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Book Review: Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma by Brian O’Sullivan

It should surprise no one who knows me to learn I read books about mythology. Indeed, given my heritage, I hold a special place in my heart for Irish myth. And, of course, Fionn is just cool (see what I did there). So as soon as I heard of O’Sullivan, I grabbed a copy of his work.

This tale adapts a mythic story as historical fantasy … very low fantasy, with a gritty realistic feel. I found myself reminded a little of Bernard Cornwell’s Arthur retelling, in which one is never completely certain whether the magic we see is real or simply works because the people believe it. In this case, we have confirmation of a beautiful subtle magic possessed by the druids. By and large, however, the tale reads like pure historical fiction.

In the 2nd century AD, Ireland is a wild, isolated place peopled by scattered tribes that prey upon one another. A desperate new mother arrives at the ráth (“raw”) of a disgraced druid and her small community, seeking shelter. She’s come through the Great Wild, survived wolves and hardships, and now finds herself pursued by raiders after her child (who will grow up to be the famous hero Fionn) for no reason she knows.

Bodhmhall, our female druid and leader of the community, reluctantly shelters her, leading to a tense game of cat and mouse in the woods with the raiders and a brutal siege with no punches pulled by the author.

One of the first impressions I got from the novel was the sense of isolation and wildness of the landscape. In the author’s notes after the story, I was thus interested to hear this was exactly what O’Sullivan intended. In his own words:

When I first started writing the Fionn mac Cumhaill series, one of my key goals was to try and recreate – as far as possible – the constant sense of danger or menace that people of second century Ireland (the approximate period within which the Macgnímartha Finn activities take place) would have had to live with. A key part of getting that across was to include a sense of the overwhelming impact of the environment (the Great Wild) on a pre-technology people.

In the time period in which the story is set, the population of the country was substantially smaller then it is at present. Significant parts of the country were unoccupied and much of it was extremely difficult to traverse due to great forests, bogs and waterways. The country was infested with wolves,

-O’Sullivan, Brian. Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma: The Fionn mac Cumhaill Series: Book One . Irish Imbas Books.

The characters also stood out for me, especially as the story went on. The tale is told almost exclusively from the point of view of the Bodhmhall the druid, and her lover, the female warrior Liath Luachra, both of which feel very real. But as do the secondary characters, in particular Bodhmhall’s ex-husband Fiacail.

I’d highly recommend checking this one out.

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