Cover Grow Up

Had a timely ‘blast from the past’ today when I received a reminder of a book cover from October 2014 (for FIONN: Traitor of Dun Baoiscne). It was timely given that Amazon have somehow managed to revert to printing my paperbacks with the older covers instead of the more recent versions (which have been in place for some years).

Back when I first started writing and publishing, there were far fewer artists available to do illustrations and limited stock photos that you could purchase within a shoestring budget. For 1st/2nd century Ireland – the time/culture in which my books are set – finding ‘representative’ covers was particularly difficult. Despite many days searching, in the end I had no choice but to resort to fantasy-style photostock and using a graphic artist to try and ‘Gaelicise’ the result as far as possible.

I was never entirely comfortable with the resulting image. The fanboy, Red-Sonya fantasy style image I ended up with, really didn’t work that well for the culturally-realistic feel I was trying to reintroduce in our mythological narratives (not to mind the lack of realism around Irish weather!). As a result, this cover (deservedly) endured some serious piss-taking (predominantly from my partner, daughter, editor [female], proof-reader [female]).

Despite that, it proved remarkably popular until I could finally afford to replace it. Skimpy-clothed model aside, I think the standing stone, the colour and the background terrain worked really well.

Scáthach and Cú Chulainn

Scáthach – the Shadowed – is a woman warrior who turns up in the tenth century manuscript Tochmarc Emire (The Wooing of Emer). A supporting character to the narrative adventure that focuses on Irish hero Cú Chulainn, her main purpose is to add an element of depth and context to Cú Chulainn’s legendary fighting skills and, of course some 10th century feminine (cough) “pizzazz”. In the Tomharc Emire, advised by his friends that to complete his martial training he should learn from Scáthach, Cú Chulainn immediately sets sail for Alba (in modern-day Scotland) and the fortress where she’s based.

To be honest, whenever I think of Scáthach, I have this mental image of a longsuffering professional working woman, gritting her teeth and doing her best to hide her irritation at an extended visit from her daughter’s boorish boyfriend. To imagine Cú Chulainn’s visit as a pleasing or welcome one would be to ignore the other interesting elements of the tale. Most people sadly, enamoured by the romanticised aspect of a woman warrior teaching the mythological hero, tend to limit their focus on that.

When Cú Chulainn first arrives and enters Scáthach’s domain, he inveigles his way into her fortress by manipulating the romantic passions of her teenage daughter, Úathach. Despite Cú Chulainn breaking her fingers (and the slaying of the warrior Cochair Cruibne), Úathach is so besotted she casts any loyalty to Scáthach aside, advising her new beau on how to overcome her mother while she’s resting. Following Úathach’s advice, Cú Chulainn overcomes his host, places his sword between her breasts and threatens her with death unless she grants him three wishes:

• that she trains him without neglect,
• that she pays the bride price for him to marry Úathach; and
• that she uses her seer skills to warn him of anything that might befall him.

Over the course of Cú Chulainn’s visit, Scáthach puts up with her unwelcome visitor’s regular acts of violence and trains him as obliged without comment. When Cú Chulainn attacks Aífe and forces her to have his child (Úathach has disappeared from the narrative at this point), she continues to keep her silence.

In the end however, it’s Scáthach who has the last bitter laugh. Prior to his departure back to Ireland and Eamain Macha, she draws up her seer skills and recites the events she sees in store for him, foretelling the bloody slaughter of the Táin Bó Cuailgne. Cú Chulainn, preoccupied, pays her recitation as much attention as a blind man to the cinematic trailer of a subtitled movie.

The moment passes, nothing is learned.

I’m occasionally asked why I’ve never written a contemporary version of Cú Chulainn or An Táin, given that – in some ways – he’s far more well known to non-Irish, English-speaking audiences. The truth of it is I find it hard to write about characters I don’t particularly like. For a contemporary audience, the actions of the Iron Age Cú Chulainn are difficult to get across in a way that would remain true to the original stories. Particularly as, in many of those stories, he comes across as a violent meathead (and, to be honest, a bit of a bastard).

Just like some real life heroes, I suppose.

Update on Liath Luachra: The Seeking (The Irish Woman Warrior Series III)

Liath Luachra: The Seeking has now passed 80,000 words – essentially the first eight chapters (and I’m currently working on Chapter 9). The book is planned for release later this year.

Above is a section of the new cover for this book. Below is the current draft of the back cover blurb.

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In the bleak Luachair valley, the woman warrior Liath Luachra’s seclusion is disrupted by a desperate plea to rescue a comrade’s abducted sister. Raising her ‘fian’ to pursue the raiders, this ‘Seeking’ turns out far more perilous than first imagined.

Pursuing a mysterious war party across ancient Ireland’s Great Wild, she soon finds herself confronted on every side. Old enemies seek to undermine her, new allies can’t be trusted and in the deep south-east, a dark threat rises, roused by a chilling spectre from her past.

Faced with horrors she’d thought long forgotten, Liath Luachra must revert to the worst part of herself to survive the phantoms of her past and present.

But you cannot stalk – or kill – a ghost.

The Woman Warrior Branches Out

After many (many!) hiccups trying to take it off the Amazon exclusive list, the second book in the Irish Woman Warrior Series (Liath Luachra: The Swallowed) is finally available on:

Apple (iBooks)
Kobo
Barnes and Noble
Smashwords
Google Play; and
Amazon

Instead of posting another picture of the cover, I’ve decided to celebrate with this gorgeous image of Liath Luachra by artist Vin Hill (and if you like this image, I’d highly recommend giving his site a look at https://vinhillart.wordpress.com/ ).

