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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.

 

Locations for Fionn mac Cumhaill

For a core narrative that some people reckon at almost a thousand years old, the Fenian Cycle is remarkably consistent with respect to some of the key locations mentioned.

The original stories of Fionn mac Cumhaill are actually believed to originate from Leinster, hence the accumulation of story locations to the east. As the character’s popularity increased however, professional storytellers from other parts of the country started to adapt the stories to include nearby features for the local audience. That’s why, today, you’ll struggle to find anywhere in Ireland that doesn’t have at least some kind of reference to Fionn or the Fianna.

The twelfth century Macgnímartha Finn (The Boyhood Tales of Fionn) on which I based the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series, retains those very strong links to Leinster and, hence most of the action in the novels take place there. I’ve had two or three people ask for a map to give some idea of the key locations from the Fenian Cycle to provide some kind of sense of where the various incidents take place. These are as follows:

 

  • Fiodh Gaibhle (Feegalva in County Monaghan): In the Fenian Cycle narrative, this is where the warrior Fiacail mac Codhna rescues the young Fionn from the “craftsmen” mentioned in the Macgnímartha Finn (the Brotherhood of Gifted Ones in Traitor of Dún Baoiscne). I never actually mention the name of the site in the book as the setting’s always struck me as a bit too far north to fit logically with the mythological narrrative. The name Fiodh Gaibhle actually means “Gabul’s Wood” but I don’t think anyone knows who Gabul was.
  • Ráth Bládhma: As a child, Fionn (or Demne, as he was originally known) was reared by two female guardians (Bodhmhall and The Grey One) in the forests of Sliabh Bládhma (Sliabh Bloom in County Laois). This isolated spot was the most apt area of wilderness contiguous to the areas in Leinster which would have been most populated back in the Iron Age. It would have been a logical place to set someone who’s on the run or in hiding.
  • Seiscenn Uairbhaoil: This Leinster marsh (where the warrior Fiacail mac Codhna was said to be based) is believed to be located in present day County Wicklow. It’s placement on the map is an estimate on my part.
  • Almhu: This was the site where Tadg mac Nuadat was originally said to live. According to one or two references, the fortress was painted with alum (Almhu) from whence it gets its name. This was also the childhood home of Muirne Múncháem (Fionn’s mother).
  • Dún Baoiscne – This is the one site in the Fionn mac Cumhaill series which is pure fabrication on my part. For the purposes of the series, I needed Clann Baoiscne to have a tribal territory based around a fortress which I arbitrarily named Dún Baoiscne (the fortress of Clann Baoiscne). To be fair, if there had been a Clann Baoiscne and they had a fortress, this is probably what it would have been called.

[Note: I’d like to thank Agnes Conway Davey for assistance with the map image ]

Wading in the Cultural Shallows – How Irish Mythology Became A Commodity

One night at a party I was introduced to a woman who proudly informed told me she’d named her baby daughter ‘Banshee’ in celebration of her Irish heritage. Even at the time I was pretty stunned by the announcement. For an Irish person (and I would have thought most people would have known this), this was the equivalent to naming her daughter – Death.

About two weeks later, at another party, (I had a life back then!) I was cornered by a different woman demanding a translation for the chorus from Clannad’s haunting Theme Song from Harry’s Game. The Irish lyrics for the chorus had been written on her CD sleeve as ‘Fol dol de doh fol-de de day’!) which she thought was absolutely beautiful and must mean something mythically profound.’ Needless to say, she wasn’t particularly impressed when I translated it as ‘La, la la la, la la laaah!’

These are just two examples of the cultural disconnect between Irish people and those who dabble in Irish mythology. They are however only two of the hundreds I’ve personally experienced over the last twenty years or so and I know many other Irish people who’ve had similar experiences. It’s actually a source of continual bemusement to see how bizarrely and inaccurately our culture’s been represented over that time.

In some respect, Clannad actually bear some responsibility for the situation given that their moody ‘Robin of Sherwood’ and other music (aided in equal amounts by ‘Celtic’ films such as Excalibur etc.) helped to create this situation. During the 1970s and 1980s, with the explosion of fantasy entertainment through books, comics and movies, stories based on Celtic mythology suddenly became extremely hip. Atmospheric visuals and music from musicians such as Clannad and others helped to fan the flames to the point where ‘Celtic Mythology Fantasy’ (what some call ‘Celtic Fantasy’) based entertainment is now a minor industry.

