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Celtic and Japanese cultures give visual and emotional charge to two recent fantasy novels.

There is much richness and complexity on offer in fantasy writing, as well as extraordinarily varied and layered resources available to the writer. Two recently published books demonstrate this for me with heaps of panache. Interestingly, they both use aspects of Celtic and Japanese cultures, in very different ways, to give a visual and emotional charge to their narratives.

Bridge of Swords  (Part One of Empire of Bones) opens with an elf thrown from his hidden land, Dokusen, as a result of machinations within his realm concerning the decay of magic and the bitter rivalry between his brutal father, the tyrant at the head of the council, and the equally untrustworthy controllers of magic, the magic-weavers. His name is Sendatsu. He must leave behind his adored motherless children and his unattainable love, Asami, and seek the reasons for the separation of the two cultures, human and elvish, which occurred in the far past. The magic barrier between the two lands is fading. There are suspicions that the elves stole magic from the humans.

Sendatsu finds himself in a land of peasants bereft of any of the comforts of elegant living that he has known as part of the elvish ruling class. This land is called Vales, and if that rings a bell, the fact that the two characters he meets and travels with are called Rhiannon and Huw might make the idea of Celtic culture also resonate.

The fascinating things for me in this book are, firstly, the characterisation. Lay excels at presenting the relationships which develop between these three characters, with warmth and insight. They are all charmingly flawed.  Sendatsu has been bullied by his father into a sort of passive selfishness. Rhiannon has such a ludicrously inflated vision of the perfection of elves that she can see nothing at all of the reality; she is slightly ridiculous although loveable a beautiful singer and dancer who has unknowingly been groomed by her ambitious father to be sold to the King of Forland. This king, Ward, is sneakily attacking Vales by sending raiders in the hope that the Velsh will ask him to protect them from his own raiders    yes, it is the complexity we like! Rhiannon hopes to go to the enclosed land of Dokusen and dance with the elves.

Her friend Huw is also in a difficult place emotionally; he loves Rhiannon, but has lied to her and sees her become infatuated with the elf, Sendatsu:

‘I promise you this – if you can help me finish my quest, I shall show you Dokuzen,’ Sendatsu vowed. If you can decipher that book or do magic, then I shall have to take you back – although it will put  your lives in as much danger as mine, if not more, he added silently.

Rhiannon squealed with excitement and clapped her hands together at the thought, before regaining control of herself. I have to stop acting like a moonstruck maiden if I am to impress him, she decided.

Secondly, I love the way aspects of cultural difference are used to enhance the interactions. The complexity demonstrated at the edges and the borders, which is an important part of all genre fantasy, is very much in evidence here. The elves explicitly carry characteristics of the Samurai. So, for the reader, actual knowledge, and half remembered themes from Japanese culture, add to the background. The elegance, the artistry, and the fighting styles of the Japanese are cleverly deployed throughout.  Also, of course, our understanding of the Celtic weirdness and steadfastness of the Welsh, enriches our feelings for Vales.

The three main characters travel through Vales with varying degrees of reluctance, attempting to show the villagers how to defend themselves against the machinations of King Mark’s Forlander raiders. They help the villagers fortify their towns and make very effective and unusual crossbows. There are several skirmishes and battles, all rendered dramatically. But for me, the violence, although graphic, is held at a distance and not off-putting. Our heroes are pursued by several groups, none of whom contain well-wishers.  It is clear that the journey will help them all develop and mature. There are some surprises too; one is quite spectacular and concerns Rhiannon and magic. I will be happy to read the subsequent books in the Empire of Bones.

The Dark Divide, Book Two of The Rift Runners, is also a book that uses Celtic really Faerie and Japanese cultural images and ideas to add an extra dimension to the reader’s enjoyment.

It has a lively and informative prologue, which recaps much, but certainly not all, of Book One, The Undivided.  In it, we discover that Ronan and Darragh, the Undivided twins who are Druid princes and who can channel magic in special ways, were separated when young by Marcoy Tarth, the Faerie prince, for reasons of power, security and control. Darragh was raised in Faerie, or Tir Na nÓg, and is used to magic, but Ren Kavanagh, or Ronan, who was raised in Dublin in the human modern-day world  by a celebrity film star, has not understood his potential and in fact has been a somewhat difficult adolescent.

The concept of rift running is that skilled practitioners with the correct artefacts, usually gems, can move between many realms where there is magic. Again, it is that idea of what can happen at edges and borders, so exciting in fantasy writing, that is at play here.

At the beginning of The Dark Divide, the twins’ situations are reversed. In Dublin, Darragh is dealing with the forces of the modern world. He is tried for larceny, conspiracy to commit murder, as well as kidnapping.  Ciaran, a warrior Druid, is there to help. We know that Ren, who has undergone an extraordinary apotheosis, will also be called on to help Darragh as the story continues.

While Darragh is in the human world of Dublin facing the force of modern law, Ren has been projected across the rift that separates the myriad realms, with his friend Trasa – half-human, half-Faerie – into a frightening world where they face danger from Samurai-like characters who wish to kill them for their obvious magical attributes.  This world appears to be Japanese, but it is situated in Ireland; the inhabitants call it Airurundo. Ren now knows he is a twin and he can access some of the magical knowledge held by his brother:

Ren’s heart began to gallop as he realised he had only seconds to live.

He refused to accept his life could end like this. Ren had just discovered that he had a twin brother. He’d just found out he was a Druid prince capable of wielding unthinkable magic. He’d just pushed his best friend through a dimensional rift to an alternate reality to cure her blindness. He’d just discovered his true home.

He’d just seen Trasa morph into a bird and fly away …

It wasn’t going to end like this.

Not here. Not now.

There is a great deal of information in this short extract. Fallon is a skilful, witty writer,  who manages to weave an extraordinarily complex story with a delicate and often ironic touch. It seems that the Undivided hold the key to resolving the ongoing battle between Faerie and the human Celtic world. There has been a truce or treaty for some time, but elements of both sides would like it to end so that total power would reside with the winners and no further concessions would need to be made. In some realms, Druids in the form of the Matrachari have destroyed magic. Their plots concerning the Undivided form the backbone of this book.

The various groups who have an interest in the future of the Undivided range through a huge spectrum; the Druids, the Tuatha Dé Danann (Faerie or Sidhe), the Brethren, the Celts, the Matrarchai  even the Djinn. Fallon holds it all together with real style. There is a much-needed index of names and meanings at the end of this book. Even so, as a reader, one needs to take note of many clues and hints embedded in the story’s flow. This is a book where one needs to keep one’s wits at work, there is so much happening.

Faerie has been used often in genre fantasy, so much so that real skill is needed to justify its use yet again. The addition of Japanese tropes and images helps make this use of Faerie riveting. The menace in what we know of Samurai culture gives a frisson and an edge. This is an exciting, clever novel, and I certainly look forward to the next one in the series.

Bridge of Swords Duncan Lay, HarperCollins Voyager, 2012, PB, 528pp, $29.99

The Dark Divide Jennifer Fallon, HarperCollins Voyager, 2012, PB, 544pp, $29.99

Folly Gleeson was once a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading clever fantasy novels.

If you would like to order Bridge of Swords from Better Read Than Dead at 10% discount, click here.

If you would like to order The Dark Divide from Better Read Than Dead at 10% discount, click here.

To see if these books are available from Newtown Library, click here.

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