For those of you unfamiliar with the character, Liath Luachra (which means The Grey One of Luachair) was a woman warrior who had a very (very!) small role in Macgnímartha Finn (The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn).

In that narrative, she was one of two guardians to the mythological hero Fionn mac Cumhaill when he was just a child and she’s a great character to write.

The Completion of Two Irish Imbas Projects, the Start of Another

The first batch of hardcopies for Fionn: The Adversary arrived in this morning. Fifteen copies and they’re already gone, mostly committed to people who’ve helped with the production, editing, reviewing etc. I think I have a single copy left which is remaining here on the home shelf.
Even after all these years, there’s still a great thrill and satisfaction in seeing all your intellectual work captured and consolidated into physical form. Digital copies are fine but I still prefer the tactile experience of flipping pages and the tangible weight of a book in my hand when I’m reading.

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the way the book has been received. Given the rush to complete it on time, I was growing too close to the final product by the last stage of edits and found it increasingly difficult to tell whether the story was working as I wanted (really need to work on those self-imposed deadlines!). In the end, I went with gut instinct and the advice of my test readers and editor and, fortunately, that seems to have worked. The reviews to date (on Goodreads – it seems to be getting increasingly harder to get reviews on Amazon) have been extremely positive so that’s a major relief.

Since the publication, I’ve done absolutely no creative writing and have been focussed mostly on editing the next Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection (due for release this week if everything comes together). The timing for this release has actually been seriously hampered by New Zealand Post losing our final edited version between the north and the south islands (despite having paid for tracking, they were unable to find it). Essentially, NZ Post has been run into the ground by the current New Zealand government over the last few years and can no longer be trusted for even the most basic of deliveries. We certainly won’t be using them again.

Apart from that our monthly newsletter will also be released later this week. I’ll be outlining my next writing projects in that and on this website in a future post.

The Truth About Irish Woman Warriors (Irish Mythology)

There’s a lot of fantasy out there when it comes to women warriors, particularly where it relates back to those in the Irish or Celtic realm. To be fair, the subject is hardly a new one. Since the development of literature itself, writers and readers have been enamoured by tales of fighting women (particularly Herodotus with his notes on the inaccurately-named Amazons), probably because they’re such a rarity in ancient warfare, an area generally dominated by men.

That’s not to say, of course, that woman don’t or didn’t fight. There are numerous historical and contemporary examples of women fighting to defend themselves or, more often, fighting to protect the ones they love. And, in most cases, that’s the key difference. Men were most often portrayed as fighting for abstracts like patriotism or glory. Women, less so. Women’s role in ancient warfare obviously differed within cultures but, in a (very) general sense, women were portrayed as fighting only when it was absolutely necessary or when it was necessary for some other element in the tale. People have different opinions on whether that’s a product of biology, society, upbringing or something entirely different. Either way, it’d be foolish to ignore the patterns of millennia across ancient (and modern) societies.

irish-woman-warrior

When it comes to the concept of women warriors in the ancient Irish mythological context, there’s certainly a lot more literary references compared to other contemporary societies of the same period. Some people use this fact to argue that female fighters were common in early Irish society and that it was a far more ‘gender equal’ society but that’s a pretty big leap to make. In general, most academics tend to agree that this discrepancy is simply due to the fact that the Irish mythological narratives (and here you can loosely use the term ‘Celtic’ as it also covers modern-day Scotland) were much more successively conserved in Ireland than they were in the other, more directly colonised countries.

Whatever you believe, the ancient tales still have to be treated with a lot of caution. The writers/recorders of that time were not above a bit of creative licence or prejudice. People forget that just because something was written a long time ago, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.

If we look at Irish mythology then, the best known women warriors tend to include:

  • Scáthach – a woman warrior who appears in the Ulster Cycle who was based in modern-day Scotland. She instructs Cú Chulainn in a number of martial feats and when he catches her with her guard down, is forced to take him as a lover
  • Aífe – a rival of Scáthach who Cú Chulainn forces to lie with him at swordpoint and subsequently bears him a son
  • Neasa (Ness) – a woman warrior forced into marriage at swordpoint by the warrior/druid Cathbad and future mother of the famous Conchobhar mac Nessa
  • Liath Luachra – a guardian of the young Fionn mac Cumhaill, briefly mentioned in the Fenian Cycle but for whom there’s very little information available

In the first three examples, one gets an overpowering impression from the literature that the character of the powerful woman warrior was created specifically to highlight the sexual accomplishment and domination of the male ‘hero’ who subsequently overpowers her (a pattern also found with other women warrior characters in the mythology). With the third example, Liath Luachra is actually a guardian to the young hero, a relationship that, in a sense, is desexualised.

Other women mentioned in the ancient Irish literature who are often offered as examples of women warriors include:

  •  Meadhbh (also spelt Medb, Maeve etc.) – Queen of Connacht in the Táin (The Cattle Raid of Cooley)
  •  The Morríghan (or Mór-ríoghain)

In fact, neither of these actually make the cut if you look at them in any kind of detail. All of the literary and archaeological evidence to date suggests the characters are personifications of female deities as opposed to warrior women. Articles or literary works suggesting that they are, generally indicates the author hasn’t done his/her homework or is pushing an argument that’s probably driven more by wish fulfilment than fact.

Over the last twenty years or so, representation of women warriors has become much more prevalent, particularly where entertainment aligns with more contemporary underlying themes of gender equality etc. Given the prevalence of characters in the Irish mythology, there’s also been a tendency to ‘borrow’ them for contemporary fictions but without any real consideration of the underlying cultural context. This occasionally results in works that are not only overly romanticised but which ignore some of the strong negative gender undercurrents associated with the characters, something of which the authors often seem – disturbingly – unaware.