I thought that Peadar Ó Guilín’s first trilogy was one of the more inventive and memorable Science Fiction stories I’ve read, with a world that was simultaneously fascinating and horrifying, so I was looking forward to his new series. Rather than the far-future setting of “The Inferior” and sequels, this is set much closer to home and much closer in time in 21st Century Ireland, however it is an Ireland that has been radically changed.
The first chapters explain the premise that the Irish mythology of the first Celtic settlers of Ireland having fought and banished the land’s previous inhabitants, the magical race known as the Sidhe, from the Many-Coloured Land of Ireland to the gloomy world of the Grey Land was based on fact. Thousands of years after their banishment the Sidhe have figured out a way to take their revenge on the descendants of those who stole their lands and have erected an impenetrable magical barrier cutting off Ireland from the rest of the world. More horrifying than the country’s isolation is the fate that awaits every teenager in Ireland, at some point in their adolescence they will face The Call and be pulled into the Grey Land to be hunted by the Sidhe for three minutes in our world and a day in their world. As a result, every teenager is sent to special school to spend their time training to improve their slim chances of surviving The Call.
It’s a fairly wild premise, but convincingly portrayed and the book does a good job of considering the implications on the people of Ireland and how society might attempt to adjust. I particularly liked the suggestion that with the nation’s children spending so much time studying their enemy that they’re starting to adopt aspects of the Sidhe’s own culture, such as conversing in their language. The brief forays into the Grey Land show a world that is bizarre but that also feels like it has its own strange logic to it and the Sidhe make compelling antagonists. They may have their own code of honour (they will never break their word) and have a justified grievance in having been banished to a hellish realm but they also have a gleefully sadistic streak in terms of horrors they inflict on the youngsters they catch.
The writing style is a bit unusual in the way it jumps between different point of view characters regularly. I think the story may be told from about twenty different points of view during a relatively short book, many of which consist primarily of a character being Called into the Grey Land followed by a short chapter showing their attempts to survive (which often, but not always, ends in a grisly demise). It does make the book feel very fast-paced and compelling to have characters (many of whom the readers is just beginning to like or dislike) suddenly snatched into a life-or-death situation. The characterisation is good throughout, and does a good job of showing the difference between how others perceive a character and how they perceive themselves. The book’s main protagonist Nessa is a compelling character who finds that attempting to live any kind of normal life often feels like a big distraction from her attempts to train herself to survive The Call – made doubly difficult by childhood Polio leaving her with difficulty walking. There’s an equal threat to her outside the Grey Land in the form of school bully Conor who is an antagonist that in his own way feels more despicable than anything the Sidhe can do.
I thought the book came to a strong ending that resolved many of the immediate aspect of the plot but left plenty of material unresolved for the sequel. There are a fair number of twists and surprises along the way, and there is genuine tension in wondering whether various characters will survive their Call.
Overall, it’s a very entertaining read and not quite like any other book I’ve read, I’m definitely looking forward to reading the sequel.
Rating : 9 / 10
I thought that “The Inferior”, the first book in this trilogy was a very original science fiction novel that wasn’t quite like anything else I’d read. The vision of a nightmarish world without any edible vegetation where the only way humanity can survive is by making war on and eating the other sentient alien races which inhabit the world is a very memorable premise. The sequel, “The Deserter” had taken the protagonists out of their own world and put them in a more conventional SF setting which lead to some interesting clashes of culture. Sadly the series didn’t seem to catch on (perhaps the premise was just a bit too weird for many readers?) so it initially looked like there might never be a concluding volume in the trilogy after it was dropped by its publisher but it has now been completed by the self-published “The Volunteer”.
I was initially a bit surprised that the first half of the book didn’t feature Stopmouth or Indrani, the series two main characters. Instead the story returns to their former home, the beleaguered tribal stronghold of Manways, now coming under increasingly under threat from the vicious aliens known as the Diggers, who continue to be the most unpleasant creations in the series. This part of the book is told from the perspective of an aging hunter named Whistlenose who is starting to feel that his days in the Tribe are numbered especially after he starts to clash which his chief Wallbreaker and Wallbreaker’s new adviser, an untrustworthy man recently arrived from the dying civilisation of The Roof. A large part of the book follows the journey of Wallbreaker’s tribe towards supposed salvation across a landscape where most of the creatures they encounter want to kill them and eat them (and not necessarily always in that order).
There are some fine action scenes along the way and the Tribe’s perseverance in the face of odds that seem increasingly insurmountable does make for a compelling story. The Diggers make for extremely effective antagonists and Wallbreaker is an interesting antihero, genuinely trying to help his tribe survive but also ruthlessly dedicated to his own survival. I was a bit less keen on his new adviser, Aagam, who feels like a fairly simplistic villainous character without any redeeming qualities. Whistlenose is a good protagonist for this part of the story, while he is more articulate than Stopmouth was in the first book he is equally likeable and goes on a similar journey where his initially unquestioning loyalty to his chief starts to clash with his determination to do the right thing.
I think it was a good decision to start the novel with a return to the setting of the first book rather than immediately picking up the next chapter in Stopmouth and Indrani’s story but we do eventually witness their return to the human colony they had founded at the end of The Inferior. This part of the story focuses on the clashes between different parts of the disparate society as they disagree over how best to survive in the face of the menace of the approaching Diggers. Inevitably, Stopmouth and his brother Wallbreaker are eventually reunited and as well as the continuation of their sibling rivalry this also complicates the situation as Wallbreaker makes his own power play for control over the last remaining humans and Stopmouth tries to come up with a final solution for the Digger menace. I thought the ending of the book was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy with some tense scenes where the survival of any of the characters didn’t seem assured although some subplots did seem slightly rushed and other than Wallbreaker the other human antagonists did feel a bit caricatured.
Overall, I’d say the trilogy was definitely worth reading with a unique and memorable premise (albeit one that might ruin your appetite if read before dinner).
Rating : 8 / 10