Review: John Dolan
TAKE a brash, social-climbing English lad, plonk him in Cork during the dangerous Elizabethan times, then whisk him away to a fantasy land of war and adventure.
That’s the premise for this excellent work of fantasy fiction, which gives an Irish spin on the JRR Tolkien zeitgeist and stands up very well to that writer’s masterpieces.
Killingworth is an English author with Irish roots, who gave up his job as a teacher to pursue his dream of being an author. Judging by this first novel of a trilogy, his gamble has every chance of paying off.
Our hero is 19-year-old Edward Harry, an orphan who escapes the small-village mentality he grew up in to follow his bristling sense of ambition and destiny.
Well-educated despite his poor birthright, he finds employment as secretary to the famous poet Edmund Spenser and, in 1591, the two are among a party which sails to Cork, where the haughty Spenser owns lands following the Plantations.
Edward follows his master to Kilcolman Castle in Buttevant — where Spenser lived in real life — and the author — who visited the Cork area before penning his book — captures the mood of the era vividly.
The people of Cork are suppressed, mysterious and pose a constant threat to young Edward — both real and imagined.
The teenager befriends a local youth, Calvagh, and the two take advantage of Spenser’s visit to Walter Raleigh in Youghal — where he will dine on potatoes — to embark on an adventure of their own.
They head to Cork city on a Tudor-style shopping expedition, before extending their adventures in Kinsale, Calvagh’s home town. Here, the journey enters the realm of fantasy when the pair take a boat trip and pitch up on the mysterious island of Hy Brazil, a place populated by elves, talking animals, the occasional human and a host of other unusual creatures and deities.
Scholars will be aware of the supposed existence of a Hy-Brasil in Irish mythology — a mist-shrouded isle said to lie in the Atlantic Ocean west of Ireland. A Gaelic Atlantis, if you will.
On Killingworth’s Hy Brazil, Edward’s adventures and misadventures veer from enchanting to downright dangerous, as he meets a bewildering cast of heroes and villains and is pitched headlong into the turbulent civil wars that have beset this magical place.
By the end of the book, Edward has become a war leader whose burgeoning confidence is starting to impress the hostile natives. But can he conquer all before him, placate the god-like powers that have imprisoned him, and make his way home? And can he be reunited with his friend, Calvagh?
All will hopefully be revealed in books two and three of this promising series, which is written in an engaging old-world style that captures the era without ever jarring with this reader.
Edward’s character is one of the many triumphs of this book. Resisting the urge to paint a copybook hero, Killingworth — a scholar of Elizabethan literature — instead creates a boy/man of many personality defects, not the least being his arrogance, imperious self-belief and rash self-confidence.
Despite these many flaws, you soon find yourself rooting for the defiant teenager as he hurtles headlong into a fantastic series of adventures.
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