Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht
At the very beginning of the year, Aidan Moher (whose blog I heartily recommend) posted his “Favourite Novels of 2011”—the top dog was Stina Leicht’s Of Blood and Honey, which I had never heard of. Being in Ireland when I read the post and having just completed a semester bursting with Irish history and literature, the premise seemed right up my alley, so I added it to my list. When it was briefly offered for free from Amazon (it’s a book-buying ban, not a book-reading ban!), I snatched it up and even let the professor who took us to Ireland know. I was pretty excited.
Of Blood and Honey is set in the 1970s in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland, with the Troubles in full swing. Liam Kelly has always been different—he has no idea who his father is, and everyone has always assumed it was a Protestant man his Catholic mother had a fling with as a young woman. But Liam tries to get through life the best he can, especially with his girlfriend Mary Kate to motivate him. But when Liam is arrested on trumped up charges of incitement at a rally, something stranger begins to rear its head, and Liam and his family find themselves caught in the epicenter of a battle between the native Irish Fey and the colonizing Fallen angels.
When I went to go see The Hunger Games, I saw the trailer for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. (…it links. I promise.) I was disappointed to see Honest Abe hacking his way through a pile of vampire Confederates; whether or not vampire Confederates actually happen in the film (and novel), it still feels like a clunky and reductive way to handle history. Utilizing war and conflict in speculative fiction requires a delicate and respectful hand. This is the reason why Captain America: The First Avenger has Cap fighting Red Skull in a parallel war, not World War II itself—it would be rude to those who actually served to dismiss their contribution, even in fiction. Now move from the fairly ideologically clean-cut World War II to the wildly complex Troubles, and Leicht has set herself quite a challenge. Thankfully, she rises to it. The supernatural war is a behind-the-scenes thing; while one of the Fallen is in the RUC, it’s a plot point and meant to be out of place. There’s parallels between the two, especially in how you can’t tell the two sides apart at a glance, but the two don’t inform each other. And on top of that, given my studies in Irish history, it reads authentically, both for this conflict and for the time period. Leicht uses contemporary music, but doesn’t lean too heavily on it as a device to set the era.
Liam, whom we watch go from generally happy youth to disaffected IRA veteran, is the heart and soul of the novel, no matter its brief dips into the minds of Father Murray, a priest who knows more about Liam than Liam does, and Kathleen Kelly, his mother. However, the novel can drift when Liam isn’t in direct conflict and interacting with someone else. As much as Liam tries to focus on helping his beloved Mary Kate get through school, he’s caught in a war where people want to use him as a weapon. I particularly loved his relationship with Mary Kate, which is full of earnest affection and snarky Irish banter. As Aidan points out in his review, Liam makes some dumb choices, but they make sense to him at the time. He’s put through hell and back in this novel, and with his dark side starting to control more and more of him, it all links. I particularly enjoyed Liam’s dark side, with its connection both to his situation (he feels brutally helpless) and Irish mythology. I shan’t go further, in hopes of keeping you unspoiled. While it’s Liam’s show, the other characters are rendered warmly, from Father Murray to Liam’s friends to the mysterious Bran.
But however deftly the setting and characters are rendered, there’s a consistent lack of establishing important things that really threw me off. For instance, towards the middle of the novel, Liam begins working as a taxi driver and takes to driving in competitions because he loves driving so much. There’s a wonderful passage about how Liam only really feels free of all the judgment, expectations, and other crap piled on top of him while he’s driving. Only problem? We don’t hear about how much he loves driving until we’re in the thick of it. And this happens a lot throughout the novel; years are skipped within a single paragraph without formatting to make it clean and friends are introduced as dear, old friends without any backstory. It really drew me out of the novel. Additionally, the ending is a bit compressed and fizzles; I realize Leicht is gearing up for a series, but it’s a bit underwhelming, especially given the respectful care given to the brutality Liam suffers in prison. It’s just disappointing.
Bottom line: Of Blood and Honey boasts an remarkably respectful and deft rendering of the Troubles in the seventies, as well as the evolution of Liam Kelly from kid to disaffected IRA veteran. However, the consistent lack of establishment and disappointing ending hurts it. If you’d like.
I downloaded this book for free from Amazon during a promotional event.