O.R. Melling, The Hunter's Moon (Amulet Publishing, 2005)
O.R. Melling, The Summer King (Amulet Publishing, 2006)
O. R. Melling was born in Ireland, grew up in Canada, and currently lives in Ireland once more -- an enviable odyssey. She has paralleled it with a scholar's journey through Ireland's mythic past, earning degrees in Medieval Irish History and Celtic Studies and Philosophy. Her paper "The Moon in the Bog: A Resurrection Myth for Women," was presented at the WERCC Conference, Celebrating Irish Women's Writing, at University College Dublin.
Her interest in children's literature goes back to the mid-1990's, when she was reviewing children's books and lamenting the paucity of modern Irish juvenile literature (No Love or Respect: The Apartheid of Children's Literature in Ireland, CLAI (Children's Books In Ireland, December Issue 1993). Beggining in 1993, her cycle of modern heroic tales,The Chronicles of Faerie, was published by Penguin. It is now being re-published in the United States by Amulet Publishing as a juvenile (8th grade and up), in very handsome editions.
The first of these is The Hunter's Moon, following two cousins through a perilous exploration of the Lands of Faerie. American Gwen has come to Ireland to visit her cousin Findobhair; both girls are 16, romantic and fascinated with the Irish lore of the fey. All they actually have in mind is a walking tour of historic sites, but they are embroiled in the desperate plans of others before they even take to the road. Finvarra, the King of Faerie, has seen Findobhair and desires her -- not only for her beauty, but to pay his people's ancient tithe to Crom Cruac, Lord of Death. If the sacrifice is not made at the Hunter's Moon, then Faerie will be destroyed -- and with it, the dreams and soul of humankind as well.
When the cousins decide to sleep in a cave on the ancient Royal Hill of Tara, it's just a lark -- neither one expects anything to actually happen. But Findobhair is stolen away by the Faerie King; Gwen resists, although he tries to take her as well, and wakes alone on the hill. The rest of the story follows her desperate quest to rescue her cousin, a quest that evolves gradually into the necessity of also saving Faerie itself from the danger of Crom Cruac and the Hunter's Moon. She faces trials, she gathers companions both true and false, and in the end Gwen does prevail. Won over by her courage, and having fallen in love with Findobhair, King Finvarra pays the tein to Crom Cruac himself, but his sacrifice will not dismay younger readers; he is ultimately redeemed by love.
The characters of Gwen and Findobhair are both initially lively and complex; Gwen continues to develop as her hunt carries her across Ireland, but Findobhair rather sinks into the background. Being actually in Faerie seems to dim her light and leave her as arm-candy for Finvarra. While Findobhair is the one carried off to Faerie, Gwen herself is just as firmly caught between the two realms -- she has to save her cousin and herself, Faerie and the human world. If she loses one, she loses all. Her courage and resourcefulness are well portrayed and just exemplary enough to stir a young reader without setting off bells of Good Example Warning.
The faeries are neither sweet nor simple, and are one of the better aspects of Melling's imagination. By contrast to Findobhair, the other humans whom Gwen encounters -- classical faerie-friends from the epics, including a Wise Woman and the young minor king of a tiny island -- are all well realized, if a little too nice to be true. There is a happy ending, complete with true loves and golden fates. But this is a faerie tale, after all.
Melling sets this an absolutely modern Ireland, but she interweaves both the older rural Ireland and the ancient mythical landscape of Eire into a single, multi-layered world. Sometimes this is interestingly literal, as when a bespelled Gwen watches the view out a bus window shift through ages and dimensions, in and out of Faerie. At other times, Melling evokes the traditional faerie lore through characters and settings lovingly borrowed from the old tales: the Faerie Rout and the Wild Hunt, the beings both friendly and terrible that help or hunt Gwen. This is a fascinating mixture, and will well reward any young reader who has already begun to explore the worlds of classic Celtic myth. Hopefully, it will also move other youngsters to explore the wider horizons of fantasy beyond Goosebumps.
The Summer King is the second book in The Chronicles of Faerie, but it's not a direct-line sequel. One of Melling's recurring themes is that faerie and humankind are interdependent, and that classically only a human can save faerie when doom threatens. She returns enjoyably enough to that theme in this book. It remains to be seen in future books whether she also continues to tie her narratives into pairs of young women, but she does do it again here. The protagonists of The Summer King are twin sisters -- Laurel and Honor, American-born but of Irish descent.
