Avid book reader. Lover of fantasy, contemporary fiction, short stories and non-fiction. This blog is a work in progress - and it will likely always be that way.
This book was first published in the UK in 1993, but it seems it got pretty much lost in obscurity (except by second-hand book store owners it seems). Being re-published 20 years later, it gets a chance at redemption – and I hope it gets it, because I enjoyed reading this lyrical coming-of-age fantasy book, that often takes a darker, grim turn too.
Michael Fay is a young boy growing up in rural Northern-Ireland, quite sheltered from what happens in the world itself. The acquisition of a new tractor is more newsworthy than the British army being brought in to settle the ‘usual outrages in the city’. Time-wise, I’m guessing that puts us at the end of the 1960s when The Troubles started. But for Michael, that’s far from his bedside as he considers “the farm, the river, and the fields and woods about his home; these are his kingdom.”
One day he is running down the forest and slips right into another world. A kingdom of wolves, fairies and goblins. If this storyline sounds somewhat familiar, it definitely is, and the author is very open about that: there are straight references to Alice in Wonderland: “That face, the grin. Cheshire Cat, and his trip through Wonderland.”
But as the author remarks in the book: every dreamer needs a Wonderland:
“Michael had the feeling that he had gone deeper, had travelled down some tunnel into a more far-away place, and he knew with sudden certainty that there as an infinity of such places, one for every dreamer in the world, perhaps.
What is wonderful about the book is not so much the Alice in Wonderland-like plot, but the writing. Sometimes it is dreamy, other scenes are dark and grim, but at all times it is lyrical and wonderful to read. I highlighted a few dozen passages that are absolutely gorgeous to read.
“He remembered tall walls rearing up in sunshine, white as chalk. There were battlements and flapping flags, and men in bright armour mounted on huge horses. There was a bridge spanning a wide, glittering river with girls plashing and diving, sleek as salmon. And there was a vast hall hung with golden tapestries and gleaming weapons, its long table set with silver goblets and sparkling crystal.”
Michael’s pointless quest and his disappointment that the Other Kingdom isn’t what he thought it would be, are really present : “I told you before: I didn’t think it would be like this. I didn’t know what it would do to me. Christ, Cat, I thought it would be some sort of fairy tale complete with knights and castles.”
It’s not all perfect though: I got a bit lost on the time-jumps along the way, and I wasn’t really fond of the ending. But amongst the things I liked are all the nods to other books along the way: apart from Alice Wonderland, there are for instance nods to Tolkien (with Cat being called ‘Teowynn, the Tree-Maiden’) and many reference to the Bible: (“The journey continued without ceasing, like a forty-year stint in the wilderness, with no Canaan at its end.”). I also thought there was a Robin Hobb nod when Michael is wondering about countries “where eels were dragons” but the timing on that one doesn’t work out (Ship of Magic was only published 1998), so that must be a coincidence.
Lastly I wondered exactly how much to read into the storyline. The story is set in Northern-Ireland, a region torn between the UK and Ireland, and many wounds to prove just that. Just like in the region (especially at that time), religion marks the characters in the book: you are this, or you are that, and that means there are places you cannot go. But even more so, both Michael and Cat are in between two worlds, and as Michael himself remarks at one point: “It cannot be easy, being caught between two worlds.”
For those who don’t like books with political messages: don’t let that stop you though, the Northern-Ireland references are barely there and for many times I even wondered whether I was reading too much into it. And perhaps I am, that doesn’t really matter, because it didn’t take away the pleasure of reading this book.
Disclaimer: This book has been provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This review reflects my own experience and opinion with this book. All quotes are taken from the pre-published copy and may be altered or omitted from the final copy.