Michael Fay is a normal boy, living with his grandparents on their family farm in rural Ireland. In the woods there are wolves; and other things, dangerous things. He doesn’t tell his family, not even his Aunt Rose, his closest friend.
And then, as Michael wanders through the trees, he finds himself in the Other Place. There are strange people, and monsters, and a girl called Cat.
When the wolves follow him from the Other Place to his family’s doorstep, Michael must choose between locking the doors and looking away – or following Cat on an adventure that may take an entire lifetime in the Other Place.
Paul Kearney is an author I’ve seen people rave about ever since I started blogging. At the time he was in the middle of publishing his The Macht trilogy and there were a number of bloggers I discovered early on who are huge fans of that series (Looking at you, Speculative Scotsman!). So I was excited to learn that Solaris would be republishing his earlier work and The Macht series. However, based on what I’d read about The Macht, which as I recall it was akin to military fantasy, A Different Kingdom was quite different (no pun intended) than I’d expected. Instead of a raw, hard, military fantasy, this book is a far more traditional fairy tale, though with some very dark elements. Its sensibilities reminded me powerfully of Charles de Lint’s The Little Country though with a darker edge.
The story set in our world, is set in County Antrim, Northern Ireland and starts in 1953 and it is a Northern Ireland on the brink of the modern age, where cars and electricity are still seen as new-fangled and many people still travel by horse and cart and farm work is done by hand and horsepower. It was a time when The Troubles were still very much unsolved, but apart from some mentions on the periphery of the narrative they don’t seem to play a large part in the story, at least as far as I could tell and in as far as The Troubles don’t unavoidably influence any Northern-Irish author. However, I might be completely mistaken in this assessment. Religion as a whole, on the other hand, definitely plays a large role in the story, both in our world and in the Other Place. In our world, it means that Michael loses his beloved aunt Rose, when she becomes pregnant outside of wedlock and she’s sent away to have the baby elsewhere. Rose tells Michael that it’s the family priest that is sending her away and in a devout Catholic household in the 1950’s that wouldn’t have been uncommon. In the Other Place it’s The Brothers and their Knights – transplanted Early Christian monks – that are one of the few powers that provide safety against the Horseman and his wolfish minions. They and iron are anathema to the fey folk called the Wyrim. On the whole though, Michael remains conflicted about his faith and especially the Brothers never clearly fall on the side of either good or bad.
Michael is a likeable protagonist and easy to connect with. His tale has many of the classic elements of the Hero’s Journey, a fact acknowledged in the text when one of his allies discovers one of his reasons of travelling to the other place and declares he is on a quest. The one thing I really had a problem with was his age. At the start of his adventures in the Other Place, Michael was thirteen and he never felt like he was that young. Especially his relationship with Cat seems far too mature for a boy his age. Along the same lines his close and sometimes innuendo-laden relationship with his Aunt – for whom he develops an almost oedipal longing – left me quite unsettled. Cat, his wyrim lover and fellow adventurer is sympathetic, but remains opaque; we never truly learn her motivations. She is of the Other Place, a place both magical and dark and her nature reflects this. This goes for the other secondary characters from the Other Place as well, especially the Horseman and his minions, but Mirkady and his wyrim and the Brothers as well. In a sense they are true fairy-tale characters, ones who fill a specific role in the narrative and remain somewhat fuzzy in other aspects. It is only on closer examination after finishing the book, however, that this becomes clear, within the narrative the reader is swept along on the adventure and the wonderful sense of atmosphere that fills the book.
The ending of A Different Kingdom is amazing, being neither wholly happy, but not wholly sad either; it was just a perfect ending to this story. It’s hard to put a finger on what I think of the book. I was carried away into the Other Place by the writing and the atmosphere of the tale, but once I finished and stepped away from it, I suddenly began to notice all these niggles with it. In the end, I think the book is like its ending: it didn’t make me wholly happy, but it didn’t make me wholly sad either; it was just the perfect shape for the story and one that perhaps didn’t work perfectly for me. However, I did enjoy it and it’s made me really curious to read more of Kearney’s work to see how I get on with that.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.