The Riders of the Sidhe – Kenneth C. Flint

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Irish mythology gets the Star Wars treatment in this neglected 1984 classic from American author Kenneth Flint.

The tale being retold concerns Lugh Lamfada, a Renaissance man in an Iron Age, whose mission it is to liberate Ireland from the Fomor, a nation of deformed pirates. Their leader is Balor, a giant with an eye that can shoot fire. By and by things resolve as they usually do between heroes and villains, although in Flint’s telling events are stretched out into a typical fantasy trilogy. Not that I’m complaining, aside from the fact that the cover of this book mentioned nothing about a trilogy.

According to me novelizations of myths count as fan fiction, and this particular novelization gives me a fine opportunity to argue that really great fan fiction places the reader in the shoes of a well-known character and forces them to consider a familiar world from an unfamiliar perspective, all without contradicting anything established in the source material. (Doramouse is the author that demonstrates this theory the best). Kenneth makes the reader consider things from Mananan’s perspective. Think of the traditional Mananan as Neptune living in an Edenic paradise west of Ireland, who vacillates between luring romantics to his island and being an enigmatic weirdo. Kenneth’s Mananan could well be described in just those terms, but there’s a fair bit more to him than that. He is very, very bored with his life and the inane hedonists that inhabit his little utopia, desperate for even the tiniest sliver of action or adventure. As I read the book I imagined this character being portrayed by Peter Capaldi, since this sea-god shares with the latest incarnation of the Doctor a certain disenchantment with enchantment.

Other characters were similarly fleshed out. Lugh is given a fear of heights, an ignorance of anything outside of Ireland that makes sense considering he was raised on a smaller island, and a well-written appreciation for attractive women. I really mean that; when Lugh first visits Mananan’s island Kenneth describes the features of the women that Lugh gazes at and the order in which he does so. With so many attractive women inhabiting the pages of fiction, to the point that beauty almost seems mandatory for female characters, it’s refreshing to see someone actually noticing them. Balor is also an intriguing character. I’m fairly sure that he has a motivation beyond merely being an evil tyrant but I’m still guessing what that is.

Throwing me somewhat off-kilter was Kenneth’s inclusion of sci-fi elements. At one point Lugh and his comrades infiltrate Balor’s glass tower, which I always figured was a garbled description of an iceberg, but which Kenneth describes as a skyscraper. I thought something was odd when the dreadful tower had refrigeration, but when the characters are trapped within a lift I knew something was up. The Fomors also have access to cross-bows with right angles, which I think is how the protagonists perceive guns. While these modern technologies tripped me up, I came to terms with them on the reasoning that the poets who developed the original narrative likely would have used them if they were aware of the concepts. I mean, Irish mythology always seemed a bit sci-fi-ish to me, with the Voyage of Bran demonstrating the harrowing effects of time dilation and all the other mythical sea voyages reading like Stanley Weinbaum stories with ships instead of rocket ships.

When I used the phrase Star Wars in the opening, I did so for a reason beyond justifying the use of that phrase in my tags. Balor comes across as the Irish version of Darth Vader, with his big, black helmet, distinctive voice described by Kenneth as like rubbing stones or ringing bells, and a familial relationship to … let’s just say that Hesiod wouldn’t be surprised by his family tree. Maybe it was Balor because primed me to think of Star Wars, but Lugh’s intrusion into the Glass Tower mirrored Luke running around in the Death Star, complete with the lift as an echo of the trash compactor. I just hope Lugh’s girlfriend isn’t also this sister. If someone told me this book was so much like Star Wars I’d assume it would be so in a cheap way. But it isn’t – it just works. I guess it could be all that hero’s journey stuff that you hear so much about.

I should also the mention that this book has got a pretty good sense of humour, its main strength being surprise.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’d know that I’m pretty sceptical about fantasy, so when I recommend this book that ought to mean something. I think that people who enjoyed the Prydain Chronicles, The Princess Bride, and obviously Star Wars would go for this. The younger the reader, the better, I suspect.

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