The story opens with the bereaved Laurel returning to Ireland on the year-anniversary of her twin's death in a climbing accident, on a cliff above the town of Bray (which happens to be where the author lives, as well). As Laurel was the active, outgoing twin and Honor a bookish romantic, Laurel is not only grieving but trying to understand how her quiet sister came to her death on the side of a mountain. The answer shocks realist Laurel: Honor was convinced she was chasing faeries.
And so she was. But Faerie, it turns out, was actually seeking a champion in Laurel. Since she did not believe, they trapped Honor instead, only semi-accidentally. The King of Summer, a puissant faerie lord, is missing; he must be found before Midsummer's Day, to light the ritual fire that brings heat and light back to the worlds of faerie and mankind alike. Only a human can find the Summer King and restore him to his throne. While faerie has a new High King -- Finvarra having lost his immortality at the end of "The Hunter's Moon" -- the new king, Midir, cannot be confirmed except through the Midsummer rites. Without that confirmation, Faerie will die. And if Faerie fades, the soul of humanity will fade as well.
As a further complication, Midir confesses to Laurel that he loves her sister, Honor. And if Laurel can find the Summer King, Honor will be restored to life, and to the love of Midir and her sister.
With only a week to Midsummer, Laurel throws herself frantically into the hunt. She is ferociously opposed by eldritch raven warriors who hate the Summer King for an evil deed done ages past. Midir offers her mere scraps of information, and even his appointed ambassador (a cluricaun, a more cheerful cousin of the leprecaun) gives her only hints and dubious aid. Laurel's most staunch companion is also the most infuriating -- her ex-boyfriend Ian, a melancholy young man who has never fit into the ordinary life of Bray, but who at least believes her about her quest.
The King of the Birds, faerie hosts, the vanishing island of Hy Brazil, the immortal warriors of the pirate-queen Grainne Ui Mhaille, Ian, the Summer King himself -- no one and nothing is precisely what Laurel thinks they are, and the sides are not as clear cut as she imagines. Her quest becomes a thousand-year old murder mystery. Good and Evil are intertwined here, and Laurel finds herself fighting her own uncertainty as the clear black and white of the high quest dissolves into a grey desperation.
Laurel triumphs in the end, but that victory is muted by the travails of the quest and the ancient tragedies revealed. Honor returns to life, but not to the Earth: she has died, and so Midir claims her for an immortality in faerie. Laurel is left stronger, but sadder. It's definitely an end for older readers.
This is a darker, stronger book than Melling's first one. The heroines are older, the dangers more explicit, and the hints of love and even sex a little more obvious. The ultimate battle is pretty horrifying, and the good guys suffer as much as the bad ones. The result's not beyond the range of younger teens, though, especially if they are already interested in classic fantasy and have made their way through The Hunter's Moon. Melling may be counting on her audience to grow up with the succeeding tales, a la J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter saga. It's an admirable goal.
With her fluid mixing of times and worlds, Melling manages to downplay most potential historical inconsistencies quite well. One does glare, though: cast back to the 16th century to enlist the very real Irish pirate-queen Grainne Ui Mhaille, Laurel and Ian are caught in a sea battle. They hide behind rum kegs lashed to the rail above decks. While rum is currently a vital part of any pirate scenario, it did not enter any portion of the British Isles until nearly a century later. And I think so patriotic an Irishwoman as Grainne might have fed her sailors whiskey anyway.
Even as an adult, I enjoyed both these books. However, Melling does have one annoying habit. She peppers her narrative with lines from the old poetic texts of Irish mythology -- but she does it without references. Lines and whole verses are inserted without explanation into paragraphs of otherwise ordinary description. Sometimes the beautiful old poetry is italicized, and perhaps a curious young reader will realize there is something special here and follow the clues to the stirring originals. Melling is an accomplished scholar, and doubtless it's her love of the old stories that leads her to sow them broadcast through her own prose. But it would have been better and more enlightening if she had identified them. She does include copious glossaries of Gaelic names and phrases at the ends of both volumes. Surely, she could have attributed these powerful works properly to the classic sources
Nonetheless, this series evolves well through the first two books. Amazon now lists at least three others in the series (The Druid's Tune, The Light-Bearer's Daughter and The Book of Dreams), and her audience can look forward to more heroic journeys into the fascinating Realm of Faerie.
Go here to listen to O.R. Melling of the Chronicles of Faerie series discusses fantasy, the craft of writing, the Harry Potter effect, and Charles de Lint in a wide ranging interview on the webcast Tiger Eye Reading Room.