Elizabeth Cunningham,
Daughter of the Shining Isles
(Station Hill, 2000)

reprinted as
Magdalen Rising
(Monkfish, 2007)

Elizabeth Cunningham's Daughter of the Shining Isles is a lively and original take on the origins of Mary Magdalen.

Born on Tir namBan, the Isle of Women, she has eight mothers, warrior witches all, although only one is her birth mother. Each loves and nurtures her deeply. Called Little Bright One to begin with, she names herself Maeve after the legendary queen, encountered in a vision.

When she comes of age, she goes to the mountain called Bride's Breast to study with the Cailleach, an old and revered wise woman. Maeve experiences a number of visions: a terrifying face that is and is not her own, a strange city and a young man her own age. She is drawn to him although she does not know why.

Finally, she is sent to study among the Druids on the Isle of Mona. There she meets Esus, the young man of her visions. She knows that he is her soulmate, that they are halves of a holy equation, but she has difficulty convincing Esus of this. Indeed, she has a great deal of difficulty getting anywhere near him, since he is accepted into a higher level of study than she.

She attracts the attention of one of the druids, Lovernios, whom she has nicknamed Foxface, but it is hostile and wary attention. Maeve does not welcome it, especially since Lovernios is the nightmare figure of her vision, and the result for her is indeed a nightmare, compounded by a later revelation about Lovernios.

Worse to Maeve is her discovery that Lovernios is calling for the Great Sacrifice, with Esus as the candidate. Her energies go into saving him, regardless of the consequences to herself.

Cunningham writes with scintillating wit and brilliance. Rather than couching the language in stiff, formal and plodding terms, Cunningham gives Maeve, a young woman from the Otherworld, a consciousness beyond linear time. Her narrative is crisp, surprising and as bracing as sea spray, well-laced with humor and making a strong connection with the reader who does not demand strait-laced historical fiction.

The characterizations are deftly executed. Maeve is cheeky, irreverent, refreshingly honest and as feisty a heroine as ever graced a page. The other characters could have paled in the light she shed, but they are strong and lively and well-drawn also.

Cunningham is careful to follow through on the details with her proposal that Mary Magdalen's roots are Celtic. Her argument is clever and convincing and adds new dimension to the familiar story.

Daughter of the Shining Isles is the first book in the proposed Magdalen trilogy, and you can learn more about the trilogy at a special website or visit the author's own site.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]
Rambles: 4 August 2001

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