Father Ted’s Alive and Unwell

During my visit home this week, I found myself in a surreal situation when I was shoulder-twisted into an extended family social occasion and ended up being cornered (literally) by a subgroup of religious zealots.

Just for context, you probably need to understand that religion in Ireland has suffered a huge decline over the past thirty years. Most of the seminaries where new young priests used to enter the order are now pretty much empty. Schools and colleges that used to be run and staffed by Christian Brothers or Presbeterian Brothers are now staffed almost entirely by lay people. There are very few convents still in operation and I personally haven’t seen a nun in years.

In parishes (Church defined territories) where four or five priests used to live in a church residence you now often find single priests living in a huge residence by themselves. Like their congregations, the remaining priests are getting quite elderly and the Catholic Church in Ireland is struggling to deal with empty churches, large property banks and the support and maintenance of their own aging membership. Dwindling church attendance is also an issue and some startling, if ineffective, innovations have been trialled. One ingenious solution used locally was when the priest’s mass service was transmitted out over the open radio for people like my elderly aunt who couldn’t attend due to a disability.

Unfortunately, the church hadn’t done its research properly and was forced to close the service down when they started receiving complaints from Cork airport. Apparently, the priests were using the same wireless frequency as the airline pilots communicating with the airport’s control tower. Planes dropping the gears and lining up for an approach to the landing strip on a Saturday night or Sunday morning were occasionally assaulted by a furious homily from the local priest just as they were preparing to land.

In another recent innovation, one or two priests have also been passing the Eucharist onto regular attendees who haven’t been able to make the mass. Generally, a trusted member of the congregation is given the blessed Eucharist and instructed to bring it to the home of the missing individual. This approach is outside Church policy so only the ‘in’ few get this particular service. Needless to say, it’s all very hush-hush but of course there are plenty of braggers and, as a result, everyone in the parish knows about it. Local wags are now calling them “Church take-aways”.

The Church’s cause hasn’t really been helped by its poor acknowledgement of the enormous hurt and damaged caused by abuse of children in their care, the Magdalen Laundries and of course the recent scandal of the children’s burial ground in Tuam. Neither is it helped by the members of the church itself. In the local parish for example, there are three priests, known as the Gambling Priest (who likes a bit of a flutter), the Drinking Priest (an alcoholic) and the Shagging Priest. The latter is currently shacked up with a woman and her child (but it’s not his child so “that’s all right”!). Church attendance there is pretty slim and, again, the church is struggling to pay for and maintain the priests in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed. Recently, there was uproar when a letter arrived into the mailbox of all parish households, seeking contributions towards the petrol bill of the main parish priest (The Gambling Priest). Given that most people know most of that money would end up at the bookies, the proposal was, understandably, greeted with substantial scorn.

At a family event, I was sitting at a corner table where I was joined by an elderly relative and two of her friends and finally by the Gambling Priest himself. The Gambling Priest is a bit of a pompous ass, to be honest. A family “friend”, I’ve never actually liked him as he’s always exuded a sense of self-entitlement and led a life of luxury and privilege due to his status in the community. I’ve put up with him due to family connections but otherwise I’ve generally avoided him.

On this particular occasion, the Gambling Priest started pontificating about a local derelict hospital (The Red Brick) that had recently been burned down and he was convinced it’d been put to flame by young people “on the instigation of” one of the new political parties out to make way for housing for the homeless. When K pointed out that this might actually have been a good thing, it quickly became clear he was actually against the homeless (people who were too lazy to get a job and fend for themselves – a bit like, well, priests I suppose), immigrants (including refugees), black people liberals and socialists.

Oh, and anyone who didn’t vote for Fianna Fáil.

While the Gambling Priest was talking, the other three elderly people were nodding servilely in agreement. From their subsequent comments it became obvious they were simply regurgitating the Gambling Priest’s opinions and hadn’t a brain cell of independent thought to share between the lot of them.

Having pretty much avoided religion of any kind since childhood, I was totally gobsmacked to find myself in a situation of such … almost caricature-like grotesqueness. I’d always heard the stories of course, seen snippets of the behaviour and laughed at the Father Ted mocking but I’d never personally experienced the true extent of zealot-like fanaticism that pervades certain sections of the Irish Church.

In the end, I managed to excuse myself without getting too angry but the whole incident genuinely left a bad taste in my mouth. If this is what the Irish Church is truly like, then the sooner it fades away, the better.

A New Liath Luachra Story Coming Shortly

After two pretty shocking workload months, we’re finally at a point where we can actually release some new writing. This short story (The Pursuit) should be selectively available at the end of next week (before we close down for the month of August) and more widely in September.

The story takes place sometime after the events in Liath Luachra: The Grey One. It’s a stand-alone short story but will form the first chapter of the next Liath Luachra book in 2018.

To be honest, even now it still surprises me how fiercely people like this character. When I first introduced her, I didn’t think honestly believe many readers would relate to a Gaelic, sword-wielding, gay woman. I should have got some inkling however, when despite the much smaller role planned for the character, she took on a life of her own (to the point where she ended up completely dominating the first book in the Fionn mac Cumaill series).

And then of course there was the review feedback:

“The thinking woman’s warrior.”

“An intriguing female protagonist unlike any I’ve come across before. Intelligent and competent, she’s also tragically damaged and vulnerable and yet somehow manages to cling to her fragile moral core.”

“Tough, tenacious and unflinchingly truthful, Liath Luachra is an admirably strong female protagonist. Her own inner conflict – between her past and present self, her loyalty to Bodhmhall and her own sense of right and wrong – is as engaging as her woodland exploits, and her fighting scenes are stark and exhausting.”

“A female heroine who is commanding and fascinating.”

“In the legends of Fionn mac Cumhaill, Liath Luachra is an intriguing name with minimal context, but in Brian O’Sullivan’s adaptions she becomes a most fascinating and formidable character in her own right.”

“In Fionn’s aunt, Bodhmall, and her lover Liath Luachra, O’Sullivan has created an intruiging warrior women who each provide their own strength to the narrative. I could continue reading a series about just them without any difficulty.”

Etc.
Etc.
Etc.

As a writer, you really can’t get more positive or more affirmative feedback than that and I’m extremely grateful to all of those who made the effort to write those comments. At the end of the day, I guess that as long as people enjoy those stories, I’ll keep writing them.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

I love my editor, Madame Palamino Blackwing

I love my editor Madame Palamino Blackwing but her presence on a different island and a preference for hand-written edits can occasionally pose a problem.

Four weeks ago, I emailed her a new Liath Luachra short story which she quickly edited and sent back by mail. Unfortunately, the roads in New Zealand’s south island were blocked with snow for several days. When the edits finally arrived in Wellington there was a storm and my postbox was flooded (seriously!). I ended up having to dry fifteen sodden sheets of paper in front of the fire.

I’m just glad she writes with pencil and not ink.

This isn’t the first time this has happened.

But she’s a brilliant feckin editor!

I’m assuming no-one else has this problem.

 

New FIONN: Defence of Ráth Bládhma Cover Launched (and associated sale)

Well, it’s taken a while but we’re finally launching the new ebook cover for FIONN: Defence of Ráth Bládhma (first book in the Fionn mac Cumhaill series and SPFBO 2016 finalist).

To celebrate this …. er, momentous occasion we’re setting the price at 99c/99p FOR THE NEXT THREE DAYS (i.e. over the weekend).

Thanks to all those who helped with the launch and for spreading the word.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh!

The Story of Berrach Brec (Irish Mythology and Folklore)

Background Context: This originates from a 12th century tale concerning the two Fenian heroes Oisín (son of Fionn mac Cumhaill) and Caoilte mac Rónáin. Both warriors have returned to Ireland from the Otherworld Tír na nÓg (the Land of Youth) but many centuries have passed and their homeland has very much changed. The two warriors have split up to travel around the country and visit old sites they once knew. Caoilte is currently being hosted by the of Kinelconall (around modern day Wicklow) at his home in Dún na mBarc.

The Story of Berrach Brec

After they had eaten, Conall mac Neill gestured out to sea where a dark patch was just visible on the blue blade of the horizon. ‘You see the island out there?’ asked Conall. ‘Out on that island stands the ruins of an ancient fort. In those ruins there’s an enormous tomb whose origins have been lost to time.’
On hearing this, Caoilte looked towards the distant isle and surprised them all by starting to weep.

Conall approached him cautiously. ‘Caolite. You who are courageous and so skilled with a sword …’ He paused. ‘I beg that you and your companions accompany us to the island tomorrow to view it’.

‘By my word,’ said Caoilte. ‘That island is the third place in Ireland I do not wish to see for the memory of the noble people who once lived there.’ He sighed, a sigh so great it echoed down upon the distant strand. ‘But, yes. I will go with you tomorrow.’

Because of the great warrior’s melancholy mood, it was a subdued night in Conall’s dwelling. At dawn the next morning however, Conall, his wife and other members of the settlement had gathered eagerly to await his rising. Since his arrival, Caoilte’s tales and knowledge of times past had stimulated them, raised their spirits and explained much that was now unknown after the passing of so many centuries.

Day broke with a glowing sun, perfect visibility and a faint breeze. The waves were low and mild as three boatloads of people travelled across the glistening sea to the island which consisted of several forest-coated hills. Landing on a clear, white strand, they started uphill to the ruins of the small fortress which was located on the island’s highest point. There, within its cramped ruins, they found the enormous stone tomb that Conall has spoken of and which measured seven score feet in length and twenty-eight in width. Caoilte took a seat on the tomb and sat staring at the ground while the others gathered around. The bustle and chat of the crowd slowly dropped to a solemn hush as they looked about at the ancient, moss-coated stones.

‘By my soul, Caoilte,’ said Conall. ‘I have seen many tombs in my day but never one to match the marvel of this one. Can you tell us whose it is?’

The warrior did not speak for a time but when he did his voice was heavy with emotion. ‘I’ll tell you the truth of it, Conall. This is the tomb of the fourth best of all women who ever lay with a man back in the day.’

Conall paused, carefully choosing his words before posing his question. ‘And who were these four distinguished women?’

Caoilte closed his eyes as though struggling to recall but his answer, when it came, was clear and confident. ‘The first was Sabia, daughter of Conn Cétchathach (Conn of the Hundred Battles). The second was Eithne Ollamda, daughter of Cathaír Mór. The third was Cormac’s daughter Ailbhe, known as Ailbhe Gruaidbhres (Ailbhe of the feckled cheeks). The fourth – and the woman in this grave – was Berrach Brec, daughter’ of Cas Cuailgne, king of Ulster, and beloved wife of Fionn mac Cumhaill.

If any one of those four women had goodness in excess of the others, it was Berrach Brec. At her home, a guest could remain well hosted from the first day of Samhain-tide to the first of spring and had his choice to remain longer should he wish. If any man lacked arms or clothing, she ensured he received enough of both before he left.’

‘And what was the cause of her death?’ asked Conall.

Caoilte gave a sad laugh. ‘Love, of course.’ He grew quiet once more and it was some time before he spoke again.

‘Berrach Brec was raised by Goll mac Morna’s father and mother as their only fosterchild. On her eighteenth year, when she’d grown to a beautiful woman Fionn mac Cumaill begged her father for her hand. Because Fionn’s tribe – Clann Baoiscne – was a onetime enemy of Clann Morna, he agreed only on the condition that the tribal leader, Goll mac Morna, also gave his consent.

Fionn, passionate as ever, then approached his old adversary Goll and asked for the hand of his foster-sister. After much discussion, Goll finally agreed. “But there are three conditions,” he told the Clann Baoiscne warrior. “These are that you can never dismiss her as your wife; she will be your third wife and you will give her whatever she asks without refusal.”

“All of those conditions will be met,” Fionn answered him.

“And who shall you provide to Clann Morna as sureties?”

“I leave that choice to you,” said Fionn.

