Inspired by Celtic mythology, Bradford’s debut fantasy novel follows its title character from unhappy childhood through the evolution of her powers as a caillagh (witch).
Nemain grows up as ward to Lord Winworth, a kind but distant Lowland noble. Though she’s close to Winworth’s daughter, Monessa, and Tynan, his Northern farrier, she’s loathed by his sister, Bronwyn, and regarded askance by most. First, there’s the shame of her parentage: her mother belonged to a shunned underclass called Outlanders; second, Nemain was born with “a strange and terrible deformity,” hands “like a corpse’s, withered and misshapen.” To hide this unsettling defect, she wears gloves most of the time, only removing them to play the fiddle, which she does with great skill. Accepting that marriage is not her destiny, Nemain is glad to apprentice with Rhiannon, a caillagh who teaches her herb lore, magic, and Northern legends of the Good Folk, including a goddess who’s bound to protect Nemain. But after both Tynan—who reveals himself to be her father—and Rhiannon die, Nemain sets out on an immram, “a pilgrimage of sorts, although the destination mattered less than the journey itself.” Traveling north, she seeks the truth about herself and her proper place in the world. It takes her years to find them. Bradford blends Celtic lore with her own ideas, using Irish words for her “Northern” dialect but admitting in an author’s note that she’s not fluent; still, it’s an effective way to ground her world, and she’s willing to bend the myths to suit her story. The pacing can be uneven: years will sometimes pass in a paragraph, and it seems implausible that nothing significant happened. But Nemain—courageous, inquisitive, and somehow down-to-earth despite her otherworldly profession—is a pleasant character to spend time with. The reader can see her happy ending coming, but that makes it no less satisfying when it arrives.
Predictable but nonetheless engaging.