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Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht – review
Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht is a very rare book in my experience. It isn’t often that I get a new book to read and get completely surprised by it. I had one set of assumptions based on the descriptions that I had read, and this book was nothing that I expected. The reason that’s so exciting to me is that I was pleasantly surprised by this book being completely different from what I thought it was.
In hindsight, I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting. Perhaps a less subtle reading experience. When I read blurbs about wars between fallen angels and the fey, I think there will be more of an action movie flair to the entire thing than complex drama. “Sensationalism” would probably be a more accurate word to describe what I had thought I’d encounter in the pages. I half-expected a whole lot of gore and blood and splattery scenes that would make me wish I’d foregone spaghetti the night before, because that’s what so many of the fantasy books about wars seem to involve these days. Of Blood and Honey is a much more personal book than that, far more focused and streamlined in its telling.
Liam Kelly lives in Derry. He was raised Catholic by his mother and knows almost nothing about his biological father, except the name Monroe and a picture stuck in an old children’s book of fairy tales. When the book opens, Liam has the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He gets arrested during a riot and thrown into the Long Kesh internment camp. He’s young and scared and ends up being treated brutally, partly because he’s young and scared, but mostly because he’s Irish and Catholic. After an incident at the prison camp, Liam gains a fearsome reputation as someone not to be bothered.
Upon his release, he returns home with every intention of going back to his life, marrying Mary-Kate, the girl that he’s loved since he was little, and having a peaceful, normal existence. Rumors swirl about what happened in Long Kesh and about Liam himself. He soon discovers that, despite his best intentions, there are larger forces at work.
Father Murray has watched over Liam since Liam’s mother, Kathleen, explained who Liam’s father really was, and he tries to keep Liam safe. Liam’s father, Bran, is Fey and for centuries, the Fey have been at war with The Fallen, a host of demons, fallen angels, and fell creatures that want only wholesale destruction. The Catholic Church is killing everything that has a supernatural bent to it, and soon, because of Liam, their beliefs about the monsters they have been hunting gets called into doubt.
The story, as you might have guessed, is set during the 1970s while tensions between Catholics and Protestants flared. Liam doesn’t start as an active participant. Instead, a series of events seems to carry him deeper and deeper into the conflict.
Liam is a complex character. He’s just a teenager when he gets thrown into prison the first time, and when he emerges, he’s no closer to resolving any of the deeper questions central to his identity than he was when he went in. The years that most kids get to spend figuring out who they are end up falling to the wayside as Liam struggles just to survive. Vital pieces of his identity are missing because no one seems inclined to be forthcoming about his parentage. He doesn’t sink into self-pity or let himself stagnate, but he does seem to do so many of the things he does because it seems like it’s time to do them. As a reader I felt both pity and hope for him, Liam never descends so far that his situation seems completely hopeless. He’s still frustrating as a character, though, because he does seem to end up falling into things far more than he ever seems to choose them.
Father Murray isn’t any easier as a character. He’s a dedicated priest who finds himself having to question the teachings of a church to which he has dedicated his life. Even when a situation arises that seems to be cut-and-dry in the context of the Catholic church’s teachings, Father Murray has to decide whether his own moral compass is the correct one or if he should simply follow orders.
The Fey and The Fallen are tackled a bit more obliquely in the book than in most fantasy fiction I’ve read in recent years. They are glimpsed, usually in peripheral vision, and only isolated members of either camp are seen completely. In fact, there are really only three characters who are fully described and definitively identified as Fey or Fallen. The supernatural is clearly present in this book, but they are left far more mysterious in nature than in many books. That interplay of mundane reality and otherworldly backdrop works incredibly well in Of Blood and Honey to make a more realisitic and compelling novel. If everyone could see what was really happening in the world around them, then this would be another hamfisted alternate reality where magic actually exists.
Maybe the most surprising aspect of the book and the thing about it that is so delightful is how subtle it is. Neither side of the Catholic/Protestant conflict is presented as right. The bad things that happen are becuase bad people are doing them, on both sides of the fighting, and that keeps Of Blood and Honey from devolving into a didactic mess. There are obvious villains in the book, chiefly The Fallen, but this book makes no pretenses that the factions warring against The Fallen are in any way saints. There are moments of poetic delicacy in these pages, and there are moments of brutality that will make anyone who has a heart want to cringe.
Of Blood and Honey is an amazing book. The strength of the author’s voice and the way that Liam’s story unfolded kept me completely absorbed in the story. It’s not a joyful or uplifting read, but it is a worthy one. I would give this book a solid R rating because of the violence in it, along with some strong language. There isn’t just a single war being waged in this book, and with two equally bloody conflicts, there are disturbing scenes in the book. I would hesitate to recommend this book to anyone under seventeen, unless they were a very mature reader. It is still a very good book and, I think, it stands unique amongst fantasy that does take a more modern and urban tack to its settings.