A gorgeous image from artist Bryan Mahy for the “Dark Dawn/ Camhaoir Fuilsmeartha Project” I’m currently working on.
This was intended to be released this month but delays outside my control mean it probably won’t be available for a little longer.
Subject-wise, this is a story about a dying warrior defending the isolated settlement of Ráth Bládhma, future home of Fionn mac Cumhaill. It’s a stand-alone, once-off, spin-off from the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series and people will either love it or hate it.
It will have its own page soon but for the moment the best source of information is probably here:
It’s hard to believe that it’s almost four years since I published FIONN 3: THE ADVERSARY – the book that completed the first three-book arc of the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series.
The above image is an alternative cover for that book (developed from a series that the artist went off and created predominantly to satisfy her own creative urgings). An incredibly talented cover designer, she had the whole fantasy genre down to a tee and, hence, thought I’d love what she sent me. And I did – anything this artist does is amazing!
Unfortunately, by then, I’d also been feeling increasingly uncomfortable with having my work locked into the ‘fantasy’ genre, predominantly due to my growing understanding around the confusion between genuine mythology and ‘fantasy’ (particularly where it relates to anything Irish). The over-sexualised imagery that tends to accompany the fantasy genre was also wrong for the kind of books I produce.
In the end, we used a different variant for the cover (using the original photostock – you can see the final here) but I ended up paying the artist for the additional set of images as well. She’d done some amazing work for me in the past and, frankly, she deserved it. Although I’ll probably never use any them, its nice to pull them out on occasion and appreciate the great skill she put into them
I received one of those social media reminders today that it’s been six years since I first published FIONN: Defence of Ráth Bládhma, an anniversary that’s triggered some quiet reflection for me.
FIONN 1 was actually the second book I ever published (Beara: Dark Legends being the first). It was my first attempt at producing a genuine (as culturally authentic as I could make it) Irish historical adventure/fantasy novel and, to be honest, I had no idea whether people would like it. I’d never written anything similar before and given my insistence on using Irish cultural concepts and – occasionally – language, I assumed most people would be scared off.
Six years later there are four (by December) books in the series as well as a spin-off series (The Irish Woman Warrior Series) which will have three books by the end of the year. It still amazes me that people buy them, even more so when they leave positive reviews.
When I finish a book, it goes from my head and even a few months I struggle to remember even writing it. I reread this book about two years ago and it was a slightly bizarre experience in that it was actually just like reading a book someone else had written. The weirdest thing was that I really enjoyed it and, overall, I thought it was great (!!?). I’m not really sure what that says about me. People often say you can be your own worst critic but I clearly run the other way.
I’d like to say ‘thank you’ to all of you who took the time to read this book and a particular thanks to those of you who were kind enough to go so far as to write a review. For any writer that will always be a buzz, no matter how old the book or how many books they’ve written.
I’ve always had a clear idea in my head where this series was going (and the Liath Luachra Series of course) and although I’m keen to move onto other projects it feels good to be edging closer to the completion of the story, the characters, the twists and the plots I wanted to reveal. Given the growing interest in a television version, this could of course end up going on in a way or a direction I’d never even envisaged but, to be honest, there are a thousand other things I need/want to do.
I think some stories never end.
Note: The above image shows the development of the cover since my initial amateurish introduction. The current cover is the image seen below.
Stories based on Irish mythology and culture have been bowdlerised quite a lot over the last two hundred years or so, often to the point where, now, many people struggle to differentiate genuine Irish history and mythology with commercially-produced “Celtic” fantasy. That’s something that, as an Irish fiction writer (non-fiction, on occasion), I’m regularly confronted with. It’s also why I’m so pedantic in telling stories that are as historically and culturally authentic as I can make them.
Telling stories based on authentic elements of Irish mythology can be something of an effort, however. Not only do you have to get the history right, you also have to introduce ancient Gaelic concepts into the story in a way that a contemporary audience can (a) understand them and (b) enjoy them. That takes research (a lot), it takes language skills (Irish) and of course, the ability to put a story together in a way that allows those elements to shine.
Creating those kinds of Irish mythological stories was a bit exhausting over 2019, fortunately for all the right reasons. The key reason was the recent sale of the screen option (and the subsequent adaptation) for Liath Luachra: The Grey One which took up a major proportion of my year.