In the end, Fionn gave his own three foster-sons as sureties: Daighre, Garadh and Conán. Berrach Brec, for her part, was happy to go and live with Fionn and over the subsequent years she bore him three strong sons: Faelán. Aedh Beg and Uillenn Faebairdherg (Uillenn of the Red-Eye).

Fionn had her for a loving wife for many years until the peace between Clann Morna and Clann Baoiscne was broken. Clann Morna turned on Fionn and raised a war party that numbered three thousand warriors.’
At this point, Caoilte closed his eyes and uttered a quatrain in an ancient form of the language that was now no longer spoken:

Ten hundred and twenty hundred there
That was the bulk of proud Clann Morna’s rank and file
Over and above which chiefs and their chieftains
Who numbered fifteen hundred

‘The Clann Morna war party travelled to Daire Taebdha (Oakwood of the Bulls) in Connacht. There, three groups of Fionn’s warriors caught them by surprise, attacking at dawn before they’d arisen from their camp. In the oakwoods, we felled fifteen of the most battle-hardened and well-armed Morna warriors and would have felled more had Goll mac Morna, that experienced battler, not arranged to protect their rear. As they retreated, we were unable to inflict any further damage.

Infuriated by the defeat, Clann Morna decided then to slay anyone who was aligned or friendly with Fionn and his Fianna. Conán Maol (Bald Conán) was the one who gave this advice. Goll’s brother, Conán was a man whose mind knew no peace. A breeder of quarrels, he was a malicious mischief-maker in times of war or peace.

Making their way to this island and this fortress where Berrach Bec was staying, Clann Morna paused on one of the nearby green-grassed meadows to decide what to do with her. Berrach Bec was their foster-sister after all. After much argument and discussion, they decided to offer her a choice: to bring away all her possessions and valuables and leave Fionn. In that way, they reasoned, by returning to her foster kin, she’d never have to fear Clann Morna again.

When this message was conveyed to her, Berrach Bec appeared on the ramparts of the little fortress and cried out to them. “Would you truly injure me? Would you truly injure me, my own beloved foster brothers?”

“We would,” they answered.

“Then do your worst,” she countered. “By no means will I forsake my husband Fionn mac Cumhaill, my first family and gentle love.”

Angered by her response, the Clann Morna war party approached the fortress in battle formation and surrounded it, each man within touching distance of his neighbour. When it was completely encircled, they set it alight from every side.

The panic-stricken Berrach Bec somehow managed to flee the settlement with a number of her serving women. Slipping through the Clann Morna battle line, they made a break for the sea. Up on the rampart of the burning fortress however, Art mac Morna, spotted her hurrying towards a sailing ship on the long white strand. Slipping a finger into the thong of his javelin, the Clann Morna warrior raised it and cast at her.

Down on the strand, Berrach Bec heard the javelin’s whistle and, startled, glanced about to see what was causing it. The missile struck her full in her chest, cleaving straight through her breast to break her spine in two.’

Caoilte sighed. ‘And that is how she died.’

The warrior got to his feet and leaning against one of the moss-coated walls, he stared down at the impressive stone structure. ‘Afterwards, once this fortress had been plundered, her own people carried her up from the shore and laid her here. This then was the woman whose tomb this is. The loyal Berrach Bec.’

Irish Fantasy Covers, Phallic Stones and Other Disasters

I’d have to confess that, to date, the Fionn covers have been pretty much a hit and miss affair (but mostly miss). When we first started publishing we decided to use photomanipulations (where the artist/designer plays around with existing stock photography to create a suitable cover) because of budget constraints. Unfortunately, it didn’t take us long to realize the downside of that approach – it’s actually quite hard to find photos that accurately represent Ireland in the first/second century (go figure!).

Because of the dominance of the Liath Luachra character throughout the first three books, we’d also come to the conclusion that it was important to have a young woman warrior on the cover (so it was clear the books were not entirely about Fionn). Again however, when we searched the available stock, what we mostly found were pics of young girls wielding flashy fantasy-style weapons, bizarre armor that just didn’t fit the realistic style of the books, and, of course, various elements of what looked closely like soft porn or something from one of the old Gor series (without the bondage):

SOMETHING (OR OTHER) OF GOR!

SLAVE GIRL OF GOR (she’s actually wearing clothes – they’re just very small!)

In the end, for the initial covers we settled on stock from Chirinstock (who were exceptionally generous in allowing us to use their photos).

Although the figures in their photos were very much dressed in a style used by Keira Knightly in the King Arthur movie (and there was an unrealistic amount of bare skin for an Irish winter), they were still streets ahead of anything else we could find at the time (although, in fairness, the variation in stock for fantasy covers has admittedly improved over the last year or two).

To give the covers an “ancient Irish” feel, we also provided the designer with some of our own stock, mostly standing stones, stone circles, dolmens and so on.

Of course what we didn’t realise until later was that when you mix scantily clad women with tall standing stones, what you can end up with is something … well, phallic.

Phallic Stones in Ireland

It was only last year when I was looking over the covers for the two most recent books in the series that the penny dropped.

HOLY CRAP!

Needless to say, the look went against pretty much everything the books stand for in terms of strong female characters.

Desperate to change the covers last year, we made three attempts to replace them but each time we tried we just seemed to hit a brick wall. The first cover designer we used simply didn’t work out (creative differences!) and provided something like a madwoman in a Harry Potter scarf. A second cover commission fell through. The third one we used didn’t really give the look we wanted (but fortunately was still good enough to use for a separate project we’re working on).

Frustrated with the various photomanipulation flops, we decided to seek out an illustrator for the next set of covers and I’m glad to say that’s worked out extremely well. Photostock limits you to what’s available in the various stock galleries (unless you have a very talented designer) whereas with illustrations you can actually start from a completely blank canvas – a huge bonus with mythology, historical or fantasy covers. Working with an illustrator was also particularly cool in that, at long last, we could provide some visual indication of what a ráth actually looked like (good luck finding workable ráth stockphotos!) and what Glenn Ceoch looked like. More importantly, it was also a lot of fun to help design the actual characters. With Liath Luachra for example, we were able to work out a facial style derived from a character from the “Vikings” television series as follows:

 

Given the subject matter, we still have a warrior woman on the front of at least two of the covers but now, at last , we can also add provide extra detail on some of the other key figures (Bodhmhall, Fiacail, Demne). Honestly! From a creative perspective, I’m kicking myself that we didn’t do this three or four years ago!

 

 

 

 

 

Fascinating Patterns from the SPFBO 2016 Competition

Honestly! Who’d be a fantasy book reviewer?

Day in, day out, reviewing endless narratives from a single literary genre, ducking the infinite queries from enthusiastic independent authors and then …Wham!

Just when you’ve established a workable regime, you’re suddenly enlisted in some bizarre, year-long competition, obliged to score thirty books you had no desire to read, books that are dragging you away from the ones you’d set your heart on.

But, I guess the view is very different from the other side of the mirror.

I came across Mark Lawrence’s Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) back in 2016, completely by chance. Because I like Mark’s books and I wanted to support what he was doing, I submitted two books on a bit of a whim (FIONN: DEFENCE OF RÁTH BLÁDHMA and LIATH LUACHRA: THE GREY ONE) and promptly forgot about it. Generally speaking, I’m not a fantasy writer so much as a writer of Irish mythological fiction. This contains substantial elements of fantasy so my books occasionally get lumped into the ‘fantasy’ category but it’s by no means a perfect fit. [Please note, Amazon – your categories need work!]

I intentionally refrain from spending too much time online so it was several days after the announcement was made before I found out that FIONN: DEFENCE OF RÁTH BLÁDHMA had been selected as a finalist and only then because a fan of the FIONN series alerted me (cheers, Gary!).

As a slightly abstract finalist however, it’s been quite interesting to watch the competition unfurl. At first, I’d occasionally drift over to Mark Lawrence’s website to see how/if things were progressing. Later of course, the twitter account I’d set up to facilitate our annual Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition was hijacked by fellow SPFBO authors (you know who you are, you bastards!) obliging me to spend many hours of unproductive activity gigging over my keyboard like an inbred teen.

Meanwhile, back in reality, far away from the land of publishing, my alter-ego – mild-mannered concept designer and strategic analyst Brian O’Sullivan – couldn’t help but notice some interesting patterns that related to the particular dynamics of this unique competition. He’s done his best to summarise these below.

The diversity of reviewer tastes:

One characteristic that’s immediately obvious with the SPFBO is the diversity of reading tastes amongst the reviewers. One reviewer might absolutely LOVE a book, others might hate it. Others again might be all a bit …’meh’ about it.

That’s all completely natural of course and yet this characteristic wasn’t immediately obvious during the initial phase of the competition. At that point, the finalists and semi-finalists are still being chosen and the reviews produced tend to be mini-reviews so it’s hard to get a real feel for a reviewer’s taste. I became aware of the characteristic only because I had two books in the mix and the one which I’d thought the strongest contender (LIATH LUACHRA: THE GREY ONE) fell at the very first hurdle whereas FIONN: DEFENCE OF RÁTH BLÁDHMA ended up being the second book selected as a finalist. Both initial assessment/ reviews were carried out by different reviewers (Bookworm Blues and Bibliosanctum) so it was enough to get me thinking.

In the final phase of the SPFBO, once the three hundred contenders had been reduced to ten and the scores started to appear on Mark’s spreadsheet, the diversity of review blogger taste became far more visible. As the competition progressed, it was interesting to watch some books like THE GREY BASTARDS, PATH OF FLAMES and LARCOUT receive remarkably consistent scores whereas others like OUTPOST, PATERNUS or ASSASSIN’S CHARGE seemed to experience a much wider fluctuation, depending on the individual tastes of the reviewer. Interestingly, if you look at the score detail a bit more closely, you can actually see how some review blogs have quite a narrowly defined spectrum of what they like whereas others are far broader. Occasionally, this can be explained by the fact that some review blogs have a number of different SPFBO reviewers but this wasn’t always the case. Bring human, there’s also a genuine possibility of reviewers being influenced by the scores of their peers but, in fairness, any incidence of this appeared low (if at all).

For me, this wide range of tastes was one of the more interesting dynamics of the competition. Whereas for some reviewers you could see a slight trend of “every book but the one I chose wasn’t great”, for others there was really no way you could even hazard a guess as to what kind of score you were about to receive. This made the competition far more exciting.

A surprising openness to diversity

This characteristic really took me by surprise but in a sense it shouldn’t have as it’s probably a logical expansion of point (1).

As explained earlier, the books we publish (fiction and non-fiction) are based on Irish mythological fiction and focus strongly on historical accuracy and cultural authenticity (otherwise, the mythology makes little sense). Cultural authenticity was the whole reason I went down the self-publishing route in the first place. Generally speaking, my experience with mainstream publishers, distributors and reviewers in the English-speaking market is that they don’t allow much room for diversity of style or culture, preferring to stick to strict genre formulae that have proven themselves in the past. It was surprising therefore to see how the SPFBO reviewers handled things.

From the SPFBO FIONN reviews that have been published thus far, you can tell that the Gaelic names (characters and placenames) in the book created a degree of discomfort or challenge for the reviewers. For some this was minor and others complained a bit more, but in almost every case, to their credit, the SPFBO reviewers accepted them for what they were – an essential part of the story.

That genuinely surprised me. Having looked at the websites of the SPFBO review blogs, I’d got the impression they predominantly read and reviewed mainstream fantasy. As a result, I’d expected a similar mindset and that the language (and other Gaelic cultural aspects) would pose something of a barrier. Indeed all the advice I’d received from mainstream publishers to date (including Irish ones, sadly) was that it was critical to ‘anglicize’ Gaelic names for the market. The predominantly positive response from the SPFBO reviewers, however seems a pretty good indication of yet another reason why mainstream publishers are losing such a large proportion of the fantasy genre market to independent authors.

