Of Blood and Honey
Author – Stina Leicht
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Release Date: January 25, 2011
Is that a dirty phrase to your ears? Do you think of sexy vampires? Sassy heroines? Sex, tramp stamps and one-liners?
“Oh, I don’t like that stuff,” you say.
“Stina Leicht’s Of Blood and Honey is different,” I respond. It’s alive. It has a message. It’s violent because life is violent. There’s sex because the politics of it help define us as humans. More guns are loaded with rubber bullets than silver. No vampires are in sight, and the only werewolf is the shadow of the protagonist’s inner-demons. Throw your misconceptions aside, forget about Sookie Stackhouse and Anita Blake, and explore a whole other facet of the sub-genre.
Set in the early- to mid-seventies, Of Blood and Honey is told against the backdrop of the Troubles, the political warfare that plagued Northern Ireland from the 1960’s to as recently as 2010. As bloody, depraved, violent and twisted as any fictional war, this guerilla warfare between the Irish Republic Army, the British Army, the Ulster Defence Force, the Ulster Volunteer Force and many other forces is the perfect backdrop to tell the story of the mysterious Fey of Ireland as they struggle in a eerily similar battle against the fallen angels brought to the emerald isle when the Catholics settled.
Unlike Mark Chadbourn‘s similar series, The Age of Misrule, which throws its characters right into the mix and has a dragon raining fire on England in the early pages, Leicht instead chooses to focus much of the plot on Liam Kelly, a young Catholic with a protestant father he’s never met, and his struggles to grow up as a Catholic amidst the terror of British occupation. Most of this Fey war happens behind the scenes, relayed only through veiled dialogue and referential descriptions of the struggles, until the end of the novel when all hell breaks loose. It may not always be fun (in the strictest sense of the word), or enjoyable, but Liam’s descent through hell and his subsequent rise back to redemption is a harrowing, heartbreaking tale that sheds light on some of the harsh realities of growing amidst the Troubles.
As a protagonist, Liam is hard to pin down. He’s not always likeable, and you’ll often find yourself yelling at the page as he makes another poor decision or digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole of shit, but there’s a quiet humour to him and a charisma that enabled me to connect to him and feel empathy towards him despite his misgivings. Much of the driving force behind the novel is Liam’s struggles with his own inner demons (literally), and it’s an opportunity that Leicht also uses as an allegory for the Irish people’s own struggles with fighting a righteous war for freedom while struggling against the temptation to fall into unnecessary, vicious violence. It’s so easy for those caught up right in the middle of warfare, especially guerilla warfare, to forget their humanity and give themselves over to the animalistic instincts that hide dormant in us all. Liam fights against these tendencies, but often loses. His path to eventual redemption is made sweeter for all these failings.
[U]rban fantasy is a genre sitting on top of a great big huge cultural discomfort about women and power. The typical UF heroine (as I’ve come to understand her) is a kick-ass woman with a variety of possible lovers. She’s been forced into power which she often doesn’t understand, and can face down any danger while at the same time captivating the romantic attention of the dangerous, edgy men around her. She’s been forced into power — either through accident of birth or by being transformed without her permission — and is therefore innocent of one of the central feminine cultural sins: ambition. She is in relationships primarily with men rather than in community with women. “Bad boys” want her, and they won’t be bad to her. Etc, etc, etc.
The thing that sets almost (and there are exceptions I’ll talk about in a minute here) all the urban fantasy heroines apart from real women as found in the real world is this: they don’t fear rape.
I understand and sympathize with them. As a man, I don’t fear rape either. I understand intellectually that I could be a victim of it, but it just doesn’t seem plausible. It doesn’t impinge on my consciousness the way that it does for women. And so — while urban fantasy embodies so many of the insecurities about women and power — here, it falls into real fantasy. They’re immune to traditional masculine power (that’s to say violence) because they have internalized it. They’ve become it. Urban Fantasy heroines are — for the most part — weaponized.
Leicht, however, has a male protagonist and no such qualms about exploring the shattering effect and repercussions of rape. Early in the novel, her protagonist is raped and the experience casts a long shadow over the rest of the novel. It’s a difficult scene to read, but, like much of the novel, it’s believable and creates plausible motivations for many of the characters failings. Leicht is telling a story set in a time and place where a man had reason to fear rape just as much as women, and Leicht doesn’t protect her readers from any of these brutal realities. This harshness might hold the novel back from finding a wide audience, and it’s not for the weak of heart, but neither were the Troubles.
The lines that Leicht draws between the Troubles and her Fey war are fascinating. By casting faeries and fallen angels in the role of (essentially) Britain and Ireland, she’s able to dig into the conflict and explore the concepts of misconception, political and religious zealousness and the absurdity of hating your neighbour for no reason other than the denomination he or she was born into, without trudging through the same tired talking points covered in history books. There’s a moment in the novel when one character realizes how egregiously wrong he’s been about the relationship between the church and the Fey (whom he has been hunting and murdering mercilessly for years, because the church commanded it of him and told him that he was just for doing so) that is simply heartbreaking when one considers the similar atrocities that were practiced on innocent Irish civilians through that troubled period.
Though the particulars of the Fey’s war against the Fallen are kept in the dark to both Liam and the reader, it’s clear that Leicht has a whole other world brimming underneath the Ireland we know and love. There’s a too-brief glimpse at the Fey/Fallen conflict at the end of the novel, but many promises are made for the novels coming in the future. Ireland is a land of many stories, whether Fey or Human, and Leicht looks poised to introduce them to her lucky readers in the future.
Not since Jim Butcher’s Storm Front have I read an Urban Fantasy that has felt so relevant to the overall discussion of Fantasy literature. Of Blood and Honey is Fantasy that deserves to stand alongside the best that authors like Powers, Gaiman and De Lint have to offer. It’s not perfect, but Leicht blew me away with her debut and has the potential to become a very important name in the annals of Urban Fantasy. If you’re bored of the same ol’ Epic Fantasy, or you need a break from spaceships, hyperdrives and anti-grav suits, cleanse your palette with Of Blood and Honey and find out just how good Urban Fantasy can be.