[The Full Disclosure Dept. insists I inform you that Stina Leicht is a personal friend and I read large portions of this novel in early manuscript drafts.]
With this fierce and darkly original debut, Austin author Stina Leicht has inadvertently created a new genre: the incidental fantasy. Set against the bloody and chaotic backdrop of Northern Ireland during the Troubles of the 1970's, Of Blood and Honey is so prosaic in how it weaves myth and folklore into its grungy real-world mise-en-scène that for much of its length you'd hardly know it was a fantasy novel at all. This might displease fantasy readers expecting magic always to take center stage. But Leicht's approach to incorporating fantasy suits her material well. If the story's magical elements seem less developed, it's only that the intent with this first novel is to foreground the characters. The magic roils threateningly beneath the story's surface, as it does in the life of our hapless hero himself.
The Fae and their nemeses the Fallen (as in, angels) are depicted as yet another couple of gangs warring over turf. No less thuggish are a secret Catholic order whose operatives are not above back-alley stabbings or even that sin of all sins, abortion, if they think they've protected humanity by striking a blow against the Fallen. Both the story's fantasy and mundane content are thus given dramatic equivalence. The result is a novel you can't quite call traditional fantasy, nor urban fantasy, nor alternate history. Whatever you call it, Of Blood and Honey doesn't mess around. It comes at you like a car bomb. This is fantasy by way of Ken Loach, not Peter Jackson.
The story follows six years in the life of Derry native William Kelly. Barely literate, Liam is a hard-luck guy, even for a Northern Irish Catholic. We meet him as he's being arrested at a riot, though he wasn't participating. He will spend the next three months in the infamous Long Kesh internment camp, where everything bad you've ever heard about prison life will be visited upon him. All he wants is a normal life, to marry his sweetheart Mary Kate and live in whatever peace is possible. Two things will not let him, and one of these is sheer circumstance. The only chance he has to get a job after prison requires him to fall in with the IRA. This he does, and moves to Belfast to be with Mary Kate, who's pursuing a law degree.
The other thing is Liam's heritage. He doesn't know who his real father is, but we do, right from the start. Bran is a warrior of the Fae, whose age-old battle with the Fallen is escalating. Liam's human mother has kept the secret from him, for the same well-intended wrong reason most family secrets are usually kept: she thinks it will protect him. But fate has a way of finding you. So does evil.
Liam isn't at first aware he's a púca, inheriting his father's shapeshifting abilities. But he is aware of the monstrous presence living deep inside him, which first manifests (quite violently) in Long Kesh and asserts itself more and more as the years go by. Rumors arise that anyone who messes with Liam comes to a bad end. Soon Liam embraces his shapeshifting skills, even enjoys them. But he angrily rebukes his inner beast's bloodthirsty nature, even when it could protect him.
The story is character-driven. Of Blood and Honey isn't so much about supernatural warfare and ethnic/political turmoil, as it is Liam's story, of how he comes to terms with his identity and destiny in a world torn apart by those things. Leicht's research — which included learning to speak Irish — is so thorough you'd never know she's never set foot in Ireland in her life. Her portrayal of the people, the culture, and the cities feels indisputably authentic and absorbs you fully into the story. "Gritty" has become a lame cliché in the urban fantasy field, but this book sells it. It's all vividly realized, down to every grimy rain-slicked street and dingy flat. Likewise, Leicht's prose has a rough-hewn, textured quality that's hard to define, except to say that without any obvious attempt at creating a "style," her storyteller's voice has a raw immediacy. Many genres have given themselves a self-flattering "whatever-punk" label, but Leicht's writing actually feels like rock and roll.
There's much action, though little of the kind one expects from fantasy fiction. Leicht's great strength is with dialogue scenes, surprisingly enough. Until you read dialogue done well, it's easy to forget how few writers do it well. Many fantasy writers use dialogue merely to impart information to the reader, or show off what they think is wit. But Leicht is one of the few I've read who knows how to convey actual drama — rather than melodrama — through dialogue. For a first-time novelist, she shows extraordinary confidence and command of her craft. She never flinches from just how brutal life becomes for Liam, who endures more physical and emotional beatings, poor bastard, than half the cast of an average Sopranos season. His interactions with the important people in his life — his beloved Mary Kate, the sympathetic but hardly innocent Father Murray, his IRA buddy Oran — often pack a genuine emotional wallop, as they make it clear how nightmarish it would be to live in a world so undone by war and strife that even your nearest and dearest have things to hide, and where friends may be called to take the lives of friends.
This is a bare-knuckled novel that less adventurous readers will likely find too strong, too relentless, too alien to their expectations. The rest of us have the pleasure of discovering one of the more electrifying debuts literary fantasy has seen in many a killing moon.
Followed by And Blue Skies from Pain.