Celtic Mythology = ?
Unfortunately, the term ‘Celtic Mythology’ is a bit of a misnomer. The main problem is that the terms ‘Celtic’ or ‘Celt’ don’t actually mean anything (and therefore can mean whatever you want it to mean). Certainly back in early Europe, there were populations with similar cultural characteristics that the Romans generically referred to as Celts but even amongst those peoples there were substantial cultural differences. In a sense, using the word ‘Celt’ is a bit like using the word ‘European’. Modern-day Europe covers a defined geographical area with populations that have many similar characteristics but, again, the truth is that it’s the differences that define them. A German, for example, wouldn’t primarily identify himself/herself as a European. Neither would a French person. A Welshman wouldn’t identify himself as Irish or vice versa.

Another problem with ‘Celts’ is that the ancient culture referred to as ‘Celts’ (by other people) are pretty much gone (eradicated by the Romans or subsequently colonized out of existence) and the records of them are extremely sparse. Hence, most of the, time the closest thing (Gaelic records or Welsh records) are used instead. Because of their age, the cultural context in these records is very broadly interpreted and their modern-day expression tends to reflect the particular bias of the people interpreting them.

Several years ago, my family attended a friend’s ‘Celtic’ wedding which turned out to be some strange mix of Revisionist Celt, New Age, Wicca and other influences. It was a great celebration and we were having a lot of fun until the marriage ceremony proper began and the celebrants started praying to the Salmon of Knowledge. At that point, my two kids started cracking up and I was struggling to keep a straight face myself because it was immediately obvious what had happened. In their attempts to ‘Celticise’ the ritual, the celebrants had clearly gone through various ‘Celtic’ books (Gaelic books) and selectively pulled out elements that they could incorporate. Unfortunately, because they were missing the cultural context, what they eventually ended up with made absolutely no sense and the poor old salmon was elevated to some kind of symbolic messenger of the Gods. As my daughter said to me a few years later, it was like going to a church as a kid and discovering that everyone was praying to Kermit the Frog.

This is, unfortunately, a common pattern you’ll find in modern fantasy that incorporates Irish mythology. A non-Irish author/film-maker or other creative type will browse through some ‘Celtic’ source book, pluck out a few cultural elements and then rearrange them with other elements to create a narrative that’s subsequently used for commercial entertainment.

The problem however, is that mythology is CULTURALLY based. Mythology contains elements of fantasy but at its most fundamental it’s an intellectual framework used by our ancestors to make sense of the world around them. Because it’s culturally based, many of the mythological elements and associated context have been passed down through generations and incorporated into national identity and belief systems. Today of course, the use of Irish mythology has been superseded by scientific rationale but its core narratives remain intrinsically linked to Ireland’s self-identity and cultural values.

From an Irish perspective therefore, when you see your native cultural icons plucked from their normal environment, repackaged in some pseudo-Celtic bullshit and then reproduced out of context in a fantasy product, you can start to appreciate why other native groups complain about the commercial appropriation and exploitation of their cultures. For Irish people in particular, it feels as though we’ve been bombarded by mawkish, overly romanticised and culturally inaccurate interpretations of our own mythology for decades. Even today, if you really want to bug an Irish friend, show him or her a copy of ‘Darby O’Gill and The Little People (starring that famed Irish actor … Sean Connery) or perhaps a section from the execrable ‘Mystic Knights of Tir Na nÓg’ (a kind of ‘Oirish Transformers’ television series). Alternatively, you could share the ‘Disneyfied’ commercial version of Fionn mac Cumhaill created by the British National Trust Board at the Giants Causeway or read them any number of twee ‘Oirish Fairytales’. The choice is truly endless but some of them are so culturally offensive they should have been put down at birth of concept.

Over the last few decades, within all genres, we’ve seen increasing numbers of English-speaking writers explore other ‘exotic’ cultures (and their historical belief systems) as a source of creative inspiration. More recently however, we’ve also seen increasing kickback from ethnic minorities (and majorities) at the continued misrepresentation of their cultures. This has resulted in an increased use of ‘sensitivity readers’ (and whoever came up with that term needs to have their head examined!) by mainstream publishing companies although the trend hasn’t really extended to indie publishing.

This situation, I think, reflects a shift in the reading population in that readers are cottoning onto the fact that some of the ‘cultural’ stories they’re being presented with aren’t exactly authentic. It also reflects increased scrutiny and accountability on authors/publishers who misrepresent other people’s mythology/belief systems. In the fantasy genre, you may recall the recent furore associated with J.K. Rowling’s portrayal of Navajo belief systems in “History of Magic in North America’ but keep an eye out because you’ll probably be seeing a lot more of this over the years to come.

