Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht
Stina Leicht’s 2011 publication Of Blood and Honey has an interesting premise and lovely language, but I couldn’t stay with it. This was the book that kept getting set aside for others — any others — and even television. I did make it to page 191 of 295, but after three months of moving it to reach for something else, I just had to give up.
Of Blood and Honey is the first book in Leicht’s THE FEY AND THE FALLEN series. It is set in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, a time of great political unrest, and the fantastical elements (the native fey folk and the fallen angels of Christianity) mirror the struggles between Catholics and Protestants. Liam, the main character, grew up in Catholic Derry. He is illegitimate, treated warily by his neighbors. Liam has always believed that his absent father was a Protestant, but his father was really a Fey.
Of Blood and Honey follows Liam from the time he is arrested at 15 and sent to a notorious government-run prison camp, through his recruitment into the IRA, and his courtship of beautiful Mary Kate, the neighbor girl who is a political firebrand. If all of this sounds more like a mainstream novel, or a political novel or even a caper novel of some kind, that is also how it reads. Liam’s magical abilities manifest, but they are not woven smoothly through the book and years seem to go by while he is acting as a driver for various IRA crimes and worrying about keeping his heritage a secret from Mary Kate.
Liam is aided by Father Murray, a priest who is both an IRA sympathizer and part of a shadowy Catholic army designed to fight the Fallen. This part of the story is quite interesting; the Church, of course, cannot tell the difference between the Fallen and the native Fey, so “kill them all and let God sort them out” is the plan. The priest is a vocal dissenter to this policy. In other ways, however, he is unbelievable as a priest — most unconvincingly, when Mary Kate suddenly gets “sick” three months into the marriage and the priest takes her to a special “clinic” for treatment. If Mary Kate, confronted with her husband’s fey abilities, has chosen to have an abortion, that is believable for her character and even makes her a morally complex character. I cannot believe that a priest would help her with that for any reason, however, even if he knew the child would be one-quarter Fey.
Mary Kate is beautiful, loyal and intelligent. She is going to college to earn a law degree so she can fight political injustice legally. Clearly Liam can’t develop as a dark fantasy hero with that kind of a wife at his side. I speculated early on that a specific Very Bad Thing would happen to Mary Kate and that’s exactly what did happen.
The predictability of the plot and the implausibility of the priest are issues, but this is such an original idea that those should have been minor obstacles. Ultimately, Leicht’s pacing is a more serious problem. Her writing is thoughtful and beautiful, but the paragraphs amble along, all about the same length, with sentences about the same size and shape, whether the scene is a description of a graveyard, a family dinner, a heist or a car race. Even Liam’s discovery of the body of a family member unreels in stately, even paragraphs with no sense of increasing urgency. This could work in a Dickens, or even a Joyce, pastiche, but it didn’t work here. Nothing pulled me forward in this book.
This is meant to be the origin story of the partnership of Liam and Father Murray, and Leicht’s research of 1970s Ireland is superb. I think Leicht would do beautifully with short fiction or a mainstream novel, but as a fantasy novel, this just didn’t engage me.