on 9 June 2014
“He came in a long prowed boat, sea mist trailing after him like a swirling cloak.”
This, the first sentence of Michele McGrath’s Manannan’s Magic, told me that I was going to read something just a cut above the average. The Manannan Trilogy is a series of three historical romances set in the Isle of Man at the time of the Viking settlement and incursions. This would put it at about 900 A.D. The three books are Manannan’s Magic, Niamh of the Golden Hair and Emer’s Quest. The first concerns Renny, a Celtic girl of 16 who sees the arrival of Manannan McLir (the name has significance in Celtic myth). Her life will be profoundly changed by her contact with this strange and brilliant man, who arrives alone but for a huge dog; an Irish wolfhound, if I’m not mistaken. Exiled from Ireland by a tragic quarrel, hunted by an enemy, he slips from place to place around the Irish Sea, using the medicinal skills his father had learned in his travels to the Mediterranean, where the medieval Arab civilization is at its height.
Renny has no wish to meet the man she has seen arrive, and her village is suspicious, for the Norsemen are a growing threat and a stranger may be a scout they have sent ahead. She is forced into contact with him when she falls from a cliff in a storm and is rescued by him from the water’s edge. He shelters her in his cave, heals her injuries and teaches her his lore. Manannan’s healing is not, in fact, magic but learning. Later he will save villages from a terrible illness by using what we would now understand as antibiotics. But he does have an ability to see into the future, and he foresees trouble. Soon another stranger arrives, and this time he really is a Norse spy. Moreover Manannan’s enemy has learned that he is on the island, and is coming for him.
Manannan’s Magic is a fine achievement. It is a historical romance, but in fact it transcends genre through its well-paced storytelling, and through the well-judged use of historical details; McGrath has clearly researched the era she describes, but presents none of her knowledge unless it is needed for the story. Best of all, the book is written in the sort of clear, straightforward, attractive English that has become somehow hard to find. McGrath has paid attention to the sort of detail that the reader doesn’t notice unless it’s been neglected – but does then; good sentence structure (short without being abrupt), and a lack of superfluous simile or adverbs. This is an author who has read some extremely good books and the odd bad one, and knows the difference.
The two remaining books in the trilogy are told from the viewpoint of Manannan’s daughter and grandaughter, Niamh and Emer. Both have inherited the gift of second sight. In the second book, Niamh of the Golden Hair, the heroine, unwanted by her extended family, is sent to marry a local Celtic notable, but never makes it; after some adventures, she is captured by the Viking raiders and is claimed by one of their warriors, Olaf. But he treats her with dignity; she comes to love him, and stands by in his hour of need. In the final volume, Emer’s Quest, the daughter of Niamh and Olaf must pledge herself to the son of a Hebridean Viking chieftain to release her father from captivity in the Faroes.
Neither book quite reaches the standard of Manannan’s Magic. In particular, the plot of Emer’s Quest moves just a bit too fast; there are times when you do want the author to slow down and elaborate – for example, there are a number of sea voyages, between the Isle of Man and the Hebrides and the Faroes; there is also a voyage, which the heroine herself does not make, to Iceland. Here, a bit more historical detail could have been useful, and it would have been good to feel more of what such voyages really were like a thousand years ago. But the two later books are still a good read. Even Emer’s Quest, the weakest of the three, has the odd moment of real brilliance – including the planning of a strange, quite appalling murder, which Emer, with her gift of clairvoyance, sees, and must try to prevent. If these two books don’t quite shine the way Manannan’s Magic does, they’re still enjoyable; and besides, the trilogy is good value for Kindle at £3.72.
But it is Manannan’s Magic that has made me rate this trilogy so high. It is a well-judged, stylish and believable historical fantasy, and best of all, it is written in straightforward and elegant English of a quality that now seems all too rare.