I don’t believe for a moment that it’s any author’s intention to be offensive when they use mythologies that aren’t their own. In fact, I’d suspect the vast majority of them would be dismayed if they knew their work was somehow considered offensive. Unfortunately, authors write stories based on their own experiences or what they’ve managed to learn and, frankly, sometimes you just don’t know what you don’t know. Different cultures aren’t easily transferable (although if you spend enough time living in them or studying them intensely you can certainly pick up a lot) and this makes wading in the mythological shallows that much more dangerous. This is particularly the case with Irish mythology as there’s so much misinformation already out there (many people, for example, through no fault of their own, still believe W.B. Yeats is a credible authority on Irish mythology!).

Neither do I believe that Irish people have a particular aversion to non-Irish authors writing fantasy based on Irish mythology. That said, it would probably help if those authors acknowledged it, treated it with a minimum of respect and managed to get even some of the basic cultural context correct. Unfortunately, many ‘Celtic Fantasy’ authors don’t and in some cases their idea of cultural authenticity is to chuck in some Irish names and a smattering of Gaelic – a language they neither speak nor understand and care even less about. Given all of this, it’s no surprise Irish mythological fiction has such a bad name among Irish readers and, consequently Irish writers.

And this is probably one of the saddest ironies about this situation. If you look up any ‘Irish mythology’ or ‘Irish fantasy’ list on Amazon or elsewhere you’ll struggle to find a single Irish author (although you’ll find plenty of Paddywhackery). This is because most of those authors are non-Irish authors writing a commercial kind of ‘Oirish’ mythology fiction for American/Canadian/ Australian etc. markets – not an Irish one. As a result, you now have a bizarre situation where Irish/Gaelic culture has now become a commercial commodity that the English-speaking creative world feel perfectly entitled to use as it sees fit.

Watching the recent upsurge in protest publishers and film producers, it’s no real surprise to see parallel occurrences with Irish people increasingly pouring online scorn on fantasy authors/filmmakers who couldn’t be bothered to get the basic facts right or who try to establish themselves as authorities on something they clearly don’t understand. With Irish (and Sottish and Welsh etc.) creators now finally starting to reassume control of their own mythology/cultural heritage, it’s more than likely that clashes between ‘authentic Irish’ and ‘commercial Oirish’ are only going to increase from here on in. This is a shame because, at heart, this is essentially a question around how far the argument of creative licence allows you to go in terms of using someone else’s culture for your own commercial benefit. That’s actually a tough call for anyone to make as it comes down to an individual’s personal values and judgement. Given that there’s no real consensus on this at present, for the next few years you can probably expect to keep encountering young girls called ‘Death’ obliviously wreaking cultural havoc at the far ends of the earth.

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!

Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 1

This is a FREE digital resource

What we refer to as ‘mythology’ today was actually a framework of ideas and beliefs used by our ancestors to understand the world around them. Over the past centuries, many of the more important Celtic cultural narratives and tales have been relegated to the status of children’s stories or cartoonish caricature, misunderstood and misinterpreted for as long as most of us can remember.

This collection by a new wave of contemporary authors hauls Celtic stories out of the dusty shadows and with succinct mythological analysis places them back into the light where they belong.

Love, mystery and drama, these fascinating tales mark a new movement of authentic and original Celtic-based writing and a better understanding of Celtic cultures.

The ‘Fairies’, the ‘Salmon of Knowledge’, the ‘Children of Lir’ and the ‘Selkie’. They’re all waiting here for you.

Na Ceiltigh, abú!

The Story of Berrach Brec (Irish Mythology and Folklore)

Background Context: This was originally a 12th century tale from the manuscript ‘Acallam Na Senorach’ which concerns 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.’

The BEARA Trilogy

The Beara Trilogy is a proposed series of three novels that concern the adventures of an Irish mythologist/historian based on the rugged Beara peninsula in the South-west of Ireland.

Although each book is a stand alone thriller, the series merges ancient and the contemporary aspects of Irish life and culture together in a way that has not been done before.

All books come with extra historical notes and pronunciation guides.