There’s still a long path to travel before any decision is made on whether this appears on a screen near you, of course. There will be a post about it all at some stage in the future but, until then, here’s a little teaser (ironically, made before we had interest from Hollywood).
But, screenwork aside, here’s a little update on the other projects currently taking place.
Fionn: Stranger at Mullán Bán
Book number four in the popular series (the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series) concerns the growing pains of the young Fionn (Demne) who’s struggling to solve the mystery of his father’s death, supported as always by this three guardians; his aunt – the bandraoi Bodhmhall, the woman warrior Liath Luachra and the eccentric womaniser Fiacail mac Codhna. This story is maturing quietly in our office drawer like a potentially fruitful wine. There are six books in total planned for this series. We had intended to release this volume in December 2019 but, for reasons explained above, this is now delayed until the first half of 2020.
Liath Luachra: The Seeking.
This will be the third in the Irish Woman Warrior Series and follows on directly from book two (Liath Luachra: The Swallowed) with the woman warrior Liath Luachra returned to help a comrade rescue his sister from a mysterious group of raiders. Needless to say, this turns out to be far more complicated than expected.
This book returns to many of the themes and characters in Book 1 but also commences the overlap between this series and the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series. Originally, we had planned three books in total but that’s now likely to expand to four.
We’re hoping to release this book in the first quarter of 2020. The current cover is undergoing revision so this is a standby cover until its completed.
This is a bit of a trial project I’m currently working on and involves the story of a dying warrior attempting to protect a settlement. The settlement in question is Ráth Bládhma.
Expect to see an announcement on this sometime in the first quarter of 2020.
Despite all the excitement over 2019, we have actually released a few items, mainly the following short stories. Note, however, that these are currently only available through the Irish Imbas website:
While hunting with two children in the depths of the Great Wild, the woman warrior Liath Luachra becomes involved in a pursuit she’d rather have no part of.
After completing her ‘tasking’ in the Lonely Lands, the woman warrior Liath Luachra retreats to spend another winter alone in the bleak Luachair valley.
It’s by no means certain she’ll make it through to Spring.
In ancient Ireland, a mother seeks a boon of an old lover, now the most ferocious and feared chieftain in the land.
Probably one of the most well-known stories from the ancient early Irish literature, the fascinating tale of Labhraidh Loingseach (Labhraidh is pronounced ‘Lowry’ in English), has never been accurately portrayed for a contemporary audience.
This, then, is the story of the mythical Irish chieftain, the founding ancestor of Na Laighin (a major tribe in Ireland’s south-east for which the province of Leinster is named) and the man to which a very strange attribute is associated.
After a year’s hard slog, I’m certainly ready for a break. In the meantime, all our books can be obtained through THE IRISH IMBAS BOOK SHOP of course. Updates on the latest releases will be made available through our newsletter Vóg (last one for 2019 will be end of November).
Osraighe: Ireland’s shadowy centre, a desolate region of forest, marshes and mountainous terrain where unwary travellers are ‘swallowed’ and never seen again.
Caught up in an intra-tribal conflict when her latest mission turns sour, the woman warrior Liath Luachra finds herself coerced into a new undertaking. Dispatched to Osraighe to find a colony of missing settlers, she must lead a mismatched group of warriors, spies, and druids through a land of spectral forest, mysterious stone structures, and strange forces that contradict everything she knows of the Great Wild.
Haunted by a dead woman, struggling to hold her war-band together, Liath Luachra must confront her own internal demons while predators prowl the shadow between the trees …
Awaiting their moment to feed.
Liath Luachra: The Swallowed is the second stand-alone book in a spin-off series from my original Irish mythological cycle, the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series. Although originally envisaged as a minor character in that series, the woman warrior Liath Luachra’s compelling personality meant she became a dominant force in every book. This particular novel is the direct result of a stream of emails from readers demanding more background to the character.
As you can see, ancient Ireland wasn’t exactly the most comfortable of spots. The more complex stone monuments that pepper the countryside were there two thousand years before the Celts turned up. By the 2nd century, the majority of the land was challenging to traverse in that it was heavily forested, the midlands were reeking swamp and the island itself was sparsely populated.
And that’s not even counting Na Torathair, misshapen creatures lurking in the darkness to snatch the unwise and unworthy.
