A while ago Night Shade Books offered the e-book edition of Stina Leicht's novel Of Blood and Honey for free. I must admit, I had no idea what the book was about and who the author is but I took them up on it anyway. The book hasn't received al that much attention on the blogs and review sites I read but sometimes you got to take a chance. As it turns out, Of Blood and Honey is Leicht's début novel and it is one of the better novels I have read this year. It's also a bit out of my comfort zone, something of an urban fantasy really. I guess I am starting to appreciate these a little more as long as I am spared the sparkly vampires. Or maybe I am just biassed because of the author's appreciation of Rory Gallagher's music.
Of Blood and Honey is set in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, during a period euphemistically referred to as The Troubles, as a full scale civil war was waged between Loyalist (to the UK) and Republican factions. The main character, Liam Kelly is born and raised a catholic area in the city of (London)Derry. Liam doesn't know who his father is. His mother became pregnant with him before she was married and after the scandal subsided, married another man. One day, he is unfortunate enough to witness to one of the frequent riots in the city. He is arrested and locked up in one of the more notorious prisons in Northern Ireland. It is an experience that will change the apolitical Liam into someone who embraces The Cause. It also gives him the first hints about the identity of his father, who is not a regular human being. It appears there is more than one war being fought in Northern Ireland and Liam is about to get involved in both.
The conflict in Northern Ireland that is the backdrop of this novel was one of the nastiest civil wars in the history of Europe. It's not easy to write a number of sympathetic characters involved in this dirty war. Leicht also limits herself to one side of the conflict, although seeing war as Catholic versus Protestant is shown to be an oversimplification. The Loyalist and Republican factions are far from unified, even within the IRA there are splits and differences of opinion about how to achieve the ultimate goal of joining the Irish Republic, resulting in various organisations carrying the name. Not surprisingly there is lots of rationalizing quite brutal violence and terrorist activities in this environment, which is something the reader must be prepared for. It also includes a number of vivid depictions of prison life. I'm not sure how much of that is based on real history but from what I have gathered from historical works, the conditions in those prisons were something the UK government ought to have been ashamed of. Northern Ireland was a fertile ground for internal conflict in those days and the novel shows it. There is nothing sparkly or fantastic about this side of the novel, which is one of the things I like about it.
It will come as no surprise that the characters in this story are no heroes. Although Liam is not a political youth, he can't avoid the reality of the situation in Derry and is dragged in anyway. He is not particularly proud of his actions, in fact, when he is forced to kill in order to make a getaway, he is deeply shocked by the event. His whole involvement in The Cause is a drama. A solution for such a conflict cannot be reached by means of violence, as Liam finds out the hard way. I have no idea how someone living in the area would respond to this book but to an outsider it illustrates the tragedy that took place there (and is still simmering under the surface to some extend) quite well.
The supernatural part of the tale is something of a contrast to all this. It is not as fully developed as the Liam's IRA activities which may be something of a let down for the die hard fantasy fans. I'm of the opinion that digging deeper into this part of the story would have ruined the novel. Liam's father is not human but. No matter how many tales people tell about not getting involved with the Fey, some people will fall for their glamour. Liam's mother is one of them. He is not aware of this fact however and the absence of his real father is a source of permanent sorrow for Liam. His father's nature can't be completely suppressed and at some points in the novel Liam's Fey heritage shines through. The way Liam's anger at his father's supposed lack of interest in his son affects Liam's life and behaviour is one of my favourite parts of the novel. It makes his hurt believable, his anger understandable in a way that would have worked if Leicht had made the father more visible.
There's another reason why I think going light on the fantasy element of the book was a good idea. Liam's father is absent for a reason. He is involved in his own struggles and what would be better than to lash out at the father by hurting the son? On top of that the Catholic church is aware of the existence of these supernatural creatures and has a special secret order that keeps an eye on them. They see them as fallen angels, entities to be fought and killed. What would the church think of the son of a fallen angel among it's flock? Better to keep his distance. I don't think there is an organization in the world that has more fictional secret societies attached to it than the Catholic Church. When another one pops up I am usually tempted to move on to something more interesting. I wasn't tempted to do so here.
All in all, Of Blood and Honey is a very character driven, emotionally charged, début novel. Liam is an intriguing character, very well realized and the focus of a story that could easily have gotten lost in further exploration of the historical context or the mythological themes of the novel. Leicht keeps the plot tight, resulting in a novel stands on its own pretty well. It reaches slightly rushed but satisfying conclusion. It leaves quite a few possibilities for more novels. Especially on the Fey side of Liam's family there are more than a few questions unanswered. The position of the church on the Fey seems to be shifting as well, which might well be a topic for a sequel. It will be interesting to see if more stories in this setting appear. I for one, wouldn't mind another.
Title: Of Blood and Honey
Author: Stina Leicht
Publisher: Night Shade Books
ISBN: 978-1-59780-213-0 (paperback)
First published: 2011