The three novels are as follows:

Book 1: BEARA: Dark Legends (available in ebook and in paperback)
Book 2: BEARA: Cry of the Banshee (not yet available)
Book 3: BEARA: The Relic (not yet available)

The Irish Woman Warrior Series

In the first and second century AD, the island of Ireland is a rugged land of dense, green forest that stretches from coast to coast, treacherous brooding marshes and clear, rivers that run fierce and deep. Scattered throughout this forest wilderness are magnificent stone ruins of an ancient Neolithic people, long since departed. Standing stones, dolmens and passage graves, erected more than a thousand years before the Celts arrived in Ireland, they are older than the pyramids and the native population treat them with awe and wonder.

Set at the edge of the European Continent, that isolated island is a mysterious land that intrigues the minds of many neighbouring classical intellects. Writing in the sixth century B.C, Himilco, the Carthaginian, makes vague references to an enigmatic island he calls ‘Iernei’ and to Celtic tribes based on the North Sea. In 50 BC, Julius Caesar refers to the distant land of ‘Hibernia’ in his account of his Gaul campaigns. Around the same time, Greek philosopher Strabo marvels at the shadowy country of ‘Ierne’ located on the limits of the known world, and the stories he’s heard of the savage, man-eating inhabitants and their sexual practices.

Ptolemy, the famous geographer and astrologist, produces the first map of ‘Hibernia’ in the middle of the 2nd century AD and lists native tribes said to live upon its distant shores; the Erdin, the Nagnate, the Menapii, the Iverni and others. Several decades later, in 81 AD, the Roman general Agricola also looks across the Irish sea from Wales and dreams of invasion.

For all of these men, that distant, mist-shrouded island is a strange and mysterious place that’s open to infinite possibility and interpretation. The few snippets of fact from infrequent traders mingle tantalising with tales of gold mines and wolf packs, of outlandish savages and fearsome, magical inhabitants.

Meanwhile, on the island, oblivious to the ponderings of those distant strangers, the native peoples have secured footholds within the land’s green mantle, settlements on open sections of coastline or inland waterways. Tribal communities led by their chieftains, advised by their druids and protected by their fian – their tribal war parties – stick close to their own, ever cautious of the surrounding forests, ever watchful of dark shadows between the trees of the untamed ‘Great Wild’.

Suspicious of strangers and jealously defensive of their territory, the different tribes trade warily amongst themselves, form alliances and sometimes wage war. Occasionally, they’ll intermarry to re-establish a more lasting peace and some expand and grow to form mórtuath – tribal confederations. But all tribes rise and fall relative to the quality of their leaders and the strength of their warriors.

This realm of tribal societies, of visceral physical experience and intimate connection with nature, is the world from which most Irish mythology originates. One name from that world still resonating amongst the descendants of those people today, is that of Fionn mac Cumhaill. Hero, warrior and seer, his adventures have inspired millennia of tales and stories known as the ‘Fenian Cycle’ and are often considered the original basis for the magical tales of King Arthur of Britain and Wales.

Fionn’s life was filled with chaos and danger, and it was only through the skills of his guardians that he survived his early years to become the legend he was. Key among those guardians was the woman who taught him how to fight, who taught him how to lead men but, more importantly, who taught him how to overcome adversity in all its forms. That woman was the woman warrior called Liath Luachra – The Grey One of Luachair.

Set against a backdrop of encroaching forest, mythic ruins and treacherous tribal politics, Liath Luachra tells the story of a damaged young woman who can count on nothing but her wits and fighting skills to see her through. Rising above the constraints of her status and overcoming her personal tragedies, she emerges Ireland’s greatest warrior and a protector whose influence lives on one thousand years later.

The Irish Woman Warrior Series is a series of three books based on the adventures of the Irish woman warrior Liath Luachra and her mercenary fian (war party), Na Cinéaltaí (The Friendly Ones).

The events in the series take place prior to the events in the first Fionn mac Cumhaill Series book (FIONN: Defence of Ráth Bládhma).

The three books in this series are:

The character Liath Luachra originally appears in the 12th century text Macgnímartha Finn (the Boyhood Deeds of Fionn) but historical/ mythological information on her is very sparse.
Essentially, the name Liath Luachra means “Grey One of Luachair”. Why she was known as ‘The Grey One’ is impossible to tell. The text collates oral narratives that were in existence well before they were ever written down.

“Luachair”, meanwhile, is an Irish word that means ‘rushes’ (as in reed plants) but could also mean ‘a place of rushes’. There was a Luachair in West Kerry mentioned in many of the early texts (Luachair Deaghaidh – Sliabh Luachra) but, of course, it’s impossible to know if that was where the author of Macgnímartha Finn was referring to.

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.