The SPFBO openness to diversity was not just limited to culture of course. Style also formed an interesting part of that. If you look at Jonathan French’s winning novel – THE GREY BASTARDS – you’ll see that the descriptions include ‘coarse’, ‘foul’, ‘filthy’ (one SPFBO reviewer even suggested it could “dial back the profanity/ sexuality”). My personnel favourite however, was from Pornokitch’s review:

“The Grey Bastards is filthy. In every way, really… from being coated to swamp mire to constant penis jokes. If there’s a way to be earthy, or just plain dirty, Bastards will find it. And then roll around for a while. This is part of the book’s steep learning curve: in the first few pages, we’re thrown in the deep end, with politics, sex, action and naked women shooting crossbows.

Despite all that, this book consistently scored ‘nines’ and – most amazingly – a ‘ten’, a first for the SPFBO.

The writing style of a number of other finalists (K. A Krantz’s LARCOUT and Dyrk Ashton’ PATERNUS, jump to mind) was also criticized on occasion by one or two reviewers (maximum). Again however, both of these books scored exceedingly well overall and remain comfortably nestled in the top five of the three hundred books considered, which speaks strongly about their quality.
For me, this situation with respect to diversity was best described by Bibliotropic (in one of the FIONN reviews) as follows:

“We don’t read fantasy novels to be confronted by the distressingly familiar — we read them, in part, to have our minds stretched a little bit.”

There’s been a lot of criticism in the fantasy/sci-fi (and other) publishing sectors over the last three to four years with respect to diversity. Overall, the SPFBO methodology of assessing books across ten different book reviewers seems a far more accurate and less biased process for looking at the general public’s taste with respect to fantasy literature.
If they have any nous, the mainstream publishers will be watching this carefully.

SPFBO Finalists receiving early (and positive) reviews have an advantage

The SPFBO competition is quite different from most other literary competitions in that it’s spread over an extended period (a year). In most cases, this works well for the participating authors (as they receive more exposure and visibility) and the participating fantasy review blogs (who see a corresponding increase in the number of visits to their sites).

The busiest, and most popular, period of the SPFBO definitely appears to be the initial phase of the competition. Over this period, at least 300 authors are online discussing the SPFBO, their own (and other authors’) books, exploring the various reviewer websites to get a sense of the reviewers to whose groups they’ve been assigned and ‘checking out’ of the competition (the other authors in their reviewer group). Numerous other bloggers and fantasy review sites are also interacting at this time, mini-reviews are released, some semi-finalists are identified, the identities of selected finalists trickle in and, of course, other participating authors are slowly but surely, eliminated.

The second phase of the competition seems a little more subdued in comparison. As the number of participating authors has been reduced from three hundred to ten, many of the eliminated authors have moved onto other things and the associated social media activity appears correspondingly diminished. There’s still quite a lot of interest in the initial reviews of the finalists however.
By the time more than half of the finalist reviews are in, there’s certainly a visible tapering off in activity with a drop off in Twitter and Facebook shares, blog comments and in discussions across most other social media outlets.

This all means that there’s a sliding scale with respect to timing of SPFBO Finalist selection, SPFBO reviews and the associated activity/visibility benefits for the authors. This was highly apparent this time around when the Pornokitsch review blog released a post identifying its finalist (Phil Tucker’s PATH OF FLAMES) and close contender (Josiah Bancroft’s SENLIN ASCENDS). Because this post identified the first finalist and provided the first in-depth review, the Pornokitsch post generated an enormous amount of interest and publicity for both Phil and Josiah (deservedly so, I’d have to add). Despite the fact that Josiah was eliminated from the competition, the positivity of the Pornokitsh review and the amount of interest it garnered (plus the quality of the book and a subsequent review from Mark Lawrence) meant SENLIN ASCENDS actually went on to perform exceptionally well in terms of sales and online reviews. Far better in fact than some of the actual finalists.

In some respects, this was also the case with FIONN: DEFENCE OF RATH BLADHMA as there was a flurry of sales and reviews following its initial selection (and like the Pornokitsch review, the Bookworm Blues reviewer struggled to choose between FIONN and Benedict Patrick’s excellent THEY MOSTLY COME OUT AT NIGHT). Due to very understandable circumstances, the reviews for both books were relatively short compared to those of the other blogs which no doubt had some effect.
I haven’t analysed whether the other finalist authors experienced similar dynamics with their initial selection but given the timing issues, I suspect the associated benefits diminished for the later finalists. I suspect this is also the case with the actual reviews themselves. Finalists who received a lot of reviews at the start of the second phase would have obtained far greater benefit than those who received the majority of their reviews in the latter part (for example F.T. McKinstry’s OUTPOST, S.K.S. Perry’s THE MOONLIGHT WAR and to a lesser degree K.A. Stewart’s THE MUSIC BOX GIRL).

The diversity of the fantasy blog reviewers creates different scales of response/benefit

When you consider the SPFBO review blogs, it quickly becomes apparent that they vary broadly in terms of size, from one man/woman bands (such as Bookworm Blues and Bibliotropic) to larger, more collective-style blogs (such as Fantasy Faction or Fantasy Literature). Over the course of the competition, I certainly got the sense that the smaller blogs suffered more from the strain of the increased review workload (the larger blogs could, at least, share the load amongst a larger number of reviewers). Given that, you would have expected the larger sites to complete their reviews first. Ironically, that didn’t seem to be the case. At the time of writing this post, many of the SPFBO reviews from two to three of the larger sites have yet to be posted (although the scores have). This isn’t a criticism – I’m sure there are perfectly good reason why – I just found it quite amusing.

From the perspective of the participating authors, the size and of the reviewing blog probably has some importance. It seems logical that the larger (or more established) review blogs have a greater follower count than the smaller (less-established) sites. This also means that any reviews from those sites (and associated benefits of visibility etc.) spread far wider than the reviews from the smaller sites. To a degree, this effect is balanced by the linking of all the reviews to the centralised SPFBO home site but it’s almost certain that some variance of benefit remains.

Conclusion:
The above are just some of the interesting characteristics that I’ve personally observed over the course of the SPFBO competition research but given the limited amount of analysis I carried out, that’s all they really are: observations.

All competitions have their own particular features, their strengths and their shortcomings. Given that the SPFBO is facilitated by volunteers who do it for passion rather than for pecuniary or other benefit, I don’t think any of us participating authors have too much reason for complaint.
Personally, despite my initial lack of expectations, I ended up obtaining immense enjoyment from the experience (more as a result of the online friends and relationships I’ve established than from any increased sales or visibility – although these too have been beneficial).

I recently carried out a scoping exercise to assess the possibility of facilitating a SPFBO event here in Wellington and although the results indicated it wasn’t really a feasible option as yet, I did identify hints that the SPFBO competition was on the cusp of a step-change in terms of influence. I’m not really interested in the political pros and cons of the “indie versus traditional” publishing discussion but what’s clear to me is that events such the SPFBO have irreversibly transformed the publishing sector. Independent or self-publishing is (and probably has been for a while) the mainstream publishing sector.

I’ll close off with thanks to Mark Lawrence (read the Red Queen), Sarah Chorn and all the participating reviewers of the SPFBO 2016.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh

That a thousand good things might come to you.

Brian O’Sullivan

PS: If I’ve got anything wrong, omitted or misinterpreted anything, feel free to correct me in the comments.

What Comes Next: Update On Production

As you’re probably aware, Fionn: The Adversary , the third book in the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series was released at the end of February (if you’re not aware you must be deaf and blind as I’ve been shouting about it from the rooftops for months while waving a bright red flag!).

Following that publication and various other projects, I decided to take some time off and do absolutely no writing for a month or two. I was still working of course. There were still numerous articles to write, my sections for the Celtic Mythology Collection 2017 (released last week) to complete and then of course the editing and the actual publication process. Although this preoccupied me on an administrative level, creatively it freed up some headspace to think about the next book. Having completed another in the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series, I was keen to try something slightly different.

Subsequently, I’ve decided to work on two books this year (three really, if I count the next Celtic Mythology Collection but that’s not for several months yet). The first one (which I’ve already scoped out) is going to be a second Liath Luachra novel. Some of you might be a little surprised at that, given that I discounted that possibility last year (I’m nothing if not fickle!).

I originally wrote the first individual Liath Luachra novel (Liath Luachra: The Grey One) as a prequel to the Fionn mac Cumhaill series, one I had intended to be accompanied by a second book called ‘Bodhmhall: The Black Hag’. Both were meant to provide context and background to the two main protagonists in the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series and essentially serve as an entry into that series.

As it was, Liath Luachra: The Grey One ended up being far darker than I’d originally envisaged and I felt it just wasn’t suitable as a prequel. The lack of response (reviews and sales) to the book following its publication also convinced me to put it aside, something I announced in one of the earlier newsletters. Many of the elements I’d intended to put in ‘Bodhmhall: The Black Hag’, meanwhile, ended up in Fionn: The Adversary.

Following the SPFBO 2016 competition however, there’s been quite an unexpected surge of interest in Liath Luachra with several people writing to ask for more stories on this particular character. As a result, I’ve decided to give Liath Luachra her own mini-series (of three books). This series will include Liath Luachra: The Grey One and the remaining two books will follow on directly from the events in that novel.

The second Liath Luachra book (the one I’ve started) has the working title Liath Luachra: Sons of the Land. Gaelic speakers amongst you will know that ‘Sons of the Land’ is a direct translation of the word ‘Mactíre’ – the Irish word for ‘wolf’ and wolves of course will play an important part in this story. I’ll tell more about that in the next newsletter.

But that’s the Liath Luachra book.

The second book I’ll be working on this year is a non-fiction work that requires a substantial piece of research – something I’ll be carrying out through the remainder of the year. At this stage, I’ll say no more about it apart from the fact that I’ve previously written about it in other newsletters as Project Tobar. Tobar is the Irish for ‘well’ (the one with the water in it, not the “well, well, well!”).

In between times, I’ll also be working on the plot lines for the next Fionn book (FIONN: The Salmon of Secret Wisdom). This has some significant plot twists in it and it will require quite a bit of thinking to get the effect I want while aligning it with the established Fenian Cycle. Some of it will also overlap with the new Liath Luachra series.

I feel exhausted already!

Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2017 is Now Available (partially) Online

We initiated the release of the second Celtic Mythology Collection yesterday and it’s a pretty impressive collection. I guess as editor, I’d be expected to say that anyway but the truth is I’m genuinely impressed, probably because of the larger range and mythological depth of the stories in this edition.

From our perspective, the primary goal of these books is to counter the copious amounts of shite nonsense out there, relating to Celtic mythology. We have hundreds of years of disinformation to counter and it really is no easy task, particularly when you’re competing against the entities out there who make money from disseminating false information (and publishers who republish ‘out of copyright’ editions of Yeats, I’m looking specifically at you).

So, first, the spiel!

This time around, there’s also quite a large diversity in terms of Celtic/Gaelic topics/concepts covered. Will O’Siorain’s (winner of the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition) Hour of Greatest Need is a very exciting retelling of the ancient tale on how Emain Macha (Eamhain Mhacha ) got it’s name. Diana Powell meanwhile has a stirringly emotive interpretation of changelings in her story The Black Hen. Damien McKeating, who came in third place in the competition, also does a brilliantly original take on An Daghdha (An Dagda) in A Good Man.

The three competition winners are ably supported by three other new talents. Darren Fecky’s The Drunken Joe Malshy is probably the most original (and funny) take on Irish mythology I’ve read for years (if ever – this guy is a serious talent). Méabh de Brún also does a very effective and individual take on the Cave of Cruachann tale with Revival and makes it very much her own. Finally, after last years ‘flood’ of selkie stories, I swore we wouldn’t do another but Molly Aitken’s story Seasick was simply too good not to include.

Seriously, though, there is some pretty amazing writing and storytelling skill at work in this year’s release and given that this is all freely available in digital form, we’d strongly urge you to give it a try.

And then there were the practicalities!

