Cecelia Holland,
The Kings in Winter
(1967; reprinted by Forge, 2000)

It's the dialogue which drives this story.

Set against the backdrop of tumultuous Irish history -- in the time of Brian Boru, clan feuds and Danish invasions of the early 11th century -- is the tale of Muirtagh. He's a small man, and he's no hero -- but he's a good husband and father, he's clever with a harp and deadly with a bow, and he has a quick and incisive wit. He's also the unwilling but exceedingly competent chieftain of the small and outcast O'Cullinane clan.

Muirtagh doesn't pretend to be a mighty warrior -- he leaves that title to his laughing brother, Cearbhall. His skill as an archer serves him well, for all that most warriors scorn the long-distance weapon, and he has a bard's ability to alter moods with his harp. He's also an excellent clan administrator, and much of the first half of the book involves the simple duties of tending cows and ponies, and the simple pleasures of teaching his eldest son to shoot and sharing stories at the fire on a rainy day.

But big events are swirling around him as Irish politics and clan rivalries refuse Muirtagh the peace he so desperately wants. An ancient feud which cost him his father and his former home threatens his family again, but he would rather let the feud and its hatreds die away without further retribution. For this, some would call him a coward, but he proves his bravery at the High King's table, using a borrowed harp and biting words.

Holland cleverly uses the fictional Muirtagh and his family to cast the great personages of the day -- Boru, Maelmordha, Gormflaith, Sygtrygg Silkbeard, Maelsechlainn, Jarl Sigurd of Orkney and Brodir of Man -- into sharp relief. But the book by no means focuses on them or the historical events which involved them; rather, they are more of an aside to provide the stage for Muirtagh's saga.

The first half of the book is incredibly satisfying. Holland paints a wonderful picture of rural clan life, and the dialogue she writes for Muirtagh, Cearbhall, Muirtagh's wife Aud, and others is excellent. The whole thing smacks of reality, and indicates a great deal of research and a firm understanding of human nature on the author's part. The second half falters a little, as Muirtagh is swept away by circumstances around him and sacrifices far too much for far too little. The ending is vaguely dissatisfying, with certain matters left unresolved.

But don't let that stop you from reading this excellent novel. At 205 pages (in the new trade paperback edition from Forge), it's a quick read and is well worth the time spent. You'll quickly bury yourself in Irish culture, politics and society, and I expect you'll enjoy it through and through. Kudos to Forge for returning this 30-year-old novel to print.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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