Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Those Wily Celts

     Hello out there!  It's been two months since the last post, and honestly, real life interfered a lot.  Two weddings down, one to go, plus a few other trips in between, and the summer is just as busy as the spring.  However, I am trying to catch up on my backlog, so here is the first of three reviews I owe you, my avid fans.  Feel free to comment afterwards, or post questions.  I love a good discussion and dissection of a literary work.


     I have always been a fan of fiction over non-fiction, particularly fantasy (rather than its partner genre, science fiction).  I loved stories of quests, maidens, knights, magic, and all the creatures that go along with them.  As a preteen, I became deeply engrossed in the Grimm brothers and their tellings of old tales; mythology came shortly thereafter in my reading list.  My father had a copy of Bulfinch's Mythology, and I was a grateful recipient.  Admittedly, some of the vocabulary escaped me, and I had a hard time recalling the names of the kings and queens.  Locked within those pages though, was a world at once familiar and alien.  I think to this day that some of my love of history was born from the beautiful and frightening stories told by the Greek myths.

     I've read many collections of fairy tales, from mostly European cultures- Irish, German, Polish, French, British, Scottish, Italian, Dutch, and Scandinavian.  I've read (the majority of) 1001 Arabian Nights; my grandfather had a leather bound copy, printed in the last quarter of the 19th century.  In my teen years, my father gave me a copy of the Upanishads and the poetry of Omar Khayyam, as way of introduction to the more arcane topics of Eastern philosophies, reincarnation, and spirituality outside of religious dogma.  As I became a teacher, I work to create a community of tolerance, so I often read creation myths from Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas.  I think I can say that I have a basic grasp on the mythologies of most of the cultures in the world.

     Despite being so well-read, I can still think of some glaring holes in my knowledge.  In high school I tried to rectify one of them by spending a month or two learning about the Nordic Eddas, after reading Eight Days of Luke by Diana Wynne Jones.  The difficulty lay in the language.  I had such a hard time pronouncing the names of places and people, that it drove me to distraction trying to figure them out; it got to the point that I was reading a story two or three times over for comprehension.  I gained only a working understanding of the Norse pantheon before I gave up on it.  Added to that is the almost complete lack of knowledge of the Celtic pantheon (in part stemming from a lack of fiction books and new age section in my local libraries).  Gaelic only makes sense to me auditorily; the sounds and written letters screw me up every time.  In fact, reading Gaelic to me is a lot like reading Chinese with the English alphabet; when trying to render the sounds in English, the English alphabet fails at the necessary phonetics.

     Imagine my delight when I see a new series about the Celts on a friend's list; I decide it must go on my list too!  The Iron Druid series by Kevin Hearne is a new fish in an old pond.  The author begins with the Celtic pantheon, specifically that of Ireland in the late Roman period.  The main character, one Atticus O'Sullivan, is the last living Druid, and we're not talking the neo-pagan type of the modern era.  Trained in the first century BCE, Atticus is literally older than Jesus.  There are four books thus far, with one set to release later this year, and another set for next year.  The first book, Hounded, plays its role well as an introduction to the main character and the world in which he lives.  The subsequent books are as well-written and compelling.  Each one stems from the previous events, and build up a persona that is as complex as one would expect from someone two millenia old.

     In the first fifteen pages of Hounded, Atticus comes under attack by the Fae offspring of a certain Celtic god, Anghus Og.  It quickly comes to light that Atticus is a man who has spent much of his life on the run, hiding from Anghus Og and much of his own pantheon.  Hiding for the better part of two millenia, Atticus is suddenly finding himself forced to turn and fight.  In doing so, he looks for help from other supernatural creatures- werewolves, vampires, and witches.  He also starts to feel his ageand the lonliness of being the last of his kind, so he decides to take an apprentice, a buxom bartender named Granuaile. 

     Hexed begins just a short time after the end of Hounded.  Atticus finds himself under attack by a host of unsavory characters- Bacchants, witches, and demons.  Instead of being a loner, on the run, and worrying only about himself, Atticus is pushed into being a community protector.  Unfortunately, Atticus is not up to the task, and he is forced to call in back-up.  There is a heavy price in each call, and Atticus is not a man who enjoys being in debt to anyone.

     Those debts come due in the third and fourth books, Hammered and Tricked.  I was riding high on the build-up from the first two books, and then the third book kinda threw me into a corner.  I wasn't prepared for it.  In the first two books, Atticus is like a consummate con artist; he puts me in mind of Mel Gibson's character from Payback.  He has a  goal in mind, and he tries to make sure the collateral damage is minimal, affecting only those who deserve it.  The third book is darker because the plot plays chicken with the reader.  It defines that old adage "Just because you can doesn't mean you should".  You see where it's going, but you tell yourself there's no way Atticus would go all the way, in effect creating a war with an entire pantheon (and the ramifications of such of thing).  Then there are the character ramifications, too, that blindside you.  This book left me with mixed feelings; the writing and the story itself were great, but I was displeased with where it left the reader.  Actually, the author did an amazing job of highlighting the flaws integral to the characters, and how their choices because of those flaws left them in a very bad place.  I just didn't enjoy having to watch it all play out.

     Tricked begins with those ramifications, namely the wrath of the gods of other pantheons.  Atticus decides to start over, in effect, and fake his own death.  Even his own gods believe him to be dead.  In return, Coyote, trickster god of the southwest, calls in a debt owed.  This book also left me feeling a little off-balance; I'm not sure I like where some of the side plots are heading.  On the positive side, Atticus will finely have time and space to train his apprentice, the lovely Granuaile.

     Overall I am hooked on the series.  I love the geek humor inherent to the author's point of view.  There are all kinds of references to Dr. Who, Star Trek, and the sci-fi genre  in general.  I also think the author has more than passing familiarity with roleplaying games, as some of the descriptions sound very reminiscent of ones I've seen.  I'm impressed with the universe created in this series, specifically the use of mythology, and the laws governing types of magic and their use.  The characters are well-defined; I like how the author will sometimes use a supporting character to illuminate the hubris of the main character.  Atticus may be long-lived, and have a lot of power at his command, but he is still as flawed as any other man, and he doesn't always see that about himself until it is too late.

     I am excited that a new energy is being put into an old mythology.  If not for books like Eight Days of Luke, I would not have any knowledge of the Norse pantheon.  Better than that, the book breathed new life into a topic most consider dusty and disconnected from modern life.  The same goes for the Orphans of Chaos series, Percy Jackson series, and the Kane Chronicles.  These books examine the Greek and Egyptian myths, and relate them to the modern world.  I think Kevin Hearne is doing the same through the character of Atticus.  In these times of secularism and science, we still look to archetypes and allegories to help make sense of the choatic elements in our lives, the emotions and gray areas that modern life still can't define.  Myths have a deep and abiding place in our psyches, our collective (and individual) unconsciousness.  We look to them, and we can see ourselves in the fables of gods and men.  Those archetypes live on through us; at times, they capture the heart of a situation better than any psychologist.  Anyone who lives paycheck to paycheck undoubtedly gets the picture that Sisyphus and his boulder paint.  I think that Atticus O'Sullivan is that way, a myth living out a modern life.  I eagerly await his further antics, and how create a legend out of himself.

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