Of Blood and Honey opens in the midst of The Troubles in Derry, Northern Ireland, on 17 November 1971. The Catholics are fighting the Protestants, and the Irish are fighting the English. Sixteen-year-old Liam Kelly is in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets beaten, arrested, and jailed by British soldiers for rioting. His imprisonment marks the beginning of a violent and tragic personal struggle that is half mythical and half political. In jail (the first of two equally unfair imprisonments), Liam has some inexplicable experiences – when he’s angry or threatened, he feels an electric prickling under his skin that only stops when he touches iron; he sees a massive Irish Wolfhound watching him from behind the prison fence; and when he’s violently attacked by one of the guards, he becomes a monster that wreaks gory vengeance on his attacker.
Liam doesn’t understand any of this, because he was never told that his father, Bran, was a púca, one of the Fey, also known as the Fianna – a creature from Irish folklore. Bran has never spoken to Liam, although he sometimes watches over him or meets briefly with Liam’s mother, Kathleen. He never spends much time in the human world, as he’s one of the commanders in an otherworldly war between the Fey and the Fallen Angels.
Half human, half fey, Liam has inherited some supernatural traits from his father – an aversion to iron, heightened senses, and the ability to shift into a powerful, terrifying hound. He experiences the hound as a separate being inside himself, a monstrous other half that tries to take over when Liam is angry or threatened. For a long time he tries to keep the beast at bay, but it becomes harder as he grows older and his life becomes more dangerous, making it tempting for him to just give in to violence.
After his second stint in jail, Liam joins the IRA, less for political reasons than as a means of making a life for himself and his sweetheart, Mary Kate. Sadly, both the IRA and Liam’s Fey blood endanger them, and seem to make a happy life impossible.
I was surprised to find that personal drama and political struggle were major subjects of the novel. After all, the series is entitled “The Fey and the Fallen”, and the blurb suggests that this centuries-old battle is a major part of the story. In fact, the supernatural war is mostly relegated to the background. We hear about it mostly during Bran’s brief appearances, and through the figure of Father Joe Murray. Father Murray, a kind and loyal family friend, is also a member of a secret Catholic order devoted to fighting a divine war against the Fallen. For years he’s been watching Liam closely, concerned that he might be evil.
It’s only towards the end of the novel that the personal, the political and the larger supernatural aspects of the plot are properly merged. One reason it takes so long is that Liam spends most of the story knowing nothing about his father. He notices that people who do him harm tend to come to bad ends but doesn’t understand how or why. He struggles blindly with the monster inside him, and slowly starts to believe that he must be demonic, cursed. Of course Liam’s mother knows the truth, as does Father Murray, but they hide it from Liam in a bid to protect him.
I really hate it when characters do this. It always turns out to have been a bad idea despite the liars’ good intentions, and the author farms the situation for drama. In this case, I also think the lie is perpetuated for far too long. The reader knows about Liam’s heritage from the very beginning, but you’re made to wait so long for him to be told about it that the deception becomes frustrating.
And while we’re on the subject of misinformation, I found it slightly implausible that the Catholic order fighting the Fallen doesn’t understand that there’s a difference between the Fey and the Fallen, and that they’re actually enemies. For as long as it’s existed, this order has been killing the Fey, assuming that they’re evil fallen angels too. Apparently none of the Catholics ever spoke to the Fey, and none of the Fey bothered correcting the mistake. All it takes is one conversation with Bran for Father Murray to learn the truth, although his superiors later dismiss the idea as a fairy tale. Their error is chalked up to rigid tradition and blind belief in the Bible, which makes no mention of the Fey. Nevertheless, Father Murray learns the truth so quickly and easily that it seemed odd that no one from the order had learned this before.
Flaws aside, this isn’t a bad book. It’s a strong, well-written character drama about a man dealing with the particularly dire problems of coming of age in a time and place fraught with political conflict. This is not to say that the fantasy element feels slapped on – Liam’s Fey heritage is perfectly entwined with the other aspects of his life. The monster inside him is an apt response to the injustices he suffers – an understandable urge to retaliate with brutality and kill those who wronged him. His internal battle with it is also a moral debate – is it acceptable for him to submit to the monster? Even if his victims deserve what they get, what kind of person – or thing – does that make him? Is it possible for him to be a good person with the monster inside him? Mary Kate, Liam’s girlfriend and eventual wife, is often at the heart of these questions as he contemplates making a life with her.
Of Blood and Honey certainly doesn’t feel like your average urban fantasy novel. It’s quieter, darker and more serious, with bursts of brutality. The historical setting is something new for me, although according to Calico Reaction’s review (which in turn references the reviews of Martin McGrath, and Liz Bourke at Strange Horizons), ignorance of the conflict allows you to enjoy the novel at bit more, as the historical inaccuracies can drive you nuts. Skimming over some of the basics though, I felt that a better historical background might have given me a better understanding of the way Leicht combines mythology and politics. It would be a good idea to educate myself then, before reading the sequel, And Blue Skies from Pain. It looks like it will have a greater focus on the divine war, and hopefully it will be mroe strongly linked to the Irish conflict. Also Liam will have a chance to properly explore his Fey heritage. I look forward to it.