As usual, when it comes to releasing anything with a zero price, it’s fraught with difficulty and time delays. At the moment therefore, the Celtic Mythology Collection is available for free at:

Kobo as an ePUB file

Smashwords as an ePUB and Kindle file

Within a week or two (all going well) it should also be available at
Apple Barnes & Noble (Nook)

The book is also available on Amazon for 99c (Amazon are reluctant to make anything free until they have to price-match the larger ebook stores so this should happen in the next week or two). Meanwhile, if you want to get it there and enrich our copious coffers (not) feel free to do so. I think we’ll get 35c on every sale until it reverts to ‘free’. Aaaah, the wealth and the glory!

But really!

This book is a lot of work for us and we’re exceptionally proud of the final product but, obviously, it’s not a success unless readers actually enjoy it. If you’d like to leave some feedback via a review at the ebook store or on Goodreads, we and the authors would greatly appreciate it.

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.

A Restrained Saint Paddy’s

St Patricks Day in New Zealand started with a bang – literally.

I heard the story from the Honorary Consul General who’d been stuck on a plane in Auckland airport for two hours. Bound for Wellington, the plane ended up being grounded due to a dog running loose on the runway. Ironically, we later found out the 10 month-old dog was actually an Aviation Security Dog (a ‘sniffer’ dog) who’d escaped its handler and panicked. The airport staff tried to catch it for three hours but in the end they resorted to shooting it. Sixteen flights had been grounded (including the Consul-General’s) and several more had been diverted. Apparently, they weren’t going to let an animal cause any further loss of income.

Even more ironically, I started the day by attending a St Paddy’s Ulster Breakfast celebration at the British High Commission. I was a bit surprised to get an invite to such a formal occasion, particularly from a British Government organisation. When I told K, she was cynical: “They’re probably trying to cover all options for the forthcoming Brexit trainwreck. Maybe they’re hoping to get jobs in Ireland.”

Actually, this turned out to be quite a bit of fun as the weather was stunningly beautiful and there were numerous people from Cork there. Apparently there’s some secret special deal between the New Zealand Emigration Office and Cork people at the moment. I used to be the only Cork person in Wellington city. Now the place is flush with the bastards.

I had an interesting conversation with one person (from Cork) who approached me to ask why I wasn’t wearing green.

Me: I’m green on the inside.

Him: Ah, sure, I know but it’s symbolic of the day. If you wear green people will know you’re Irish.

Me: All I have to do is open my mouth and people know I’m feckin Irish.

A lot of people were wearing Irish rugby jumpers. Given there were so many people from Cork they could have probably just have worn the red and white Cork colours. The High Commission staff were the only people who wouldn’t have got it.

As we were leaving the British High Commission, one of the senior staff was outside playing with a control handset for a drone set up on the pristine grass garden in front of the residence. ‘A communications package,’ he hurriedly assured us. ‘Just testing it out.’

We nodded knowingly. There’s no hiding the enthusiasm of a fifty-plus year old man with a new toy. While we watched, he pressed the ‘up’ button. The drone literally jumped a foot into the air, did a flip and collapsed, props spinning, back onto the grass. There was a stunned silence.

‘It’s not a drone’, my witty friend commented. ‘It’s some kind of new Flymo.’

That afternoon I returned to the home office to do some work on the Celtic Mythology Collection 2017. I’d decided to give the whole creative writing side a break for a month or so and it was actually nice to just write contextual notes for other people stories.

That night there was a party but you’re getting no further details on that.
I want to be invited to another Ulster Breakfast.

The Challenge of Cultural Integrity in Writing

When I first started writing the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series over two years ago, I was keen to create a realistic, culturally authentic version of the famous Fenian Cycle that was recognisable to Irish readers but also accessible to non-Irish readers. As part of my overall goal with Irish Imbas Books however, I was also keen to use the series as a way of reintroducing lost Gaelic/Irish concepts (that is words, expressions and – more importantly – ways of thinking) that have been lost from common parlance as a result of colonization but which still have significance at a societal level.

This is why throughout the series, you’ll find a constant smattering of words like ‘fian‘, , draoi, ráth, and some others, words that by themselves mean little, but which in the context of Irish/Gaelic culture have a major resonance.

The word ‘Fianna‘ is a classic example of how much was lost. This word – the basis for the contemporary word ‘Fenian’ – is believed by most people (including many Irish people who’ve never been taught any better) to be the name of Fionn mac Cumhaill’s war band. In fact, ‘Fianna’ was simply nothing more than the plural of the ‘fian‘ (which meant ‘war party’). This means that Fionn’s fian was one of a number of such war parties and that they were a recognised dynamic in the society of the time. It’s a little thing, but when you take the downstream consequences of that new knowledge into account you can see how it changes the interpretation of the story.

Trying to balance those competing goals (the requirements of cultural integrity and the requirement to deliver an accessible and enjoyable story to an international audience) can actually be quite a challenge at times. The truth is that any decision you make with one can have a huge consequence with the other.

One of my earliest decisions, for example, was to retain the original Gaelic spelling for the character names (Fionn, Liath Luachra, Bodhmhall, Fiacail etc.) and place names (Seiscenn Uarbhaoil etc.). This demonstration of cultural accuracy – naturally – clashed bigtime with the accessibility goal. For non-Gaelic speakers, Irish names can be the equivalent of having a broken stick in your mouth – whatever comes out is going to come out mangled! Anyone used to thinking in English – understandably – struggles with the unfamiliar combination of vowels and consonants.

Naturally, the advice I received from everyone was to use an anglicization of the names to make the reader more comfortable. After all, that’s why in the early days Fionn mac Cumhaill’s name was anglicized to the meaningless ‘Finn Mac Cool’. Sure, the latter is easier to say for an English speaker but the English name doesn’t carry the strong cultural associations of the Irish one (Fionn means ‘fair-headed’ but also has related connotations of ‘insightfulness’ etc.). ‘Finn’ is a meaningless term that includes no such depth or resonance (and, here, I’ll have to apologise in advance to those parents who’ve gone and named their kids, Finn!).

If you’ve read any of the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series books, you’ll already know I went with my heart rather than my head on this particular issue (although I did soften the challenge for readers by providing an audio pronunciation guide). In some respects that actually seems to have paid off in that readers predominantly respect what I’m trying to achieve and have demonstrated immense patience and willingness to overcome the temporary pronunciation challenge. At the end of the day, I guess what my experience has really demonstrated is that if you produce something that’s good enough/intriguing enough/interesting enough for people to enjoy, they’ll put up with your whims and even support you.

As an aside, here’s a question I once held up at Irish cultural/heritage class I was running:
How would you pronounce the following?

  • Zach Galifianakis
  • Michelle Pfieffer
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor

Everyone in that group of attendees (about 18) was able to pronounce at least four of those names and where they couldn’t they knew exactly what that person had achieved as part of their creative career.

Basically, culture is not a barrier to success unless you let it be.
And, seriously! If an English speaker can manage to pronounce Schwarzenegger, Fionn is never going to be a problem.

Bored? In need of scintillating cultural stimulation?

Then consider our monthly newsletter (below). More in-depth articles on Irish culture (contemporary or historical), mythology/ folklore, occasionally news on new books, writing or other things that amuse us.

 

 

Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition: Results

As mentioned in my last post, the initial shortlist of 19 short stories (this was actually a long-list – we’ll know better next time) was reduced to a more manageable number for the judges. The ten stories in question were:

  • A Face in the Snow by Majella Cullinane
  • All Man by Philomena Byrne
  • Gebann’s Daughter by Jane Dougherty
  • In the Hour of Greatest Need by Will O’Siorain
  • Joe Malshy by Farren McDonald
  • Lexi on her Sixty-second Journey by Randee Dawn
  • Revival by Méabh Browne
  • Seasick by Molly Aitken
  • The Black Hen by Diana Powell
  • The Good Man by Damian Keating

It was a tough job culling the nine stories that we did. Certainly, some of them were good, others we thought had immense potential but at the end of the day we had to make a decision.

These then were the ten stories considered by the judges. Even with the reduced number however, the choice remained a difficult one with extremely close scores between the first and second place winners and an even tinier gap between the third and fourth places. Certainly, in our view, any of these ten stories are suitable for publication.

Still at the end of the day, this is a competition so the three winners are as follows:

First Prize
$500 and story published in Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection

‘In the Hour of Greatest Need’ by Will O’Siorain

Second Prize
$250 and story published in Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection
‘The Black Hen’ by Diana Powell

Third Prize
$100 and story published in Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection
‘The Good Man’ by
Damian Keating

Special mention also needs to be made for:

  • Joe Malshy by Farren McDonald
  • Revival by Méabh Browne
  • Seasick by Molly Aitken

All three of these were within a hairsbreadth of the top three places and we’re very pleased that they’ll at least appear in the final Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2017.

So What Happens Next?

  • The winning authors should receive payment by the end of this week
  • Irish Imbas Books is closing down for a much-needed break next week so we’ll probably not be contactable for several days
  • The Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2017 will be released sometime towards the end of March 2017. We’ll keep you posted on that.
  • Once that publication’s complete, we’ll provided feedback to those authors who didn’t make the initial shortlist (and who requested feedback). We’re still not sure how/when that will occur but I imagine this will happen between April-June 2017.

Congratulations to the winners and immense thanks to those of you who took the time to enter or follow the competition.

Odd Dynamics of the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition

ODD DYNAMICS IN THE CELTIC MYTHOLOGY SHORT STORY COMPETITION

In 2015, when we ran the very first Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition, we received about 35 submissions. This year, we were expecting a slight increase but, in fact, that number more than doubled. This caught us by surprise and it involved a lot more work than we’d originally envisaged. The shortlist we finally released (see here) contained 19 short stories but it soon became obvious we’d have to reduce that number again so as not to overwhelm the judges. After another reading and using the same criteria, that list was subsequently reduced to ten.

Today (Sunday 26 February) a number of the judges met to consider that reduced shortlist. We’re still awaiting the results of the final judge (who unfortunately couldn’t make it due to illness) but there are some interesting dynamics which have already become apparent.

The Judging Process:

This year, we amended the judging process to reduce the Irish Imbas Books input into the final decisions (I had the sense that we were just a little too close last year). As a result, for decisions on the 2017 Celtic Mythology Collection we had four judges instead of three and Irish Imbas Books (through myself) had a single vote out of four. The judging process was also different this year in that three of the judges were male and one was female (the previous year, the majority of judges were female). You might think such minor changes wouldn’t have too much of an impact but, interestingly, I suspect they do. Two of the stories I had considered shoo-ins for the top five actually ended up getting far lower scores from the other judges than I’d anticipated. One story I hadn’t expected to get in, is now up there in the top five/six.

The Dynamics

Mythology not fantasy:

Something that did surprise us (and which I referred to in an earlier post) was the substantial confusion out there with respect to what mythology is and how it relates to fantasy. Some of the submitted entries seemed to have no connection with any established mythology from the Celtic countries (apart from being set in Ireland, Wales, Scotland etc.). In one respect, I suppose I wasn’t surprised – this gaping lack of understanding of mythological knowledge was why I set up Irish Imbas Books in the first place. What did shock me though was the sheer scale of the misunderstanding out there.

As a general rule, it’s probably best to think of mythology as a mechanism our ancestors used to explain the world around them. It operated through narrative as our ancestors didn’t have access to the scientific rationale that we utilise today. Essentially, mythology is culturally based (which is why different cultures have their own characteristic mythological elements). It contains fantastical elements but it’s not fantasy.

Recurring Themes:

With last years competition, we noticed a number of recurring themes with the stories submitted (i.e. some of the mythological aspects used in the stories occurred fare more often than others – Bean sí, selkies. etc.). This year, we also noticed a surprising number of recurring themes that included:

  • Bean sí / Banshees (again – 7 entries)
  • An Toraíocht/ Diarmuid agus Grainne (five stories)
  • Changelings – replacement of young children by supernatural creatures (five stories)

This pattern of recurring themes is a bit odd but it does seem to occur purely by chance (certainly, there’s no way I’d have anticipated so many An Toraíocht-based stories). Last year, we had a surplus of Selkie stores (which was why I suggested not submitting a selkie story this year). Next year, I’ll probably add Bean sí.

