James A. Hetley, The Summer Country (Ace, 2002)
They have dungeons in the Summer Country. They have slaves in the Summer Country. Camelot is dead.
Arthur is dead. Law is dead. Power rules.
When two worlds collide, lives are thrown into turmoil. People will live, people will die, and magic will rage freely. Maureen Pierce is twenty-eight, but looks young for her age. She works as a convenience store clerk, in the town of Naskeag Falls, Maine. She lives with her wilder, hard-partying sister Jo. Almost psychotically afraid of intimacy, she carries a Smith and Wesson Chief's Special, .38, and she's not afraid to use it. And it doesn't do her a damn bit of good when a dark, squat, terrifying stranger stalks her one wintry night. That's when everything she knows is shoved into a blender and turned to mush. That's when the mysterious Brian Albion appears from nowhere to save her, destroying the seemingly unkillable man he calls Liam, incinerating the body before it can come back to life. That's when Brian tells Maureen that magic still exists, and she's the newest pawn in a game that has stretched on for centuries...
Enter the Old Ones, the beings of Celtic myth. The creatures of Camelot, of Arthurian legend, of the Summer Country. Dougal, of Clan MacKenzie, who delights in controlling things, turning them into weapons. Fiona, whose sorceries are as dark as her heart. Her twin brother Sean, vicious and beautiful. These three Old Ones have plans for Maureen, for the Blood and Power she carries deep within her, traits which could make her very useful as a weapon, a tool, a toy, or a slave.
The only thing standing between the three as they plot against one another to gain control of Maureen is Brian, but can he be trusted? Part of the enigmatic Pendragon Order, an Old One in his own right, and it just so happens he's Fiona's brother. What's his game? Who can Maureen rely on? Quite simply... no one but herself.
Before it's over, Maureen and her sister Jo, and Jo's boyfriend David, will be swept up into a world of magic, treachery, beauty, pain, horror, and ecstacy. Maureen will be forced to confront her deepest fears and troubles, and overcome them, or live forever as a slave in a world that could give her what she's always wanted. They'll all need to dig deep to find the strengths to outwit immortal, capricious beings of immense power.
The Summer Country evokes some of the best of Charles de Lint, with roots both in gritty urban reality, and a fantastic otherworld filled with dangers and magic. It draws deeply from classical stories and traditional Celtic myth, all the while putting on a slightly new spin. Though we get to know Fiona, Sean, Dougal, and Brian quite well, we can never say we truly understand them. They're not evil so much as selfish, self-absorbed, amoral, thinking of their own needs and desires above all else, and not caring who gets hurt along the way. They don't subscribe to conventional morality or scruples, and that makes them all the more alien. In short, they're the Fae of Tam Lin, of Thomas the Rhymer, of La Belle Dame Sans Merci, the otherworldly creatures named the Fair Folk because you fear or respect them, but don't know or trust them. This is part of The Summer Country's strength, that it can take the Fae back to their purest, scariest incarnations and still make them viable point-of-view characters. Also, Hetley's sense of characterization is quite strong. Maureen is a broken soul, have no doubt, and we're given a good, believable look at the ruins of her psyche and the struggle she faces in becoming whole and functioning again.
The Summer Country is as merciless and uncompromising as the Fae themselves, taking no prisoners in its portrayal of two worlds colliding and the culture clash created as a result. It's the sort of book that makes me want more of the same. Hell, it's the sort of book that makes me enjoy Celtic myth all over again. Considering that this is James Hetley's first novel, it looks like we've got a real talent to watch out for. I highly recommend this book for lovers of Celtic myth, fantasy, and magic realism. It's got all the right elements, and very few stumbling blocks (there's a certain emphasis on the physical pleasures and the need for breeding that some might find disconcerting) to disqualify it. In short, go find this, and hope there's more to come.
[Michael M. Jones]