Liath Luachra: The Swallowed unsheathes its sword on 1 July 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon. A limited number of ARCs are available to reviewers who like to dip their toes in new worlds … that are remarkably ancient.
The Mandatory Excerpt!
In this excerpt, Liath Luachra, the Grey One of Luachair, is awaiting a meeting with the Mical Strong Arm, rí (Chieftain) of the Uí Bairrche tribe. While waiting, she comes across his daughter.
Mical Strong Arm’s daughter looked up from her play, her lips compressed in a prim expression of suspicion and annoyance at the intrusion. Skinny and pale, she had straw-coloured hair and her wide blue eyes assessed the newcomer with cool disdain. The Grey One thought her quite small for her age, for Dalbach had told her the girl had ten or eleven years on her.
Ignoring the cold reception, the woman warrior reached over to pluck one of the dry mud cakes from the stone, raised it to her nose and pretended to sniff it.
‘Mmm. That smells good. Shall I eat the cake?’ She licked her lips in exaggerated appreciation of the prospect. ‘Num-num.’
The girl stared, her expression a mixture of irritation and incomprehension. ‘You don’t eat mudcakes. They’re … They’re mud!’ She regarded the woman warrior in exasperation, her jaw jutting out with comical self-righteousness.
‘My brothers and I, we made mudcakes. We made the best mudcakes in Luachair. People came from all over to try them.’
‘Really?’ Despite her suspicions, the girl’s expression softened. Her features were quite delicate the Grey One noted, the small nose and distinct cheekbones probably due more to her mother than her father.
Liath Luachra shook her head. ‘No,’ she confessed. ‘Our cakes were terrible. They were so bad everyone avoided Luachair. Even the rats wouldn’t eat them.’ She screwed her face into an exaggerated grimace causing the girl to giggle effusively.
‘Does your father beat you?’ Liath Luachra asked.
The girl’s eyes widened. ‘No! He …Why would he …?’ She went silent, too confused to articulate what was clearly an alien concept.
‘You’re not afraid of him?’
‘Of my father? Of course not.’ She puffed up her tiny chest. ‘I’m not afraid of anything. I’m not … Well, except for the black shadows at night of course.’ Her face took on a worried expression.
‘You don’t need to be afraid of the black shadows,’ the woman warrior reassured her. ‘That’s simply what happens when the colours of the world go to sleep.’
This time the girl stared at her, completely intrigued. ‘The colours of the world go to sleep?’
‘Yes. Every night, Father Sky opens his bag, gathers up the colours of the world and sets them all inside. When the colours have gone, there’s nothing left in the world but black, the colour of night, the colour even Father Sky has no use for.’
‘Why does Father Sky put them in his bag?’
‘Because colours have to rest too. Just like us. In Father Sky’s bag they can sleep the good sleep so that when he releases them again the next morning, they’re refreshed and new and shine as brilliant as the day before.’ She made a loose gesture with one hand. ‘Except for the dull days when they didn’t get enough sleep.’
The Uí Bairrche girl sat back on her haunches, her lips pursed in thought as she considered the logic of Grey One’s explanation. ‘Is that true?’ she asked at last.
‘I don’t know for sure,’ Liath Luachra admitted. ‘But I think so. My mother told me that story and she wasn’t the kind of person to tell lies.’
The girl looked at Liath Luachra with fresh interest. ‘Lígach’s the name on me,’ she said at last, the revelation apparently a formal confirmation of the Grey One’s approval. ‘What name do you have on you?’
‘I don’t have a name on me. Not anymore.’
Lígach’s nose crinkled in adult-like incredulity. ‘That’s silly. Everyone has a name.’
‘Not me. Not a real name. I lost my real name … long ago. Back when I was a little girl. Just a few years older than you.’
The girl shook her head. ‘That doesn’t make sense. How can you lose your name?’
The Grey One looked at her, silent for a moment. ‘I’m not sure,’ she said at last and gave a shrug. Perhaps …’ She paused. ‘Perhaps it fell out of my pocket.’
Lígach giggled. ‘That’s silly.’
The Grey One looked down at the ground. ‘Perhaps,’ she said again.
Lígach nodded with certainty, as though her own answer resolved that particular conundrum. ‘Are you here to speak with my father?’