I suppose, in hindsight, it wasn’t really surprising to receive so many Bean sí stories. Internationally, the Bean sí is one of the more well-known elements of Irish mythology. Ironically, it’s also one that most Irish people tend to avoid like the plague. We’re all very familiar with these stories so to an Irish person, many of those stories hold limited interest. In addition, when someone from overseas writes those they often feel overly melodramatic or overly romanticised. As one of the judges commented – banshees felt like the default/easy option.

Unfortunately, I think those submitters who happen to get caught up in a recurring theme are at a (slight) disadvantage when it comes down to the shortlist and winner selection. That’s because these short stories not only have to compete against other mythological short stories but stories within their own subject area as well.

Faux Irish

A surprisingly large number of entries (at least ten) also seemed to be attempting to put an Irish ‘voice’ to the characters in their stories (particularly where the story was set in Ireland – fair enough). As a general rule however, the old adage – write what you know – is particularly relevant when it comes to writing about a culture that’s not your own. Certainly, it’s possible but it really does help to have more than a passing familiarity with the culture (i.e. you’ve lived in the country for an extended period etc.).

This was particularly obvious with respect to dialogue where the judges were exposed to a number of ‘clangers’ (i.e. words or expressions introduced by a character that no Irish person would use) or with cultural contexts that just jarred and didn’t ring true. This was probably more important this year as three of the four judges were Irish.

That’s probably enough of a tease for the moment.
The final results will be posted here tomorrow or the day after.

Note: We’ve estimated that the free digital version of last year’s Celtic Mythology Collection was downloaded between 40,000-45,000 times (minimum).

When Game of Thrones Goes Bad

Here’s a potential Christmas gift for the Fantasy fan in your life!

You’ve heard of GAME OF THRONE’S MONOPOLY …

Well, now, EVEN BETTER comes ………………

GAME OF THRONES CLUEDO!!!!!

Possibly the most challenging of games ever played. Essentially YOU play the role of a city warden – one of King’s Landing’s finest – and YOU have the unenviable task of working out who did NOT murder the victim.

Simple?

Well, maybe not. This is a game that requires a keen and subtle mind and the task is a little more complicated than it might appear at first.

In King’s Landing, EVERYONE murders everyone else! The city is awash with homicides, patricides, fratricides and any oul-cide you can think of. Finding an innocent man or woman is like finding an unpoxied doxy in Chataya’s Brothel!

At the end of the game, it’s YOU – and only YOU – who must report back to the King’s Hand to boldly proclaim:

X did not kill Y in the Z with the:

  • thumbs in the eye-sockets
  • rats in the chest cavity
  • knife to the eye
  • molten gold on the head
  • crossbow bolts through the bedpost

And SO MANY MORE!!!

Endless hours of fun for ALL the family!!

Note: For the more gullible among you, this is not a real game … unfortunately!

FIONN: THE ADVERSARY : First Chapter

FIONN: The Adversary is due for release on 28 February 2017.

Chapter One

The muscular curve of Fiacail mac Codhna’s buttocks was the first sight to fill Bodhmhall’s eyes when she finally came to her senses. Consistent as ever, the big warrior was standing naked outside the little cave, hands upraised in salutation to the mighty yellow orb of Father Sun.
Cossetted in the woolly remnants of sleep, Bodhmhall struggled to make out what her man was saying, although the murmured pattern of words could hardly have been much different from those uttered over the time they’d lived together at Dún Baoiscne.

With that, her forehead creased into a series of deep furrows.

Her man?

Cave?

Stirred by a pressing sense of alarm she didn’t quite understand, Bodhmhall sat up from her bed of crushed fern, exclaiming painfully at the burning sensation in her lower left arm. Looking down, she hissed at the sight of the rough wooden splints and crude strapping that encased it.
The shock of seeing the injured limb and the flare of pain dislodged her logjam of confusion. A wave of muddled memories flooded her head, all competing furiously for her attention: her father’s summons to Dún Baoiscne; the arduous traverse across the Great Wild with their Lamraighe allies; the ambush at An Bearna Garbh and the subsequent leap from the waterfall with her nephew to escape their pursuers.

She felt her breath catch as she recalled the latter, the choking sound in her throat loud in the tight confines of the cave. The leap from the high cliffs had been one of the hardest things she’d ever done and even now the memory of it caused her hands to shake. Striking the water at the foot of the falls, she’d broken a bone in her arm. Afterwards, in the watery maelstrom of the mountain river, she’d also come close to drowning. Ironically, having miraculously survived both experiences, she and her nephew had subsequently been seized by The Brotherhood, a group of Tainted Ones who’d been stalking her nephew – Demne – over the seven years since his birth.
Eaters of the dead.

A surge of bile rose in the back of her throat and she had to close her eyes and focus to keep from throwing up. When the nausea finally settled, she shook her head and looked out at the naked warrior with fresh appreciation. Had Fiacail mac Codhna not arrived to save them, Demne would have been taken by The Brotherhood and she, of little or no value to their malevolent endeavours, utilised as an ingredient for their stew pot.

With a shudder, she pushed aside those gruesome images and set herself to inspecting the injured limb, delicately loosening the rough bandages to examine it more closely. Her probing fingers produced another involuntary hiss of pain but she ignored it, pleased to find that the swelling had almost completely subsided. Several days’ rest in splints had allowed the bone to start setting and it now appeared it would heal well. Tentatively testing the limits of the limb’s extension, she found it sensitive but nowhere near as painful as it had been mere days before.
Clicking her tongue in satisfaction, she slowly rose to her feet.

‘Ah! The Cailleach Dubh – the Black Hag – awakes!’

Bodhmhall blinked as the Seiscenn Uarbhaoil man moved into the opening of the cave, a wide space between the two pillar-like standing stones. In reality, the cave was little more than an old place of worship, a rocky recess at the base of a steep cliff where the long-departed Ancient Ones must once have gathered in homage to their own gods. Displaying no fear of Otherworld consequence, Fiacail leaned against one of the standing stones and grinned broadly. He made a lazy gesture towards a glorious shaft of sunlight that struck the floor of the canyon just beyond.
‘See, Bodhmhall. It pleases Father Sun to see you stir.’

She gave a desultory wave at the golden benediction. Whatever Father Sun’s feelings on the matter, his golden rays were now showering Fiacail’s bronze skin with disconcerting intensity, highlighting the tightness of his torso and the muscular sinews of his arms and legs. Flustered, she averted her eyes from the prominent bod that dangled between his legs, silhouetted against the brightness of the canyon behind him.

Fiacail, of course, exhibited no such self-consciousness. Oblivious to her discomfort, he advanced into the cave with his habitual aplomb, retrieving a pair of leather leggings and a short-sleeved, blood-spattered tunic that he lazily pulled on. ‘Do you have a hunger on you?’ he asked. ‘A portion of yesterday’s porridge remains.’

Bodhmhall felt her stomach clench at the prospect of food. Despite the hunger, her belly felt swollen and queasy. In addition to the intellectual cloudiness, this was another unpleasant side effect of the herbs she’d been using to alleviate the pain over the previous days.
‘Is it hot?’ she asked, biding for time as she struggled to pull her thoughts together.

‘Of course, it’s not hot! We can’t risk the smoke from a fire.’

Bodhmhall bit her lip as she tried to absorb this fresh nugget of information. Her head had quietened and more manageable snippets of memory were now shooting through her mind but they dispersed too rapidly for her to grasp. With an effort, she managed to rein in some of those scattered impressions and coral them into a vague sense of coherence. ‘Gob An Teanga Gorm and his warriors. I thought … I thought they had left.’

Fiacail regarded her with visible frustration. Although he made no immediate response, he tugged irritably at the whiskers of the impressive moustache protruding from either side on his upper lip and then scraped the thick stubble beneath his chin with his fingernails. The Seiscenn Uarbhaoil man had always had a preference for a clean jaw and invariably followed his ritual greeting to Father Sun with a shave. Recent circumstances however had curtailed that particular practice.

‘They have,’ he confirmed. He picked up a nearby stick and rolled it absently between his palms. ‘But they’re just as likely to reappear when they discover that whatever drew them away from the valley wasn’t you or the boy.’

Ah!

She was starting to remember. Two days earlier, while out hunting, Fiacail had spotted Gob and his fian [war party] making their way down the river valley. Immediately backtracking to their refuge in the hidden canyon, he’d alerted Bodhmhall and after a hurried discussion, they’d reluctantly agreed to remain where they were. Bodhmhall’s injuries meant she’d have been unable to move at speed and so any attempt at flight would have been perilous. If they stayed concealed however, the chances were high that their enemies would eventually grow discouraged and leave.
This had been their belief, at least.

Cloaked in dense forest, littered with rocky hollows and interspersed with rivers and streams, the valley was a torturous terrain to search. Despite this, the fian had displayed an unexpected tenacity, doggedly scouring both sides of the river, beating through the forest and combing any natural tracks or trails with resolute determination. It was as though they’d sensed their quarry was located somewhere in that particular area.
Which, of course, was impossible.

For two days, Bodhmhall and Fiacail had huddled by the entrance to the ravine, listening fearfully as the calls of the hunters drew ominously closer then mercifully faded once more. The canyon was accessible only through a narrow cut in the ridge, a gap choked with holly trees and other heavy growth. This meant their hiding place was difficult to find but it also meant that, if discovered, there was no route of escape. Neither of them had any illusions as to their fate if it were discovered.

Towards the end of the second day, one particular group of warriors had passed closer to them than at any other point during the previous searches but, once again, failed to spot the entrance. Peering through the thick screen of foliage, Bodhmhall had fearfully observed them pass by: five lean, hard-faced men in padded tunics, bearing cruel-looking, metal-tipped javelins and other weapons. Shivering, she’d watched them leave, thankful that section of the valley was so broad. Had they been caught further upriver where it was substantially narrower and, consequently, easier to search, the outcome would have been drastically different.

On the morning of the third day, Bodhmhall had awoken to an unusual silence, a hushed stillness that seemed to pervade not only the canyon but the entire valley. Nervous, she’d remained at the hidden entrance with Fiacail for the better part of the day but over the course of the morning, heard no sound of voices, no sound of movement, no indication of any kind in fact that the fian remained within the environs.
It was late afternoon before Fiacail finally dared venture forth to investigate further. Crawling through the undergrowth on his belly, he’d worked his way towards the river where a decayed tree on a high mound overlooked the waterway. Concealing himself within the mildewed hollow of the trunk, he’d waited and watched in silence.

For the remainder of the afternoon, he observed no indication of the fian warriors’ presence. Towards nightfall however, a great ululation had arisen from the far side of the river, spreading quickly along the valley as it was taken up by different groups of warriors. The fading light and the thick forest canopy had prevented him from seeing the opposite bank but Fiacail had managed to catch a glimpse of warriors on their own side of the river, returning at a run from some point upstream. Speeding directly past him, they hadn’t even paused to look in his direction. He’d scanned them, as well as he could in the gloom, and had spotted the hatchet-face Gob An Teanga Gorm at the forefront, urging his men on with bellows of excitement.

Bodhmhall’s frown tightened as the memories returned. Clearing her throat, she made to swallow but gagged on an unexpected bitterness at the back of her tongue – yet another unpleasant side effect of the herbs.

Fiacail passed her a wooden bowl half-filled with water. She swallowed most of the liquid but kept a few drops to trickle onto her fingers which she then used to scrub her face. She needed no reminder of the precarious situation with respect to food and water. The presence of the fian had prevented Fiacail from leaving the canyon to hunt or replenish their water supply. They’d survived on what untainted food they’d managed to scavenge from the Brotherhood’s supplies and the rainwater they managed to collect but that meagre hoard was now almost exhausted.

