In O’Brien’s historical novel, an Irishman can’t seem to escape chaos and strife, no matter where he goes.
Starting with the Irish Rebellion in 1798, this tale follows Kevin Neal as he grows up surrounded by political turmoil and talk of supernatural beings, including faeries and the Púca, a beastly warrior who he claims is real. One day, the 7-year-old protagonist and his female friend Anty discuss the area’s ongoing violence; soon afterward, Kevin loses his whole family in a military battle. He’s taken in by the Walsh family, consisting of father Nick, mother Judith, and two sons. After years of hardship, their land continues to keep them in debt. Nick is asked by the uncaring landlord to patch his roof, but he slips and falls, resulting in a permanent limp. Then the Walshes’ friend Joseph Kavanaugh is killed—one of the first in a string of mysterious, terribly violent murders. The family finds a new place to live, but the change of setting doesn’t save Kevin and his adopted family from misfortune, and conflicts between the Catholics and Protestants cause more trouble for them. One good thing comes of the move, though: Kevin is reunited with Anty, and as they grow older, romantic feelings blossom. But more violence is in store for Kevin and those closest to him. Soon, suspicions rise and people in town accuse Kevin of bringing the Púca, and all its evils, into their lives. Over the course of this novel, O’Brien’s realistic dialogue is its strongest attribute, occasionally using phonetic speech to get across each character’s vernacular, which allows each one to come alive on the page. The author combines this technique with phrasing that seems rather modern for the time period, but it allows for clear plot development through conversation; indeed, at times, some of these exchanges feel a bit too exposition-heavy. That said, O’Brien keeps the narrative pace steady, and it’s clear he’s done a significant amount of research into the politics and folklore of his story’s time and place, resulting in compelling worldbuilding throughout.
An often thrilling tale that expertly mixes fantasy and history.