Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Once Upon a Time in Olde Boston Towne

Bishop O'Connell, The Stolen: An American Faerie Tale

Brendan Kavanagh is an exile from  the Fian, an ancient order of Irish avengers. Ageless and undying, he's wandered New England since gaslight times, plagued by guilt. Caitlyn Brady is a nurse and single mother just getting by. When granite-eyed dark fae, the oíche-sidhe, steal Caitlyn's red-haired Celtic daughter from her bed, Brendan and Caitlyn become necessary allies in Fiona's rescue. They cannot know that Fiona is actually a pawn in faeryland's brewing civil war.

There's a certain faux-Celtic mishmash I call "Magically Delicious," honoring the prancing twit from the Lucky Charms commercials. It's something I usually mock and deride. That isn't helped by this book's tendency to brew a Mulligan stew of urban fantasy tropes: the fae court concealed in a techno club, evil beings who have guns but politely attack one-by-one with blades, faery battles disguised as street warfare. Jim Butcher readers may find this book excessively familiar.

Yet out of loyalty to the author (with whom, full disclosure, I attended high school) I persevered, and I'm glad I did. Turns out, the over-comfy genre name-dropping is only set dressing. Bishop O'Connell has actually created a smart, layer-cake narrative which uses potboiler stereotypes to tell a more sophisticated story. Like Mary Poppins' proverbial spoonful of sugar, O'Connell's tale makes palatable what we secretly need by hiding it behind what we think we want.

Caitlyn stumbles into a common city-dwellers' nightmare, the midnight mugging. Okay, the muggers bleed black sludge and heal supernaturally, but this isn't escapism. Anyone who's had anything stolen knows that feeling of violation, knowing your life's been compromised. Except Caitlyn's literally has, since her attackers use her purse to magically invade her home, kidnap her daughter, and ensorcell her household. Caitlyn faces every city mommy's worst nightmare, except to awaken, she must first go deeper.

Bishop O'Connell's male protagonist, Brendan, is
a big kilt-wearing Celt. This is Bishop O'Connell.
I'm sure it's just a coincidence.
Brendan has a beast inside. Literally. If he ever gives into his rage, which has festered for centuries, he shapeshifts into a killing machine. This beast once killed his one true love, and he fears letting anyone close. Neither human nor fae, he belongs nowhere. But his ironclad sense of justice perks up when oíche steal Fiona, pulling him back into the supernatural world he once fled. He may now need the monster inside.

Besides these leading Jungian archetypes, their supporting ensemble includes some familiar faces from fantasy. The apprentice wizard who must uncover deeper resolve to defend those he loves. The elven nobleman who pretends to be jaded with power and age, until threats become too vast to ignore. And the ultimate villain, whose secret bond to our protagonists could upend everything they think they know about themselves. Though familiar, O'Connell invests these ensemble characters with full psychological depth.

Okay, the story isn't entirely perfect. Where O'Connell gives his characters depth, he does so with great metaphorical weight. But to create his fae civil war, O'Connell also creates many characters, some named, some not, whose only purpose is to die. Some climactic scenes have a "Redshirts versus Stormtroopers" feel, because characters die without first earning our sympathy. I kept waiting for these scenes to end, and get back to the stuff I really like.

That said, even those scenes have potential. When the beautiful, dutiful elves battle harpies, púca, and other creatures of pure id, we can see the profound depths beneath the common fantasy trappings. If O'Connell doesn't push that potential as far as an egghead like me would, if he sometimes foregrounds the paperback adventure we've grown comfy with, that doesn't mean the deeper stuff isn't there. Sometimes you have to tell the story your audience wants.

Like Star Wars or High Noon, this novel follows the common mythic patterns of human experience. This doesn't mean the story is predictable or simplistic. It frequently surprised me, though what happens always seems natural afterward. Rather, like Grimm's fairy tales, O'Connell's story is ultimately about its readers, about our own journey through life's unbeautiful turmoil. Fairyland, Tir na nÓg, whatever you call it, finally, it isn't a place, it's a metaphor for our own psychological landscape.

Did O'Connell mean everything I've stated? Maybe. Though I know him, we're not close. Maybe everything I've said says something about me. These subtexts certainly aren't blatant; I only finished the book on my second try. But I'm glad I did. This book rewards casual readers seeking an adventure to fall asleep under, but it also challenges we who seek something meatier. Meeting divergent readers where they live: what better can any good book do?

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