Morgan Llywelyn,
The Isles of the Blest
(Ace Books, 1989)

Most of Morgan Llywelyn's novels are vast, sweeping tales of Ireland's ancient past, sagas full of glory and grandeur, romance and war. Some people might be daunted by those epic-length novels; if so, a good place to get your first taste of Llywelyn's writing is The Isles of the Blest.

Isles is more like a fairy tale than an epic. Although there are a few battles, there are no great wars or conquests. And nothing in this book bodes well or ill for Ireland's future -- this isn't the story of any great mover or shaker in the island's rich history or lore, such as Brian Boru in The Lion of Ireland or Cuchulain in The Red Branch; instead, it's a love story, about a youth's love for a fairy maiden and a father's love for his son.

Connla is the dreamy-eyed son of Conn of the Hundred Battles. Conn holds tightly to his kingdom in Ireland, one king among many but a man feared for his many victories in battle. But crops are failing and cattle are growing thin, and Conn's reputation is failing. He turns to Connla, his eldest son, to lead the warriors in his stead, and Connla is indeed victorious. But his heart beats for more peaceful pursuits, and his eye is easily captured by a bright, mysterious lady named Blathine, who entices him with tales of a land where no one fights, no one ages, no one dies.

Despite the best efforts of Conn and his chief druid Coran, Connla is drawn into the faerie realm. There he finds things exactly as Blathine described -- and yet it's a curiously empty experience. There is no real passion there, no real courage, and very little memory of people or experiences past. Warfare there is for sport, because no one dies or suffers hurt in the action. Love is an action verb, true, but there is no real meeting of hearts. And the sidhe, Connla learns, are quickly and easily distracted by new pursuits, and they are careless, if not actually malicious, in their use of power to trick the poor human in their midst. Still, Connla resists their offer of forgetfulness, the spell which will allow him to throw off his mortal chains and be one of them in every way.

Meanwhile, time passes swiftly in the mortal world and Conn, broken by the loss of his son, continues to make every effort to win him home again. But it may be too late for him to realize how much he loves and needs Connla with him.

The Isles of the Blest is a bittersweet tale, with a great deal to say about the veracity of wishes that come true.

[ by Tom Knapp ]