The one like = one book meme has quieted down a bit now, but for a week or so it overpowered my twitter feed. I like the idea of the meme (one like on the original post equals one book recommendation from the poster, sometimes multiplied by the hundred), but in execution it made twitter an unreadable mess. So, I was against it. BUT THEN… one of the recommended books caught my eye. I can’t remember who recommended The Witches of Eileanan by Kate Forsyth, but I do know they were convincing enough that I downloaded a sample. I got hooked. The rest is history.
In a hidden valley deep in the mountains, in the shadow of the peak of Dragonclaw, Isabeau the foundling grows to womanhood in the care of Meghan, an old wood witch. Meghan can call animals to her hand and knows the secrets of herb-lore. But Isabeau dreams of adventure…
Carrying a magic talisman that contains the last hopes of the persecuted witches, Isabeau is hunted through the land by the evil Banrìgh. Meanwhile the sea-dwelling Fairgean stir, children mysteriously disappear in the night, and Isabeau's guardian climbs Dragonclaw to seek guidance from the most ancient and dangerous wisdom in the land…
Isabeau the Foundling has been raised by the mysterious (is there any other kind?) old wood witch Megan, deep in the mountains. With her 16th birthday approaching, she is hopeful that she’ll be able to leave her sheltered life and head out on an adventure. But the land beyond her mountain home is full of anti-witch sentiment, and though she has some power, her adventures won’t be without peril. What ensues is an epic tale following many strands of story, centered around Isabeau, witches, and an uprising to bring magic back to Eileanan.
Why I picked the book up: I couldn’t pass up the idea of an Australian poet writing high fantasy. Also, the dragon on the cover. I’m a sucker for dragons.
Why I almost put it book down: Celtic (Scottish? Irish? Lots of ken, o’, and so on) dialect that makes the dialogue hard to read. I’d stumble to a halt, figure it out, and continue on – but I felt the dialogue was a distinct disadvantage for the reader, especially early on. I was also kind of “meh” about what I thought the plot was going to be (young girl discovering her power and then going on a quest, everything working out nearly perfectly) – I’ve seen that a lot in my reading life.
Why I kept reading: At first I read to see if the story would unfold as I predicted it would. There were clues and names dropped in the first few pages that made me think I had it all figured out. It was refreshing to find out that it wasn’t that predictable (for the most part). I was also impressed early on by the largely female, multigenerational cast of characters. There was diversity of personality and power among the characters as well. I felt a bit spoiled by all of the women in the tale – I am not used to reading so many female characters being badass at so many different points of life and in so many different ways. That also lead to me shake my fist (on the inside) at all of the male-dominated books I’ve read in this genre all my life – I could have had this the whole time!
I also liked discovering the fairy/myth tale tie-ins throughout the story. And dragons, duh. Another plus: perspective switch-offs! The reader gets to “hear” the thoughts of many of the main players, even the villains.
Things that continued to annoy me: The Celtic dialogue and I never made friends. It was a slog at times, but like I said, I was hooked and I worked valiantly to make my way through the book despite the brogue. Related: everyone had a very similar accent. I tend to expect differences between the speech of those who live far from city centers, townfolk, and different species. The only discernable difference in this book was a creature divide – dragons and animals didn’t sound like their human counterparts.
Another pet peeve: the cover art is a lie (needs more dragons). I’m sure the series as a whole is probably very dragon-ish, but this first book functions as a set-up, that there really isn’t that much about dragons (sad!). That leads to another disappointment – I didn’t realize that so little is wrapped up in this first book – I saw that it received awards and thought it must be at least a bit of a standalone. Not so much. I feel about as satisfied at this point as I did after I finished the first Wheel of Time book, if that tells you anything.
Finally, there were a couple instances where characters experienced sexual abuse and/or rape. It wasn’t unpacked at all, and for such a female-centric story, I was disappointed (though not surprised, especially when I looked at the publication date) that that was the case. There were other kinds of torture too, also presented without comment. I felt that these instances of violence served primarily as a mechanism to shock the reader, and that they could have been replaced by almost any [insert terrible thing/suffering here]. As I said, disappointing but unsurprising.
I didn’t put it together until just now that I was reviewing a book that has deep Celtic roots on St. Patrick’s Day. That’s… lucky. If you don’t mind ‘reading’ the brogue, this might actually be the perfect holiday read for fans of fantasy (especially fans of Anne Bishop and Tanya Huff’s earlier stuff).
Recommended for: anyone interested in older epic fantasy that breaks the dude-hero stereotype, and those in the mood for an epic journey/adventure story with plenty of magic, magical creatures, and layers of motivations.