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Historical fantasy full of fascinating female perspectives, deliciously morally grey characters, sumptuous Irish folklore and mythology, wonderful political intrigue, mysticism, and smoothly flowing prose, “The Children of Gods and Fighting Men” (book one in “Gael Song”) by Shauna Lawless, is a beautiful novel that will suck you into its pages, and refuse to let you wriggle away from its grasp.

This book is one of 2023’s most heralded fantasy releases, and I was not dissatisfied AT ALL about this novel not living up to the hype. Let the superlatives begin, and let’s dive into what this book is all about.

Set in Lawless’ version of 10th century Ireland, the novel is told from two contrasting POVs.

The first POV is that of Gormflaith, an incredibly beautiful, charismatic, and utterly ruthless woman, who is hiding a huge secret: she is a Fomorian.

According to Irish legend, the Fomorians are a paranormal race, and the opponents of Ireland’s first settlers, which consisted of six categories of people. Among those categories are the Gaels, Irish mortals. Included among the categories are also the Tuatha Dé Danann, a competing supernatural group.

Gormflaith is immortal, in that, unless killed or dying by misadventure, she lives forever, masquerading as a mortal, faking her death, and changing identities when the span of a natural life should be at it’s end, to avoid suspicion being drawn to her, that she is anything other than what she seems.

For the Tuatha Dé Danann have defeated the Fomorians, believing all of Gormflaith’s people hunted into extinction. Yet Gormflaith and several members of her family remain alive, surreptitiously plotting to turn the tables on their ancient enemies, and rise to power once again.

But were the Tuatha Dé Danann to become aware that any Fomorians still existed, they would track their old foes down, and destroy them. Thus Gormflaith lives in constant danger.

Gormflaith is the wife of Amlav, the King of Dublin. Formerly a great warrior, the aged Amlav has passed, and with him has passed Gormflaith’s nominal influence in his court. Still, the succession of Dublin’s throne is far from guaranteed, even thought a new monarch assumes power. There are many contenders among Amlav’s heirs who could rule, and Gormflaith is determined that her son, Sitric, ends up in the king’s seat.

The second main POV is that of Fódla. Fódla is a Descendant of the Tuatha Dé Danann. She lives with the other Descendants, hidden from the eyes of mortals, and is a healer among her people. Fódla, generally kind-hearted, and passionate, but guarded, and somewhat melancholy, as she copes with grief over the death of her human offspring. She once was romantically involved with the leader of the Descendants – Tomas – but that relationship now more tenuous, and fraught with tension and mistrust.

Fódla’s sister has been inserted as a spy among humans to help ensure the Descendants can help circumvent human conflicts, which they see as their mandate. But Fódla’s sister has broken the rules of the Descendants while on her covert mission. She has had relations with a human and is bearing a human child. Her punishment for doing so will be severe.

For love of her sister, Fódla not only agrees to foster her sister’s offspring, but also engages in a spy operation too, at the behest of Tomas. Fódla, in disguise as a disfigured commoner, will snoop on a famous mortal king that the Descendants see as a threat to peace, because that king believed to be a scheming warmonger.

Two women, with magical abilities, destined to be sworn enemies due to the timeless feud between their peoples, neither whom know of the existence of the other, cleaving a path through a severely patriarchal, medieval world, to influence major events, and play important parts in an Ireland at a pivotal point in history, where cultures and faiths will clash, wars will erupt, and the primeval gods and mythical creatures of yore are not ready to relinquish their hold on Ireland yet.

As always, I begin my review speaking about the characters. The two mesmeric main characters in “The Children of Gods and Fighting Men” entranced me from the start. My admiration for and interest in both these incredibly addictive female leads was equal.

Though I must admit, Gormflaith was my favourite, because she was so categorically unremitting, cold, merciless, cunning, and ingenious in her wily plots. I adore highly flawed characters, and the devious yet alluring Gormflaith definitely fits the bill.

Gormflaith holds as high a role in society as a woman can have, but is still in many ways completely stymied by the patriarchy. She can only use her magical abilities so far to have sway over mortals, so she must rely on her charm, her wits, and her powers of persuasion, gentle or otherwise. Manipulating and steering primarily the men surrounding her, Gormflaith’s single-minded obsession to see Sitric on the throne is driven by more than maternal love, though that is surely at the heart of why she takes the extreme actions she does.

Not opposed to seduction, lies, and even bloody murder to achieve her ends, Gormflaith needs her son to be in power to secure her position as well, and keep her relevant. Even though she knows any such relevance can only be fleeting, as, eventually, she must contrive her death, give up her position as a dowager queen and mother of a king, and start over, in another phase of her immortal life.

Gormflaith is often thwarted in her schemes by the power plays of the dominant males around her. She is also at their mercy to a degree, used as commodity for her looks or her womb, and a pawn for the political alliances being married to her can forge, for the benefit of whichever man controls her. So she fights back the only ways she knows how, and she is a force to be reckoned with.

