Historical fiction is a fairly new genre for me. In an attempt to relieve reading fatigue and expand my horizons I have been looking to new types of books to slide into the fantasy and sci-fi mix. Historical fiction was an easy step, with its blending of the real and imaginary. However, one of the major disappointments I ran into as I was breaking into the genre was the seemingly intense focus on World War I and II. It makes complete sense as to why authors often pick this as the basis for their books as it is a major, exciting world event that most people are familiar with. Despite this, it can be tiring to read the same events over and over through different lens. Which is why a book about Celtic Ireland in the 1300’s was immediately appealing to me.
The Last Days of Magic, by Mark Tompkins, is the story of the gods and people of Ireland in the 1300’s and their attempt to resist the expansion of the Catholic church and the Kings and Queens of England and France. Ireland is the last bastion of wild fae magic in the world, and the Vatican is determined to gain complete spiritual dominance in Europe. Simultaneously, the nobility of England and France look to their Irish neighbors with lust for their resources and land. Some of the fae within Ireland resent the cohabitation of their land with humans and try to catalyse the downfall of the human Irish people. We follow this conflict through the eyes of many, but primarily those of a guardian deity of Ireland and an exorcist of the Catholic church’s exorcist. The plot is fairly straightforward, but very enjoyable and I found myself both entertained and more informed by the time I finished.
What makes this book great is the perfect blend of history and fantasy. The book feels like it could be read as a history of the Celts and a classical fantasy story simultaneously. For me this really drove my immersion while also raising my interest in the history of the Celts and I found myself googling Irish history at the book’s conclusion. I also really enjoyed Tompkins’s rendition of both the magic of the fae and the catholic church. His use of the lore and execution of magic felt fresh and interesting while adding some excitement to some of the slower parts of the book. I also really enjoyed the way Tompkins displayed all characters on the various sides of the conflict in shades of grey. It created a neutral historical narrative that painted Ireland as the protagonists and victims, but didn’t make England, France, and the Catholic church seem like baby eating monsters (with one or two exceptions).
However with all the great, there is some bad. The books starts out in the present and dives into the history of the Celts as a flashback. As this set up is only used for the first and last chapters of the book, I feel that the story would have been stronger without it as it feels like it really only serves to show what happened long after the story’s conclusion in present day. The story also suffers from some slight lack of clarity and anti climax near the conclusion of the book. I had to work a little to understand how the final events of the book played out, and while not a let down I felt as they could have been a little more decisive and exciting.
Despite the few problems, The Last Days of Magic has set a nice bar to judge 2016 releases by and is a very admirable debut for Mark Tompkins. I came out of the story more informed about Irish history and with a new found interest in the Celts, which for me is the highest praise I can give a historical fiction. If you are looking for a new part of history to explore, I recommend you check out The Last Days of Magic when it is released in early March.