I would probably say Ian McDonald is one of my favourite current Science Fiction authors and I’ve read nine books by him before this one. This early work by him is a bit of an outlier because it switches genre to be an early example of Urban Fantasy.
The story follows three generations of women who all have some disturbing encounters with the supernatural. It starts in rural Ireland in the early 20th Century when the young daughter of a Gentleman Astronomer encounters what she believes are faeries in the grounds of her family’s estate. The second section moves to Dublin in the 1930s as another young woman with a fondness for telling unlikely stories finds some of her lies appear to be coming true. The final section is in the “present day” (a.k.a. the early 90s) as a bicycle courier hunts supernatural beings around night-time Dublin armed with a pair of katanas.
The three sections of the book have very distinctive writing styles. The first section is mostly told via letters and diary entries, which feel appropriate for the 1913 setting but can feel slightly dry at times. The section is the most conventional in the terms of the writing style while the final section feels a bit more experimental. Despite being set in the early 90s it hasn’t dated too badly and I think it’s probably the strongest section of the book in terms of the writing but it was occasionally a bit hard to follow due to the non-linear narrative that jumps between different time periods without clearly showing when each scene is taking place.
I think McDonald has always been good at characterisation. The three protagonists have some similarities between them, they’re all troubled in one way or another but some of them are better at dealing that than others. I thought Enye was the most interesting of the characters, she’s also the most pro-active whereas Jessica is perhaps the least interesting because she tended to react to events without being able to really influence them. I think in Jessica’s stories the supporting characters are probably more interesting than Jessica herself. Enye also has a good supporting cast, and even if a character has little relevance to the main plot they can sometimes still get some interesting backstory.
I read this immediately after Peadar O’Guilin’s “The Call” which coincidentally also had creatures from ancient Irish mythology interacting with contemporary Ireland, but this is a very different take on mythology. At times it felt like a Science Fiction author’s take on fantasy where none of the mythology can be taken at face value but can instead be some sort of projection of the subconscious of the main characters. It’s an interesting idea and I did like the suggestion that it isn’t just ancient mythology but also its more modern equivalents that can make an appearance. On the downside, the book does sometimes get a little bit bogged down in trying to come up with new terminology to describe what is happening.
I liked the book, but probably wouldn’t say it is among McDonald’s best work, the first two sections aren’t as interesting as the third.
Rating : 7 / 10