Bodhmhall tested her arm again. ‘I am strong enough to leave, to depart for Ráth Bládhma.’

Fiacail’s gaze rested on the stick between his fingers. ‘Yes,’ he said at last. ‘I believe you are.’

The bandraoi gave him a quizzical look, surprised by the uncharacteristic vagueness of his response. ‘Then we should leave as soon as possible. As you say, the fian might return.’

The warrior tapped the ground absently with one end of the stick. ‘There is a … complication.’

Something in the way he said that caused the hairs on the back of her neck to rise. ‘A complication?’

‘Earlier this morning … I found tracks at the entrance to the canyon.’

The bandraoi felt her heartbeat stutter. ‘The fian?’ The words came out as a kind of garbled croak.
He shook his head. ‘No. A single person, a big man from the depth of his print. Whoever he was, he was familiar with the canyon for his tracks led directly to the entrance.’ Fiacail sniffed, tossed the stick over his shoulder and raised his eyes to consider the bandraoi directly. ‘He was careful. He tried to hide all trace of his visit but I found a heel print he’d overlooked in the darkness. After that, it was a simple matter to find the others.’

Bodhmhall clutched her wounded arm. ‘We should leave. Now. They could ret-’ She stopped abruptly for the warrior was regarding her with a knowing, unharried expression. The certitude in his eyes triggered a sudden flash of insight as all the facts converged in her head: a single man, a big man, a knowledge of the canyon’s location, reconnoitring and then subsequently withdrawing.

‘You think it was Futh.’

Fiacail maintained his steadfast gaze but he dipped his head in acknowledgement. Bodhmhall felt a glacial frisson pass through her. One of the Brotherhood’s more brutal members, Futh had treated her with great cruelty over the time she’d been held captive. Despite her broken arm, he’d dragged her by the hair through the Great Wild without regard for her screams of agony. He’d also held her down during an attempted rape by one of his comrades and the memory of the merciless amusement in his eyes still made her sick to the stomach. There’d been no pity to the man, no empathy of any kind and now, given the death of his brother during her rescue, there was even greater reason for antipathy towards her.
Bodhmhall looked down at her hands and realised they were trembling.

‘The possibility of that man stalking us … It terrifies me.’

‘And so it should. That big, bald fucker terrifies me as well.’ Fiacail unconsciously reached one hand up to touch the wound on his shoulder. Futh had sliced him there with a quarterstaff tipped at either end with a metal blade and although the wound had scabbed over and was healing, he hadn’t forgotten how close he’d come to being killed. Futh and his brother had been the most dangerous members of the Brotherhood and although Fiacail had succeeded in slaying one, it’d been a close thing. Disconcerted by the unexpected deaths of his comrades, Futh had panicked and taken off into the forest and, in that respect, they’d been exceptionally lucky. If he’d stayed and fought it out, it was more than likely he’d have killed them all.
A sudden thought struck the bandraoi and she peered anxiously over the warrior’s shoulder, out into the canyon. ‘Where’s Demne?’

‘He keeps a watch on the entrance.’

Bodhmhall’s eyes widened. ‘You left him to guard the entrance? By himself.’

‘I left him to watch it,’ he corrected her. ‘And to call out at any sign of danger.’ He scowled then, vexed by the bandraoi’s accusatory tone. ‘I needed rest, Bodhmhall. In your dream stupor, you were of little use and even I can only go so long without sleep.’

Rebuffed, Bodhmhall shrank back, momentarily lost for words. She raised both hands, palms outwards, in apology. ‘Forgive me. The sleeping potion leaves me … cranky.’

Fiacail shrugged, dismissing the slight with an airy gesture. ‘You have endured great hardship. Some crankiness is to be expected. But…’ He eyed her closely. ‘Do not take the potion again. I will need your help when he returns.’

She became aware that her hands were clenched. ‘You believe he’ll come back?’

‘If someone killed my brother I’d come back.’

Bodhmhall frowned at that, knowing Fiacail had the right of it. Futh and his brother Ruth had formed a true Man Pair, physically and mentally identical to the point of mirroring each other’s actions. Unrestrained by the instruction of Rogein or Regna of Mag Fea, the two leaders of the Brotherhood, Futh would almost certainly be determined to avenge his brother, something Fiacail was quick to affirm.

‘From what little I have seen of Futh, I judge him a man of basic instincts. He’s had days to mull over his purpose and without the guidance of his leaders he’ll fall back on basic emotions. And none are as basic as the yearning for vengeance.’

He rolled his head back and yawned loudly. ‘And so you see. Our situation is … complicated. We should depart for Dún Baoiscne with haste, but we cannot. Futh has had days to prepare, to scout the terrain and the most viable routes from the valley. If we leave the safety of this little canyon, there’s little doubt he’ll be awaiting us, preparing an ambush we’re unlikely to survive.’

‘But … Then what should we do?’

‘As to that …’ The warrior gave a lop-sided grin. ‘I confess I have no answer. But rest assured, I will think on it further.’

***
Leaving Fiacail to take her place on the bed of fern, Bodhmhall left the cave to find her nephew standing outside, several paces to the right of the entrance. A slight figure with little more than seven years on him, he looked a fragile defence against the potential return of the brutal Brotherhood warrior.

And yet, she reminded herself, he’d taken Regna of Mar Fea down with a single sling cast, smashing his skull from the force of the bullet when the fat man had tried to kill her.

My nephew has always been more than he appeared.

She stood and watched the boy in silence for a moment. Oblivious to her presence, he continued to stare towards the thick stand of holly that marked the passage into the canyon. His sling dangled loosely from his right hand, a smooth river stone cupped snugly in the woven reed pouch. Studying him, Bodhmhall experienced a heady outpouring of affection and pride, a sensation so intense it caused her lips to tremble. She took a moment to compose herself before she called out to him.

‘Demne.’

The boy’s head snapped around and he stared at her briefly before twisting back to face the distant entrance. ‘A Aintín, I can’t talk. I’m on watch duty. So the bad man can’t creep up on us.’

Bodhmhall looked towards the holly trees and slowly drew on her tíolacadh – her Gift. After a moment, her view of the intense green foliage shimmered, fading into a beautiful pattern of tiny yellow flames, the internal lifelights of every living being within that space. Studying the vibrantly glowing spectacle, she finally allowed herself to relax. There were no flames of any substance to be seen, confirming the absence of anything larger than small birds, rodents or insects. Loosening her hold on the Gift, she watched the yellow colours gradually dissolve back into different shades of green and brown once more.

‘You can relax for now,’ she told the boy. ‘I’ve studied the trees and no-one is in hiding. We can continue to watch while we talk.’

Because of his familiarity with his aunt’s abilities, the boy accepted her assurance without dispute. His shoulders drooped with relief and he surprised her by moving forwards to wrap his arms about her waist, embracing her firmly. With a mild sense of bemusement, she stroked his head as she returned that embrace. The child’s scalp was still shorn as a result of the Brotherhood’s preparation for his initiation ceremony but now, after a few days of growth, a fine fuzz was discernible against her fingertips. Bodhmhall briefly wondered whether her nephew’s hair would grow back a darker shade or whether he’d retain the dramatic blond colouring of his father.

With a start, she realised the child was shivering, his head trembling against her stomach. Pulling his hands away, she went down on one knee and clasped his cheeks between her palms, forcing him to face her. ‘What is it Demne?’

The boy chewed his lips anxiously. ‘I’m scared, a Aintín,’ he confessed at last, his shame at the admission evident in his tone. ‘Fiacail says that Futh wants to hurt us.’

‘I know, little one. But an intruder cannot get to us without crossing that open ground and Fiacail is just inside the cave. We’ll have more than enough time to call him should we have need.’

‘Futh scares me.’

‘And me,’ she confessed. ‘But we must find the resolve to face him down. Otherwise we allow him to win and we do not let cruel men win, do we?’
Demne thought about that. His jaw firmed up and he shook his head.

‘Besides,’ the bandraoi continued. ‘I’ve seen you stand and fight. You killed Regna of Mar Fea when he was about to spill my blood.’ She stroked his cheek. ‘Do not doubt yourself, Demne. You have a rare inner strength, a mark of greatness.’

A mark that others too had noticed. According to Regna, the Brotherhood had been seeking the child since the year of his birth, drawn by some mysterious prophecy in the stars that only they could comprehend. The Adversary – that mysterious and relentless opponent – had also gone to great lengths to lay his hands on the boy, dispatching two separate war parties to capture him.

Bodhmhall played with a loose thread on the hem of her dress. It infuriated her that, after all this time, she remained ignorant to the identity and motivation of the individual who’d created such havoc with their lives.
And you bear responsibility for at least a portion of that.

That much was true. After the first assault on Ráth Bládhma, she’d foolishly allowed herself to grow negligent, lulled into complacency by the passage of time and the incessant grind of leading the settlement. Now it was clear the Adversary would never give up, would never abandon his efforts until Demne was in his grasp.

Without thinking, she drew on the Gift once more, using it to re-examine her nephew’s lifelight. As always, the boy’s unusually intense internal flame radiated power, a deep yellow flare that pulsated with the regularity of a beating heart. The bandraoi bit her lip. Even after all these years, the sight never failed to impress her. The exceptional fervour of that flame alone was enough to confirm her nephew unique, but as to how that uniqueness might one day manifest itself, she didn’t have the slightest notion.

‘Bodhmhall, is my mother dead?’

The sudden question took the bandraoi completely by surprise and as the tíolacadh faded she struggled to conceal her reaction. Since their rescue from the Brotherhood the boy had spoken very little and rarely on issues beyond those related to their immediate survival. The specificity of this particular question therefore intrigued her. ‘I don’t know,’ she admitted.

Demne appeared to mull over the subject for a time. As he did, he pulled the stone from the pouch of the sling and rolled it between his fingers, enjoying the firm sensation of smoothness. Bodhmhall caught a glimpse of the crude image of a deer that had been painstakingly carved into the hard surface by Liath Luachra. It must have taken the woman warrior an age to produce and she’d fashioned more than a dozen such stones for the boy.

How typical! The Grey One openly scorns any thought of tenderness towards the child and yet, when least expected, performs great acts of affection.

At the thought of the missing woman warrior she had to resort to her druidic training to calm herself, slowing her breathing and her heartbeat to regain her composure. The Grey One had been supposed to follow her and Demne off the falls after the ambush at An Glenn Teann. When the bandraoi and her nephew had broken free of the white water and waited on shore however, she had not shown. And many days had passed since then.

‘Can we go home to Ráth Bládhma?’ Demne asked, mercifully interrupting such bleak considerations. ‘Can we go back there now?’

He pulled back to look up at her. Close to despair, she made to embrace him again but he backed away even further. ‘My mother took me away from Ráth Bládhma. I didn’t want to leave. It’s my home. All my friends are there.’

‘None of us wanted you to leave, a bhuachaill. But, as your mother, Muirne had the right to make that decision.’

‘It was the wrong decision.’

She continued to regard him closely, struck by the adamant condemnation. In their conversations together, her nephew had an unusual trait of switching from the typical speech of a child to that of someone with much greater maturity. Despite her familiarity with this peculiar mannerism, Bodhmhall still found such conviction in a mere seven year old quite disturbing.

Demne continued to stare at her, as though challenging her to deny the truth of it.

Bodhmhall sighed. ‘Home is that place that’s most dear to us, a bhuachaill. The place where we are – or have been – most loved. Ráth Bládhma’s your home now but in later years you’ll call other places home, places where you find or create love of your own.’ She clasped her hands together, carefully preparing the words at the heart of what she intended to say. ‘Your mother never experienced love at Ráth Bládhma. When she came to us, it was under trying circumstances and she was alone amongst strangers. I suppose, from her perspective, Ráth Bládhma was never much of a home. That may be why she was keen to take you away.

How very diplomatic, Cailleach. You defend a woman you despise out of love for her son.

