Ireland suffers under not one, but two cruel mistresses: a devastating famine brought about by potato blight and the English with their schadenfreudesque approach to the Irish Question. The situation is further exacerbated for most because they are tenant farmers on plots controlled by English nobles and failure to pay the taxes, fees, tributes, tithes, and more is reason enough for the English to run them off the land. Amidst this hardship, the O’Rahilly family manages to make due largely thanks to their home being one of the few freeholds.
Aengus O’Rahilly, revolutionary, is dead set on cobbling together a force called Young Ireland to throw off the yoke of English control. His sister Muireann O’Rahilly is desperate to prove herself every bit as loyal to the cause. Ciaran, an adopted changeling, offers practical charms and spells in exchange for a sometimes grudging place in the O’Rahilly household. The paths of these three are equally helped and hindered by the accidental connection made with one Julian Hawke, an English officer captured by Aengus and freed by Muireann.
With Ireland sliding ever further into decline, even the mighty clan O’Rahilly cannot escape unscathed. Their patriarch is hanged for the crimes of another, two of the sons perish—one of the blight fever and one drowned in a capsized boat destined for America. Aengus and Muireann are reduced to out and out manipulation of whoever is available, but only one of them is successful. Julian and Ciaran, on the other hand, suffer as all pawns do—only the former did so blinded by unrequited love and the latter resigned to such a fate.
One thing I grew to enjoy with particular relish is the character development through the story. Take Julian, for instance. At first blush, he appears like the archetypal Hero! character, yet as I read more and more, I found him to be wholly despicable. He flits from foible to foible—condescending against the Irish, failing to understand love comes before duty, and mansplaining. Muierann is virtually his opposite in every way and 200% badass, but social times being what they were, it’s not like anyone but she would acknowledge the fact. Ciaran is pretty fascinating, too. While the whole rest of the lot are steeped in the dreary existence that is famine era Ireland, he is a touch of the fantastic with his pagan ways and connection to the Faeries—one that I wasn’t 100% convinced of until nearly the very end of the story.
Amidst the relentless theme of hunger that turns to starvation and worse, Pomfret does a commendable job weaving in social issues like political unrest (through Aengus), feminism (through Muireann), religious freedom and the lack there of (through Ciaran and Muireann), and Imperialism (through Julian) into the story. These lend a bit more flavor to the characters themselves, also…a cause to champion while they work through the hunger, starvation, and worse that accompanies the famine. Plus there’s the whole English occupation of Ireland (not really “occupation” but actually, you know, “occupation”).
I will admit, it took me a while to get into the story. First, it was because I notice that Pomfret’s descriptives ran in these great long lists—like there was a rule that things had to be described in groups of three or more.
On Julian’s douchbag father:
His father Lord Lafred Hawke had been everything Julian strove not to be: a serial adulterer, a scamp, a drunkard, and a disgrace.
On Ciaran’s person:
I am the dark half: I’m twilight, had fay and half night, half this and half that, half woman and half man, half Catholic and half page, half here and half one foot in the OtherWorld, half human and half Faerie, a cross-the Dochtuir likes to say—between the Good People and the rest of us.
On The Empire:
Trials were to be endured. Upper lips were to be kept stiff, backs straight, chins up, manners and tokens of civility preserved , even in the furthest corners of the globe.
Once I got about a quarter of the way through, this either stopped being the obligatory way to describe things or the plot had picked up reasonably well enough to distract me. It was an odd thing to have caught my eye because, overall, I didn’t feel like Pomfret otherwise so belabored his descriptions of places or events. Another stylistic choice that left me a bit cold was the overuse of Gaelic without providing the reader context to explain it. Of all the loan words used, only a quarter are readily understandable on page. I didn’t know about the glossary until I finished the last page and saw I wasn’t a 100% yet and lo! Glossary! On the flipped, if you’re a language cognoscente, you’ll have a field day with this. I found a few choice words every few pages, it seemed like.
Another curious writing choice was Pomfret’s use of voice. It was fascinating in a technical sense to flip between chapters—we primarily flipflop between Muireann, Julian, and Ciaran—and to have a flip of POV. Muierann and Julian chapters were primarily third person while Ciaran chapters were first person. What this may signify, I can only hazard a guess but until I started getting really into the plot, the third person narrations left me a bit flummoxed. Especially the early Muireann installments where much of it felt like telling rather than showing. Thankfully, as the story progresses, all the narrations kind of “break in” and most if not all the stiltedness drops away.
I do feel compelled to mention the ending, just because it’s one of those endings where nothing feels satisfactory, but when you think where you might “improve,” you run up blank because anything other than what it was would feel a rank lie.
On the whole, this is a startlingly well-crafted story that, despite being a historical fiction, centers on the trials and hardships faced by its characters. The multiple viewpoints give a depressingly real look into the decline of these characters’ lives, but the social issues make them relatable even to 21st century readers. This is a superb book if you’re looking for something with serious drama. It intimately explores the human condition and what we put up with in pursuit of our desires—only to find that, sometimes, what we desire is poor reward indeed.