This highly intriguing epic is set in tenth century Ireland, a time when the coasts of Ireland are beset by opportunistic Vikings and Christianity is spreading far and wide taking over from the Vikings’ belief in the Norse gods and Valhalla. It follows the fates of a Fomorian - a witch in possession of fire magic who have extremely long lives and do not age until the final year of their life - necessitating that they leave everything and move every so often to hide the fact they are not aging. The Fomorians have been persecuted and almost wiped out by another band of non mortal beings of power, the mysterious Descendants of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The Descendants believe they have wiped out all of the fire witches, thus saving mankind from their evil. However they have missed two - Gormflaith and her brother.
There are two main point of view characters, whose stories are told in alternate chapters - two very different strong women, Gormflaith the Fomorian and Fódla the Descendant. These are both so well-written many layered females who are hell bent on survival in a man’s world. Both are fiercely protective of their charges - in Gormflaith’s case this is her son, Sitric. Her ambition for him to become a respected King of Dublin knows no bounds. Gormflaith is a relentless, Machiavellian character, extremely smart and well-versed in politics and history, she can see exactly who she needs to manipulate in order to get what she wants for her son Sitric and has no qualms about whatever needs to be done. We see her murdering his rivals in cold blood, using her body where necessary, or any other means available to her to get what she wants. She is someone it would be wise to keep on your side rather than make an enemy of! She was very enjoyable to read.
“The Fomorians were a strange breed to be sure. Power-hungry, dangerous, destructive. It’s in their blood.”
The other main character, Fódla, has sworn to look after her nephew, Broccan, after his mother, her beloved sister Rónnat, is banished to an island by the rest of the Descendants of the Tuatha Dé Danann for falling pregnant by a mortal. Blessed with healing powers, Fódla is in hiding in a secret fortress with the remainder of the Descendants at the beginning of the story.
She is a much gentler character than Gormflaith, brave but cautious, sensible and loyal to her people, fiercely protective of those she loves and quick to anger over the senselessness of war and the pain and suffering it causes. After voting on a New Agreement, the Descendants have withdrawn from mankind thinking they have saved the mortal race from the witches. Having been warned of the anger and destructive power of mortal men by Tomas, the leader of the Descendants, naturally cautious Fódla is wary of them. She is a rule follower and eventually has to weigh up her protective nature and desire to save lives against her inherent need to follow the rules of her people.
The powers of the Descendants are slowly fading and Tomas, is keen to find ways to strengthen them. Tomas believes that breeding with mortals is a factor in the weakening of their gifts and demands strict punishment when he discovers Rónnat’s pregnancy via a mortal.
“How strange things had become since we had voted for the New Agreement and withdrawn from the mortals. Laeg had once used her gift to drain and refill rivers and lakes – now it was a party trick to fill wine goblets. Gobnat had once used her gift to change her appearance to kill her enemies – now she used it as a tool for her own vanity.”
Tomas sends Fódla accompanied by her nephew, four year old Broccan out into the world of men to infiltrate King Brian Boru’s court to spy and report back what she learns about the likelihood of a peace treaty and this is where her story arc really takes off. What Fódla discovers surprises her:
“I didn’t speak. I couldn’t. His words mirrored many of my own thoughts. Was it truly possible that this mortal man wanted to change things? My heart fluttered at the thought of it. A world of peace. A world where a girl like Aoife could have left the fortress on Fennit Island and found a man worthy of her. A land where Broccan could grow up in safety, just as Rónnat wanted. “I hope with all my heart that the treaty holds. Is it possible?””
Fódla was a much nicer character than Gormflaith but somehow she was less compelling. However, I found the diminishing of their magical powers and the decreasing numbers of Descendants being born with gifts to be a very interesting concept. I would love there to have been more focus on the history of this group and to have found out more about their origins - I thought they were fascinating!
“In the old religion, the people of Ireland followed the teachings of the Tuatha Dé Danann. There were fewer rules to be sure, less judgement. Our ancestors spoke of peace and love, but also, I had to admit, revelled in mischief. The new religion had none of that.”
The characters were what really grabbed me with this book, I do love strong female protagonists, but there is also plenty of detailed world-building. Ireland and the other locations are painted lovingly by Lawless and the history and mythology are ever present without there being any sense of too much information being given at once. The magic and ‘gifts’ feel like natural magical skills rather than outlandish powers. There are no spell books or magical equipment involved. The action is fast paced and exciting and the inevitable meeting of the two sides and the two main characters had me holding my breath, waiting to see if Fódla would recognise Gormflaith as a Fomorian.
Fans of historical fiction will enjoy this book just as much as those who love epic fantasy and I cannot recommend it highly enough!! It absorbed my full attention on the first page and didn’t let go of me until the bitter end. Bring on the sequel and then the TV adaptation!