This is a long book and the middle is slow, but the pace picks up again and for the last two hundred pages it is “unputdownable”. But if you like a world in which you become so involved that you want to stay there for ever, then the longer the better. (And there are two sequels set in the same world – this is only the first part of a trilogy!)
When the story opens, six brothers and their sister, Sorcha, are growing up in the heart of a great forest in an Ireland in which, it seems, druids still reign in an uneasy truce with the Church. They have no mother, for she died in childbirth when Sorcha, the youngest, was born. And little in the way of a father either, for Lord Colum has no time for them or indeed for anything but his unending battle against the Britons across the sea. The girl, brought up by her brothers, is strange and wild, and – like the forest around her – is touched by magic. As are at least two of her brothers, Conor and, most especially, Finbar, the one she is closest to. But there is also a priest, Father Brien, who fortunately takes a hand in their upbringing and education. He is an old friend of their father’s and sometimes speaks of Lord Colum as he once was.
‘What did you mean,’ I said, still thinking hard, ‘about our father being the one and giving it up?’ For I could not imagine Father, with his tight, closed expression and his obsession with war, as the conduit of any kind of spiritual message. Surely that was wrong.
‘You need to understand,’ said Father Brien gently, ‘that your father was not always as he is now. […] I met your mother. I saw their joy in each other and how her death took all the light from him.’
‘He had us,’ said Finbar bitterly. ‘Another man might have thought that reason enough to live, and live well.’
‘I think you are too harsh,’ said Father Brien, but he spoke kindly. ‘You know not, yet, the sort of love that strikes like a lightning bolt, that clutches hold of you by the heart, as irrevocably as death; that becomes the lodestar by which you steer the rest of your life. I would not wish such a love on anyone, man or woman, for it can make your life a paradise, or it can destroy you utterly.’
Both Sorcha and Finbar will one day know such a love, to their cost. For the moment, however, all is in order – until two events occur which change everything.
The first is the capture of a young British warrior. He is tortured by Sorcha’s father and his men and her two eldest brothers, intent on gaining information from him, and afterwards is reported to be dying. Conor and Finbar engineer his escape, while Sorcha, who is growing up to be the herbalist and healer of the clan, is deputed to nurse him – though this is not without misunderstanding and difficulty.
‘But he threatened to kill you,’ said Finbar, exasperated with me, ‘he held a knife at your throat. Does that mean nothing?’
‘He’s sick,’ I said. ‘He’s scared. And I’m here to help him. Besides, I was told …’ I broke off.
Finbar’s gaze sharpened. ‘Told what?’
I could not lie. ‘Told this was something I must do. Just the first step on a long and difficult path. I know I have to do it.’
‘Who told you this, Sorcha?’ asked Father Brien, gently. They were both staring at me intently now. I chose my words with care.
‘You remember Conor’s old story, the one about Deidre, Lady of the Forest? I think it was her.’
Father Brien drew in his breath sharply. ‘You have seen Them?’
‘I think so,’ I said, surprised. ‘Whatever reaction I had expected from him, it was not this. ‘She told me this was my path and I must keep to it. I’m sorry, Finbar.’
The second event is their father’s decision to remarry. Lady Oonagh is the wicked stepmother to end all wicked stepmothers, a witch quite powerful and evil enough in her own right to take on the seven stepchildren without a qualm and, when they prove difficult, to place the six brothers under a shape-shifting spell that only Sorcha can lift. If she fails, they will be lost forever.
The rest is the story of Sorcha’s long, lonely struggle to save them, to set everything to rights again, and restore the lost world of her childhood. She travels to Britain, where Ethelwulf has just come to the throne (the only clue the author gives us as to the exact date – Ethelwulf was the father of Alfred the Great and reigned from 839 to 857 or 8) and they are more concerned with the Danes than with the Irish. And though in the end she triumphs over evil, the world of her childhood is no more.
Magic pervades this book, and always on the fringe of the story – to some extent guiding events, pulling the strings – are “the Fair Folk”, fading in and out of sight among the trees. But it is more than a fairy tale – an outstanding one – and more than a great adventure; it is one of the best love stories I have ever read.