Tuesday, 2 November 2004

The Well of Yearning

Caiseal Mór
Pocket Books
ISBN: 0-7434-6856-2

In the Ireland of a thousand years ago, the mundane and the magnificent are part of life. While Norman conquerors raise their banner over the rebellious natives, otherworldly things watch from the bogs and the shadowy forests.

A young monk and his ailing master come to the Emerald Isle in search of a heretical manuscript, held by a community of religious outcasts. At the same time, the greedy and shadow-hearted knight Guy d’Alville begins his attempts to carve a kingdom of his own, and revenge himself on his rival, Robert FitzWilliam. When his depredations lead to the release of the malevolent Nathairai from their centuries-old prison, he finds himself forced into the service of the Queen of the Night, Aoife, as she prepares to unleash her army of daemons on the mortal world.

“The Well of Yearning” is an odd little thing, flitting from coarse and irreverent humour to historical exposition to Monty Python surrealism as if unsure where to rest.

Narrated in a traditional oral fashion, it is blissfully easy to read and coloured throughout by the storyteller’s opinions and sly asides to the reader. This unconventional style does little to disguise the story’s shortcomings, however. Rather limp and uninspired, the basic premise relies too heavily on cliché for support, and on the unpredictable nature of the Otherworld’s residents to magick it out of the narrative cul-de-sacs it ends up in time and time again. Just because they’re be-fanged and monstrous eaters of men (and women, of course) doesn’t mean that the needs of the plot take precedence over their own personalities and apparent motivations, does it?

Plot-holes and unlikely changes of heart aside, “The Well of Yearning” isn’t too bad really. While the style takes some getting used to it’s certainly different, and once the narrator’s in full flow it has a delightfully personal feel to it, one that can also be found in the traditional Irish myths the novel draws so heavily on. A nice touch, granting the book mythological authenticity.

The historical background for the novel is accurate enough for a fantasy Ireland, the presence of magical swords and evil spirits always allowing a little more leeway in the accuracy stakes than is granted, say, a Bernard Cornwell tale. If the political and cultural issues that plagued the Emerald Isle are given only a cursory glance in favour of the demons and evil queens, that’s fair enough. It’s up to the author, after all, where the emphasis lies.

Except… much of the latter half of the book – excluding the occasional off-topic ramble on, for example, the art of cheese-making – is devoted to untangling the most unlikely of twists. This unexpected turn of events has nothing to do with the otherworldly armies or monsters that are by then rampaging across the land, but instead revolves around a stranger’s return from the crusades. Ill-conceived and out of place, it feels like an afterthought, yet somehow manages to override the greater issues at hand. Much of the build-up and suspense, such as it is, is lost in the process, leaving the reader asking, “Yes? Now what?”

Combine this confused focus with acts of what must be unintentional comedy of the most surreal kind (the most obvious offender is a scene where one of the Nathairai, giant and monstrous snake-things with the intelligence and emotional maturity of an eight-year-old on crack, pauses halfway through a meal of Norman mercenaries to flirt coquettishly with Guy d’Alville) and you’ve got a book which doesn’t seen to know where it belongs and, at times, defies all logic or sanity. That it suffers from these faults and still somehow manages to be an entertaining, enjoyable read only makes it more frustrating. It’s a tribute to the author’s skill, really, but just think of what he would be capable if he could stop chasing his tail long enough to write a decent story…

Intriguing, inexplicable, bizarre and occasionally beautiful, “The Well of Yearning” is very much a mixed bag of nuts. It gets by solely on the strength of the writing, its logic-defying core threatening to tip it into the mire at any moment. Yet somehow the novel comes through clean and crisp and smelling of roses, so I’ll grant it a place – hell, a whole shelf to itself. “All style, no substance.” Somehow I doubt it’ll be joined there any time soon.

At least until the sequel arrives, that is.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com