‘Liath Luachra says my mother is untrust-.’ Demne’s tongue fouled on the syllables. He tried again. ‘She says my mother is un-trust-worthy.’
Bodhmhall’s lips gave a wry twist. ‘Liath Luachra is forthright. Perhaps overly so.’

‘But she never lies.’ Demne raised his hand and looked wistfully at the smooth stone held between his fingers. ‘I wish Liath Luachra was here. I miss her.’

Bodhmhall looked at her hands. ‘So do I,’ she said.

***
Hampered by her broken arm, there was little of practical use Bodhmhall could do to pass the time but keep her nephew company while he remained on watch. This was not something that displeased her however. Over the course of their journey across the Great Wild, Muirne Muncháem had done everything in her power to prevent the bandraoi from spending time with the boy. The ambush at An Glenn Teann and their subsequent capture by the Brotherhood had also meant there’d been little real opportunity to talk.

Occasionally, in quiet periods within the conversation, her thoughts turned to Ráth Bládhma and the people she’d left behind. She wondered vaguely how her lubgort [vegetable garden] was faring, whether Aodhán was maintaining a sufficiently close guard on the valley and whether the slender Morag was swelling at the belly. At the thought of the pregnant young woman, Bodhmhall exhaled heavily in displeasure. Aodhán’s spouse had specifically asked her to be present for the birth and given the couple’s previous misfortune with a stillborn child, she’d given her word to do so. It was a promise she’d had every intention of keeping, although at the time of making it she could hardly have imagined her current predicament. Liath Luachra and their Lamraighe allies were missing or killed and the relative safety of the Clann Baoiscne stronghold was still some distance over harsh and unforgiving terrain. They were being hunted by killers and now, to make matters worse, they had the additional threat of Futh to contend with.

Her lips turned down as she looked around the little canyon. It was hardly the most defensible refuge were an enemy to penetrate the entranceway. Roughly rectangular in shape, it extended from the narrow cluster of holly trees, widening gradually for a distance of sixty paces or so until it reached the rock wall set at an oblique angle to the entrance, where the cave was located. On the southern side of the canyon – where the sunlight rarely touched – there was minimal growth, mostly sickly grey grass and lichen. On the northern side however, a thin stand of mountain ash – about two or three trees deep – stretched three quarters of the length of the canyon, terminating abruptly at a point opposite the cave entrance and offering a direct line of sight into the rocky hollow.

Rising to her feet, Bodhmhall crossed the rough stone floor to the ash trees. There she delved about in the undergrowth before returning to Demne, a thick bunch of slánlus [ribwort plantain] clutched in her right arm. Taking a seat on the rock beside her nephew, she began to instruct him on the rules and tactics behind Gaiscíoch – Warrior – a game she’d enjoyed playing with the other Dún Baoiscne children.
Before being selected by the draoi Dub Tíre for less childish instruction.

The bandraoi’s grip on the cluster of slánlus grew tighter as she banished those memories, turning her attention instead to explaining the rules of the game.

To play Gaiscíoch, both players had to pull a slánlus stalk – the gaiscíoch – from the bunch, the thicker and more flexible the better. The object of the game was to behead the other’s gaiscíoch by decapitating the seedcap. This was achieved by both players taking it in turns to hold their gaiscíoch out in a horizontal position and allowing the other player to make a downward strike with their own gaiscíoch. Sometimes, if you were lucky, you obtained a particularly hardy stalk that outlived your opponent’s for the course of several ‘combats’. As in life however, the wear and tear eventually took its toll and the winning stalk was, in turn, beheaded by a new victor.

They were still immersed in play later that afternoon when a bare-chested Fiacail emerged from the cave, announcing his return with a booming yawn. Standing alongside them, he stretched the muscles of his shoulders before pulling on a fresh green tunic. Bodhmhall regarded the item of clothing with interest, noting the delicate needlework of the spiral designs about the neck and cuffs. The big warrior had never wanted for good clothing, she recalled wryly. There’d always been plenty of women willing to make him a quality garment in exchange for a smile.

Or more.

She awkwardly shifted her position on the rocky seat. The uncharacteristic flush of resentment had surprised her. When she and Fiacail had lived together, his tomcat ways had caused her no end of distress but such days were long past and she hadn’t considered them for many years. Any romantic notions she’d held for the Seiscenn Uarbhaoil man had long since been extinguished, even before she’d left Dún Baoiscne for a new life at Ráth Bládhma.

Despite Fiacail’s own feelings on the matter.

She suppressed such considerations beneath a smile as the warrior moved closer, standing behind her right shoulder and staring towards the holly-screened entrance to the canyon. ‘No movement?’ he asked. He scratched absently at an itch under his arm.

She shook her head. ‘Nothing.’

‘You used the Gift?’

‘Yes.’

‘And there is no-one concealed there now?’

‘Not at the moment.’

He grunted. ‘Good. Warn me if you see anything, anything at all.’

With this, Fiacail returned to the cave, reappearing a few moments later with a set of three metal-tipped javelins. Standing directly outside the cave, he set them point first into the ground.

He took some time to place his feet, meticulously adjusting his stance before shaking his arms and allowing his hands to hang, relaxed, by his sides. Suddenly, in what seemed like a single, seamless movement, he grasped the haft of the first javelin, raised it shoulder height and launched it directly at the foremost tree of the ash stand across the canyon. Even as the first missile left his hand, he’d grasped the second and cast it, followed immediately afterwards by the third.

The first javelin shot left of the tree, smacking hard against the cliff face behind before tumbling noisily to the ground with a metallic clatter. The second passed to the right, falling into the undergrowth between the trees. The third missile, however, slammed into the trunk with a heavy thunk, the sound of the haft quivering violently from the force of the impact, audible even at that distance.

Bodhmhall watched her nephew nod appreciatively, impressed by the warrior’s cast. The Seiscenn Uarbhaoil man however, had an unsatisfied expression while he considered the results of his efforts. Clicking his tongue non-committedly, he walked off to retrieve the javelins.
A few moments later, he was back again, taking up the exact same position, adjusting his stance and repeating the entire process.

It continued like that all afternoon, the big man targeting his tree, casting tirelessly then retrieving the missiles and trying again. As the afternoon progressed however, Bodhmhall grew increasingly uncomfortable for she could see that Fiacail’s accuracy was not improving. If anything, the fading sunlight seemed to cause his aim to deteriorate for by the time the sun was out of sight behind the southern wall, he was barely striking the tree trunk once for every nine casts he made.

Finally, covered in sweat, he stopped and laid the weapons aside, gratefully accepting the bowl of water Bodhmhall was offering him. ‘You should rest,’ she told him. ‘You press yourself too hard.’

He looked at her, arching one eyebrow.

‘Are you using your Gift to read me, Cailleach?’

She couldn’t repress the guilty smile. ‘How did you know?’

‘It’s an on old habit of yours.’

‘What old habit?’ she asked, genuinely surprised.

‘Back in Dún Baoiscne, whenever you used your Gift to examine me, you always nagged afterwards.’

Bodhmhall stared at him.

‘Don’t look so shocked. A sensitive man like myself can pick up on such womanly ways.’ He guffawed loudly at the expression on her face. ‘I have a question, Cailleach Dubh. A serious question concerning An tíolacadh.’

Amused but curious, she gestured for him to continue.

‘When you consider me with your Gift …’

‘Yes?’

‘Is my internal flame as handsome as my external features?’

Her lips curled into a sardonic smile. ‘It is even more handsome.’

‘I knew it!’ he exclaimed effusively, slapping his knee with enthusiasm. ‘I knew I had the right of it.’

Both laughed with genuine good humour.

‘Tell me,’ he said and his voice was suddenly serious. ‘With your Gift, do you see the life force of the plants and trees as well as those of animals?’

Bodhmhall took a moment to prepare an answer. ‘It is more … indistinct. Like a blur. There is some light but it merges together and … It forms a moody background.’

Fiacail nodded sagely. ‘So you could not, for example, distinguish that tree that I’ve been striking with my javelins all afternoon from the others?’

She looked at the tree. The surface of the trunk bark on the closer side was badly pitted from the rare strikes the Seiscenn Uarbhaoil man had succeeded in making and white parts of the inner trunk were exposed. ‘No,’ she said, shaking her head.

‘Ah,’ he said simply. He sounded oddly disappointed.

Bodhmhall’s left eyebrow formed a sardonic arch. ‘You display uncommon interest in An tíolacadh. Back in Dún Baoiscne, it never seemed a subject of great significance.’

His eyes dropped to her breasts and he grinned broadly. ‘When we lived together there were always other … distractions. I suppose that my interests extend with age.’ He raised both hands in the air and regarded her with exaggerated shock that could not disguise the true humour behind it. ‘Perhaps I am growing wise!’

She gave a cynical smile. ‘I never noticed your interest extend beyond a comely shape.’

He shrugged with unforced nonchalance. ‘I cannot extend beyond a comely shape. You cannot distinguish between the life force of the trees.’

‘I may not be able to distinguish the tree but I can make out the bird’s nest in the upper branch.’

Fiacail looked at her blankly and she laughed out loud. ‘The nest, oh wise one. The nesting season is well over but a spideog – a robin – is using it as a refuge. I can see the spideog.’

The warrior’s eyebrows raised at that and his face broke into a satisfied smile. ‘Well now, Cailleach Dubh,’ he declared. ‘Well, that is truly more interesting.

***

With their supplies exhausted, dinner that evening was a particularly lacklustre affair consisting of the previous day’s porridge sweetened with a handful of berries. Sharing a single bowl, the trio ate with appetite but not enthusiasm, despite the fire that Fiacail now permitted. Normally a man who enjoyed his food more than most, Bodhmhall noticed that the warrior refrained from any comment over the course of the meal. It was evident that, even with the threat of Futh, they’d be obliged to leave the canyon if they wanted to eat.

Nightfall slunk in with the zeal of a hungry predator. Absorbed in her contemplation of the campfire flames, when Bodhmhall looked up she was shocked to discover the darkness already enveloping the canyon beyond the immediate circle of light thrown out by the fire. The Seiscenn Uarbhaoil warrior had stacked the base much higher than normal and Demne had gathered so much firewood that an impressively high pile now sat ready to be tossed onto the flames.

Bodhmhall considered the ruddy blaze with some misgivings. The rocky confines of the canyon seemed to amplify the noisy crackle of burning logs and she feared the yellow glare reflected off the walls might draw Futh to them in the same way moths were drawn to a flame.
Turning to the side, she glanced uneasily towards the canyon entrance and stiffened, a gesture which did not go unnoticed by the big warrior. ‘Do you see – ?’

‘Lifelight,’ she confirmed.

‘Is it him?’

‘The flame is too large for an animal,’ she confirmed. Her voice was short, her vocal chords tight with tension, but she managed to control the quaver.

Fiacail muttered something unintelligible under his breath. ‘Do not turn your face towards the passage. Keep a watch from the corner of your eye.’ He transferred his gaze across the fire to her nephew. ‘Or you Demne. Do not reveal that we’re aware of his presence. Understand?’

The boy looked frightened but he gripped his sling tight and nodded silently.

Bodhmall realised she was scratching the inside of her palms with her fingernails, a nervous habit she’d thought to have overcome. She purposely pushed both hands down by her sides, taking a deep breath before she addressed the warrior. ‘What should we do, Fiacail?’

‘We will ignore him and finish this delightful meal.’ The Seiscenn Uarbhaoil man wiped a smudge of porridge from his chin, stroking his stubbled jaw with disfavour. ‘This lack of water vexes me however. I have need of a shave.’

The bandraoi continued to stare at him, confused by his apparent nonchalance. ‘Fiacail, the entrance way is the single point narrow enough to prevent him gaining entry to the canyon.’

‘Rest easy, Bodhmhall. The Bald One will not be the match of me.’

She gaped, the warrior’s brash confidence doing little to reassure her.

