh, king of Eileanan, making him uneasy. And there are those determined to restore witches and their craft to their rightful place in Eileanan.

In a hidden valley deep in the mountains, in the shadow of the peak of Dragonclaw, Isabeau the foundling grows to womanhood in the care of Meghan, an old wood witch. Meghan can call animals to her hand and knows the secrets of herb-lore. But Isabeau dreams of adventure…

Carrying a magic talisman that contains the last hopes of the persecuted witches, Isabeau is hunted through the land by the evil Banrìgh. Meanwhile the sea-dwelling Fairgean stir, children mysteriously disappear in the night, and Isabeau's guardian climbs Dragonclaw to seek guidance from the most ancient and dangerous wisdom in the land…

Isabeau the Foundling has been raised by the mysterious (is there any other kind?) old wood witch Megan, deep in the mountains. With her 16th birthday approaching, she is hopeful that she’ll be able to leave her sheltered life and head out on an adventure.  But the land beyond her mountain home is full of anti-witch sentiment, and though she has some power, her adventures won’t be without peril.  What ensues is an epic tale following many strands of story, centered around Isabeau, witches, and an uprising to bring magic back to Eileanan.

Why I picked the book up: I couldn’t pass up the idea of an Australian poet writing high fantasy.  Also, the dragon on the cover.  I’m a sucker for dragons.

Why I almost put it book down: Celtic (Scottish? Irish? Lots of ken, o’, and so on) dialect that makes the dialogue hard to read.  I’d stumble to a halt, figure it out, and continue on – but I felt the dialogue was a distinct disadvantage for the reader, especially early on.  I was also kind of “meh” about what I thought the plot was going to be (young girl discovering her power and then going on a quest, everything working out nearly perfectly) – I’ve seen that a lot in my reading life.

Why I kept reading: At first I read to see if the story would unfold as I predicted it would.  There were clues and names dropped in the first few pages that made me think I had it all figured out.  It was refreshing to find out that it wasn’t that predictable (for the most part).   I was also impressed early on by the largely female, multigenerational cast of characters.  There was diversity of personality and power among the characters as well. I felt a bit spoiled by all of the women in the tale – I am not used to reading so many female characters being badass at so many different points of life and in so many different ways.  That also lead to me shake my fist (on the inside) at all of the male-dominated books I’ve read in this genre all my life – I could have had this the whole time!

I also liked discovering the fairy/myth tale tie-ins throughout the story.  And dragons, duh.  Another plus: perspective switch-offs! The reader gets to “hear” the thoughts of many of the main players, even the villains.

Things that continued to annoy me: The Celtic dialogue and I never made friends.  It was a slog at times, but like I said, I was hooked and I worked valiantly to make my way through the book despite the brogue.  Related: everyone had a very similar accent. I tend to expect differences between the speech of those who live far from city centers, townfolk, and different species.  The only discernable difference in this book was a creature divide – dragons and animals didn’t sound like their human counterparts. 

Another pet peeve: the cover art is a lie (needs more dragons).  I’m sure the series as a whole is probably very dragon-ish, but this first book functions as a set-up, that there really isn’t that much about dragons (sad!). That leads to another disappointment – I didn’t realize that so little is wrapped up in this first book – I saw that it received awards and thought it must be at least a bit of a standalone.  Not so much.  I feel about as satisfied at this point as I did after I finished the first Wheel of Time book, if that tells you anything.

Finally, there were a couple instances where characters experienced sexual abuse and/or rape.  It wasn’t unpacked at all, and for such a female-centric story, I was disappointed (though not surprised, especially when I looked at the publication date) that that was the case.  There were other kinds of torture too, also presented without comment.  I felt that these instances of violence served primarily as a mechanism to shock the reader, and that they could have been replaced by almost any [insert terrible thing/suffering here].  As I said, disappointing but unsurprising.

I didn’t put it together until just now that I was reviewing a book that has deep Celtic roots on St. Patrick’s Day.  That’s… lucky.  If you don’t mind ‘reading’ the brogue, this might actually be the perfect holiday read for fans of fantasy (especially fans of Anne Bishop and Tanya Huff’s earlier stuff).

Recommended for: anyone interested in older epic fantasy that breaks the dude-hero stereotype, and those in the mood for an epic journey/adventure story with plenty of magic, magical creatures, and layers of motivations.


Wednesday, March 2, 2016 | | 3 comments
Given that the adapted screenplay of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn was up for an Oscar a few nights ago, today seemed like a good time to talk about the book (which I read over the Valentine’s Day weekend – perfect material, really!).  The first thing you should know is that I read this book the wrong way ‘round.  I had no intention of reading it at all (even though I had heard good things about it!), but then I saw the film.  I LOVED it to bits.  A couple of months later I saw the movie tie-in edition while browsing at the bookstore and took it straight to the register for purchase.  I then read it in a night and a morning – thank you, weekends!  I liked this book a lot – almost as much as I loved the film.  Oh, it was good!

brooklyn by colm tóibín book cover
Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the hard years following World War II. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America, she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind.

Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future.

Tóibín is a master at:

1. Making the setting feel alive.  He imparted the small-town feel of Eilis’ hometown of Enniscorthy in a spare, funny way that matched the repression and busy-body behavior of its inhabitants.  In the same way, he pulled the reader into the bustle and strangeness of Brooklyn, without employing florid prose. 

2. Inhabiting Eilis’ character and inner life.  Good people are often difficult to describe in 3D, but Tóibín does it.  He brings Eilis’ quiet hopes and dreams to life without boring the reader.  Eilis, though faced with many challenges, never seems acted upon – she is the hero of her own story.  An aside: It is too seldom that I can say that about works written by men about female characters.

3. Suffusing words with emotion.  Although, or perhaps in spite of, the way that his characters repress their feelings, Tóibín captures the culture and spirits of the time period he writes about.  In parts, the language, the descriptions, the topics of conversation (and those seemingly forbidden), reminded me very strongly of old letters my grandfather wrote my mother while she was away at school – in the 50s.  So perfectly capturing the vernacular and feel of the era is a feat.

So far I haven’t said a thing about the plot, except to call Brooklyn a quiet book. And it is that, if you can call transatlantic voyages, falling in love, growing up and surviving tragedy quiet.  It’s powerful, and beautiful, and though I usually prefer books with magic in them, I can tell you that this one is EXCELLENT.

The best books make me laugh and cry.  I had high hopes for Brooklyn because the movie did both of those things, in spades.  And I wasn’t disappointed.

Recommended for: anyone interested in books about strong women (not trying to be cliché here – just don’t know of a better way to say that!), fans of literary fiction and romance, and YA readers who don’t mind the labels on their books, as long as they are romantic and historical.

p.s. The film adaptation of Brooklyn = truly lovely.  I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a better book/film match (not saying that it’s a carbon copy – it’s not!)… just that Hornby rocked it and somehow transferred the exact feel of the book into film form.
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