Fódla is the more pleasant character that readers who need a nicer person to root for will find. In her courage, intelligence, nurturing, protective, yet suspicious nature and damaged past, Fódla’s willingness to risk and sacrifice herself for others, yet face the pragmatism that comes with being an immortal, that, in the end, the mission must take precedence over any one human life, will make the reader mourn for her.

Fódla can be judgmental, but she also is quick to care as well. Her compassion for the humans she must spy on is admirable, and her fierce guarding of her sister and nephew – who she essentially adopts – makes her very likable.

She is also more passive, compared to Gormflaith, but while more docile, it does not mean that she is weak. She is more an observer, and cerebral, in her approach than Gormflaith, though she can be impetuous, at times. But while she is not a complete bystander, she is not willing to put herself wholly in the middle of happenstance, as Gormflaith is. She does not want turmoil, in fact Fódla wants to stop turmoil, as is consistent with her task bequeathed to her by the Descendants.

That said, Fódla is an independent thinker who begins to doubt the methods her people are using for the stated sake of preservation of peace, and if the ends justify the means. Contrasting Fódla, Gormflaith thrives on being at the centre of any turmoil, for it is within turmoil that the Queen of Dublin best operates, being able to take advantage of the uncertainly and tumult.

The secondary characters are wonderful. Rónnat, Tomas, Sitric, Murchad, and Olaf really stood out for me, amongst a great auxiliary cast, many of whom, along with Gormlaith and Fódla, are based on either legendary or real historical figures.

Lawless expertly and inventively weaves lore with historical accounts of these characters, to create vivid, well-fleshed out, very memorable people who leap out of the dimness of antiquity onto the pages of her book with flair and gusto, refusing to fade into the past.

Most of the characters are amoral at best, wholly unscrupulous at worst, with a few genuinely noble ones sprinkled in. Just the way I like my fantasy – the presence of unprincipled characters always tend to keep things interesting in a fantasy novel.

Let’s talk thematic: the topics broached in this novel are quite absorbing. Found family, family bonds, sacrifice, gods intervening in the fate of mortals, patriarchy, suppression of women and misogyny (and women fighting back), betrayal, lust, grasping for power, maternal love, grief, loss, and more, permeate this novel. I loved the exploration of the turbulence where the Irish and the Vikings face an clash of cultures and violent conflict.

This is upheaval amongst the mortals mirrors the secret immortal war between the Fomorians and the Tuatha Dé Danann, in itself reminiscent of other divine wars from various cultural traditions, such as the Norse gods with the Æsir versus Vanir conflict. Religious conversion, and the option to chose one faith or another for political expedience rather than genuine faith, I also found to be a fascinating topic that was explored in the book.

The court politics, jockeying for power, double-crosses, misinformation, endless plots, and ‘moral flexibility’ in this book was remarkable, and the kind of stuff I absolutely love about both fantasy and historical fiction. I also adored the soft magic, which features Fódla’s healing powers and Gormflaith’s wielding of fire.

While the battle scenes are somewhat muted, with more reported than actual witnessed, there is plenty of high engaging drama, collusion and conniving, to keep the entertainment value of this book quite high. It was a compulsive read, as we go back and forth between the two protagonists’ POVs, wondering what will happen to them, what they will do next.

The pacing is wonderful, not a lag in the narrative to be found, and a very unpredictable story, that takes some marvellous turns I did not expect. A hard book to put down for any length of time.

No secret, I love my flowery, even somewhat dense prose. Yet for me the effectiveness of writing is always more about how it’s said than how much is said. Lawless’ prose is graceful, fluid, efficient yet delightful, and it really worked for me.

The author is to be commended for her first-rate research of Irish history and mythology. Lawless has twined the arcane with the factual, without obvious seams, clumsiness or confusion.

While the worldbuilding focuses more on the historical aspects, and the legends, rather than more ornate descriptions of scenery and setting to ground the reader, the reader will definitely FEEL like they are in 10th century Ireland, in a land of the occult, tempestuous warlords, shifting allegiances, chaos, and yet beauty and wonder.

“The Children of Gods and Fighting Men” is a perspicacious, epic, enchanting, ambitious first installment, centered on fabulous female main characters, in what promises to be a lauded and exciting historical-fantasy series.

There were plenty of unresolved plot threads that will convince readers to eagerly anticipate the next book, which is – thankfully – coming this fall, entitled “The Words of Kings and Prophets”. Personally, I can’t wait to continue the story of Fódla and Gormflaith, and return to the Ireland of the time of the Fomorians and the Tuatha Dé Danann.

This novel is surely worthy of the plaudits it has been receiving, and should wind up on many ‘best of’ lists for 2023 fantasy books, including mine.

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