‘Fiacail, I -’

‘Bodhmhall please. Let me savour the full flavour of this repast.’

The bandraoi lapsed into anxious silence as she watched him chew on the last of the gritty porridge. Despite his instructions, she struggled to avoid using her Gift although she repeatedly peeked furtively towards the cluster of trees at the canyon entrance. ‘Futh is inside,’ she hissed urgently. ‘He’s positioned at the far end of the mountain ash. I told you we should have-’

The warrior’s hand reached across to grip her wrist, silencing her. He turned then to the boy who’d been anxiously following their talk. ‘Demne,’ he said, his voice surprisingly light. ‘You should return inside the cave. Take your sling and remain within its shelter. Whatever you do, do not look towards the ash trees when you stand. And do not run. Do you understand?’

With a gulp, the boy nodded. Swallowing again, he rose stiffly, eyes focussed on the entrance to the cave. As he walked towards it, Bodhmhall could see the tension in his shoulders as he resisted the natural inclination to run.

Fiacail picked up a loose twig and absently began to pick his teeth with it. Spitting out a loose white glob of crushed kernel, he spoke to her from the side of his mouth. ‘Where is he now?’

She started to turn but his hand abruptly shot out, grabbing her arm and preventing her from moving. He shook his head. ‘From the corner of your eye, dear one. From the corner of your eye.’

Disconcerted and angered in equal measure, she furiously tugged her hand free but did as he asked. ‘He remains in the trees by the entrance,’ she said after a moment or two. ‘He probably watches us, forming his plans.’

‘Probably.’ The warrior appeared unfazed.

‘Fiacail,’ she pleaded. ‘Futh has had several days. He may have prepared javelins.’

‘I would think so. That’s what I’d have been doing had I been in his place.’

She stared at him incredulously. ‘But he might cast them!’

‘From that position? I wouldn’t think so. Even your young Aodhán, good as he is, would struggle to make an effective cast at such a distance in this light.’

‘But he can move closer, work his way through the trees.’

‘Then we will join Demne in the cave. The angle of the entrance means that no javelin strike will hit us.’

‘Not if he proceeds to the end of the ash stand. From there, he can see directly into the cave and the strength of the fire means he’ll view us clearly.’

‘Bah! You worry too much, Cailleach.’

She glared at him with a mixture of outrage and desperation then watched with horror as the warrior dropped another log on the fire.

What is he doing? He blinds us to the darkness.

She froze then, her posture rigid for a fresh flicker of movement had caught her eye. ‘He draws closer through the ash trees.’ The bandraoi shivered, recalling the expression on the bald man’s face when he’d held her in place for his aroused little comrade, the gruesome leer and the bulge against the cloth in the crotch of his leggings. She suddenly felt very sick.

Looking down at her hands, she was disturbed to find she’d started scratching the palms again. The skin was now grazed with deep lines of red scored into the flesh. She growled unconsciously, hating the tremor in her voice, hating the Brotherhood warrior even more for reducing her to such a state of terror.

Unmindful of her mounting despair, Fiacail frowned. ‘Very well. We’d better return to the cave. It would be pointless to tempt fate. Or the Bald One’s casting arm.’

Bodhmhall rose to her feet and regarded him in consternation. The Seiscenn Uarbhaoil man seemed oblivious to the true extent of the danger.
‘I’ll put out the fire.’

‘No time for that. Besides, if he crosses the canyon to the cave we’ll be able to see him.’

‘If he has javelins he will have no need to cross. Fiacail, please! I beg of you.’ There was real fear in her voice now, a discernible quaver that she could no longer disguise. The warrior caught it for he now regarded her with quiet intensity. ‘Do you truly believe, dear one, that I would place you in harm’s way?’
With that, he started slowly towards the cave.

Bodhmhall stared, slack-jawed, after him then, rousing herself, stumbled hurriedly in his shadow. As she drew alongside, he reached out to grasp her arm and draw her close. ‘Come take my hand. Steady now. Walk easy towards the cave. See! Isn’t this pleasant? You haven’t held my hand in such a long time. I’d truly forgotten how soft you were, a chroí.

Once again, Bodhmhall struggled to make sense of the warrior’s increasingly irrational behaviour. Terrified, she glanced back over her shoulder and caught sight of a bright yellow blur, moving purposefully down the southern side of the canyon towards them.

‘He’s almost on us!’ She almost broke into a run but Fiacail’s grip on her hand tightened, holding her in place. Fearing the increasing likelihood of a javelin arching in out of the darkness, it took all of her self-control not to struggle free, despite the knowledge that any shelter in that cave would be short-lived. A soon as Futh reached the end of the trees, shrouded in darkness, he could pick them off at his leisure.

‘Look here,’ Fiacail crowed proudly, gesturing towards his own set of three javelins that remained poking up out of the ground by the entrance to the cave. ‘See how prepared I am.’ She gaped, unable to make sense of the comment. It was all as though she was trapped in some kind of surreal dream.
Or nightmare.

Without any warning, he suddenly reached forward, clasped her in his arms and kissed her full on the lips. Taken completely by surprise, she struggled to think straight as she felt his dry lips clamped upon her own. Before she had time to react, he whirled her around so that she was facing the end of the ash stand directly behind him.

‘Use the Gift, Bodhmhall. Where is he?’

Enveloped in his embrace, she suddenly realised that the tension of his body was not a result of passion but of stress. Looking into his brown eyes, she saw them flared with furious determination. ‘Towards the end of the trees,’ she managed to gasp.

‘Where exactly?’

‘At the very end of the ash stand, now. His stands upright, just beside the tree with the nest.’ Her voice went hollow. ‘He has moved to the left.’

He prepares to cast.

Suddenly, Fiacail whirled away, thrusting her aside with such force that she was pitched back against the stone pillar to the left of the entrance. In one single dynamic movement, he’d whipped up the nearest javelin and flung it out into the darkness. Even before her mind fully grasped what he’d done, the second javelin was in his hand and it too went whirring into the darkness. There was a sudden terrifying, agonzied scream but already the third missile too was off, following the others. Bodhmhall stared as the warrior lunged forwards, knife in hand, and disappeared into the darkness beyond the fire.

With belated insight, she realised Fiacail had been standing in exactly the same position from which he’d been casting that afternoon, that he’d even been holding the exact same stance.

He never missed his target this afternoon! He wasn’t aiming for the tree but the position to the left. The position from which Futh was most likely to cast.

All that time, over the course of the entire afternoon, he’d been training his body, establishing a muscle memory so that when he cast, he’d hit that exact spot. She shook her head. It had truly been a plan of remarkable ingenuity.
Pulling herself off the ground, she drew on her Gift, staring across the canyon to the trees where the invader’s lifelight was now stirring weakly, much closer to the ground than before. Even as she watched, another more brazen flame rushed in and leaped upon it. A moment later, the first flame was completely extinguished.

She sat staring in shock until Fiacail returned, emerging out of the darkness and into the red glow thrown out by the fire. He was breathing heavily and his clothing was scuffed but he contrived to put on a casual air as he drew closer. Drawing to a halt alongside her, he looked down with surprising gentleness. ‘You can sleep easy tonight, dear one.’

Unable to speak, she nodded dumbly. Looking very weary, Fiacail continued on towards the cave, stroking his chin as he did so. ‘And in the morning,’ he said. ‘I will celebrate this moment with a shave.’

Driving across a Mythological Line

You know the way you sometimes start up the car and then park at your destination but have absolutely no recollection of having driven there?

That’s pretty much how I’m feeling at the moment. After three intense months of writing, research, half-finished articles, external contracting, publishing infrastructure, admin etc. etc. we’re coming to the close on a number of projects and, looking back, I honestly have no recollection of how we got to this point.

We also have a bit of a production line going on this week to finalise a number of those projects. With K away on the external contracting route however, most of the production has inevitably fallen to one lucky individual; me!

First up is the fourth book in the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series (coming in at about 120,000 words), Fionn: The Adversary. This will be released in digital form on 28th February (next Tuesday week).

Next up is the Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection. At present, we’re in the process of assembling the shortlisted stories and organising a time for the judges to meet. The plan is have an announcement on the winners by Feb 28th as well but given the hectic schedule at the moment this may end up being delayed. We’ll see.

Apologies are probably due to all of you who’ve tried to contact us over the last two months. Apart from a rare and very occasional foray on Twitter/Facebook, we’ve remained pretty much off-line, we’ve had to delay last months newsletter and respond very selectively to emails.

Once we’ve resurfaced in March and had a chance to gasp some air, we’ll be back to normal.

A Long Shortlist for the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition

The Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition kicked off with an unexpected roar this year. As a very small niche press with less than a three year history we weren’t expecting the degree of interest we ended up receiving and, to be honest, we were a bit overwhelmed.

In summary, seventy four submissions were received for the 2016 Competition and the standard was … well, pretty exceptional really. This created some issues in that the short-listing process proved far more difficult than anticipated but it also revealed some challenges in terms of communicating what the Competition was actually set up to achieve. Some of those stories that didn’t make it to the shortlist, frankly, deserved to be published. The problem was that sometimes they just didn’t align with objective of the series: mythology. Some submissions, good as they were, felt as though they’d been sent to the wrong competition.

That said, there are two or three stories in the final list that have scraped by on the sniff of a mythological connection, mainly because they were intriguing enough to offer them a chance. It’ll be interesting to see how that works out.

But enough of that. A more detailed analysis will be provided in a later post but, meanwhile, here’s the (long) short-list for the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition 2016:

  • A Face in the Snow by Majella Cullinane
  • A Fire in Emain by Sheelagh Russell Brown
  • All Man by Philomena Byrne
  • Daughter of Sorrows by Fiona Honor Hurley
  • Delusion of Grainne by Paul Moore
  • Fairy Hill by Patrick Belshaw
  • Gebann’s Daughter by Jane Dougherty
  • In the Hour of Greatest Need by Will O’Siorain
  • Joes Malshy by Farren McDonald
  • Lexi on her Sixty-second Journey by Randee Dawn
  • My Fair Lady by Paula Puolakka
  • My Sprightly Tailor by Owen Townsend
  • The Fairy Child by Nicola Cassidy
  • Revival by Méabh Browne
  • Sá an Bhrú – The Passage Home by Delaney Greene
  • Seasick by Molly Aitken
  • The Black Hen by Diana Powell
  • The Good Man by Damian Keating
  • Up The Airy Mountains by Eithne Cullen

So What Happens Next?

There’s actually two processes from this point on.
Those authors who made the short-list will be looked at again before they’re sent onto the judges for consideration. In an effort to avoid any prejudice on my part (being human, I already have some favourites), the final group will be considered by a group of my judges where I will have one vote out of four.

The winning authors and those being published in the final Celtic Mythology Collection will be announced by the end of February 2017.

For those authors who didn’t make the shortlist, we’re offering an opportunity to receive some feedback on submissions. This was a policy decision we made about two months back because we were keen to provide at least some feedback to people who made the effort to submit but didn’t actually make it to the shortlist. At this stage, given the number of submissions and our own workloads, we’re treating this as a pilot which we’ll implement as follows:

  • If you are a submitting author who didn’t make the shortlist and would like to be eligible for feedback, please confirm by email (some of you have already done so based on a post we did on the website when we first made that decision so if you did we already have you listed).
  • We’ll provide feedback to a certain percentage of eligible authors but given that we’re feeling our way on this, we just can’t tell how many we’ll be able to complete. We will do as many as we can.
  • At this stage therefore, we propose to provide the feedback as a scanned file of the hard-copy submission with hand-written notes (this will be emailed to the author).
  • Feedback will be provided only after the Celtic Mythology Collection 2017 has been published. We simply won’t have time to do it before then.
  • Obviously, any feedback provided will be based on ‘judgements’ of some (not all) judges and is only meant to be of assistance. We can’t enter into any further correspondence once that feedback is provided.

I’d like to wish the best of luck to those shortlisted authors.