‘Is he sending you away to An Díthreabh Uaigneach [The Lonely Land] too?’
Taken by surprise, the woman warrior pulled back a little. ‘Yes.’
The girl leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner, pressing her lips close to the woman warrior’s ear. ‘When you’re in The Lonely Land,’ she whispered urgently. ‘Stay away from the dark shadows. The dark shadows eat you up.’
Liath Luachra blinked and regarded Mical Strong Hand’s daughter in consternation but before she could question her further, a loud voice called out to her rear. Glancing back over her shoulder, she saw Dalbach standing in the doorway of the stone hut, waving urgently for her to join him.
‘Grey One! Come. Mical Strong Arm and the others are waiting.’
As the woman warrior got to her feet, he disappeared inside again. ‘I have to go,’ she told the Uí Bairrche girl. Thank you for talking with me.’
Lígach nodded again, apparently knowing better than to interfere in her father’s business. ‘Remember,’ she said. ‘When you’re in the Lonely Land, stay away from the dark shadows.’
Within the Fenian Cycle, the character of Cumhal (Fionn mac Cumhaill’s father) is sometimes referred to with the interesting patronymic “mac Trénmóir” (or “mac Tréanmór” or in modern Irish) which, literally, means ‘Strong-Big’. This unlikely name is believed to originate from genealogists of the seventh century Leinster families who were keen to link the famous hero to their own ruling dynasties – even if they had to bend the truth to do so.
Apart from those original references, there’s no other mention of Tréanmór within the various historical narratives (which, given its invention, is hardly a surprise). That said, there is a hill called Comaghy Hill in County Monaghan which holds a large grave that’s fancifully claimed to be the spot where he was buried.
This lack of definition around a character who should play an important role in the Cycle (he is Fionn/Demne’s grandfather, after all) provides a lot of room for creative licence and I’ve taken full advantage of that, of course. Over the last twelve months I’ve had a lot of fun creating the character to fit in with the ongoing Fionn mac Cumhaill Series. As a result, for the next book in the series (The Adversary) Tréanmór plays a much larger role than in any other version of the Fenian Cycle in recent times (truth be told, I’ve yet to come across any literary use of the character in the last 100 years!).
Developing the Character of Tréanmór
When developing the character of Tréanmór I was keen to incorporate the world of 2nd century Ireland and link him to some of the issues associated with the tribal society that existed at the time (and which – amazingly – very little literature on Fionn mac Cumhaill refers to). In The Adversary therefore, Tréanmór holds the title of rí – chieftain – of Clann Baoiscne.
Back in the second century, a person’s tribe would not only have played a dominant part in that individual’s personal identity but in his/her entire social interaction as well. Dominant, shrewd, politically astute and completely ruthless, in this particular story, Tréanmór’s driving motivation is the expansion of the Clann Baoiscne tribal powerbase, an objective that’s often attained at the expense of friends and family members. For that reason, although he’s her father, Bodhmhall knows she cannot completely trust him and this becomes clear from the very first reference to him (when Demne – or Fionn – asks about the fortress of Dún Baoiscne:
‘Will we see my grandfather there?’
‘Tréanmór? Yes. As rí of Clann Baoiscne, he rules the stronghold.’
‘Is he nice?’
Bodhmhall blinked, taken aback by the simplicity of the question, the naive reduction of people to those who were ‘nice’ or ‘not nice’.
‘In some ways he is … nice. In other ways, he is not.’
The boy frowned at her. ‘Well,’ he persisted. ‘Do you think he’s nice?’
‘No,’ she admitted. She shook her head. ‘No, I don’t.’
And then of course there’s the little issue of the reason Bodhmhall was expelled from the fortress of Dún Baoiscne in the first place.
In this book, the character of Tréanmór tends to dominate many of the scenes, some of which involve dramatic verbal duelling between himself and Bodhmhall, who also has to contend with his ‘Whispers’ and his ‘Cúig Cairdre’ – his ‘Five Friends’. This has been a lot of fun to write.
This kind of creative licence is one of the things I most enjoy about writing with Irish mythology and lore. The original Fenian Cycle is strong enough and linear enough to provide the basis of the story but it’s also broad enough to allow immense creativity, even when the story needs to align with the historical realities of the period. It really doesn’t get better than that!
The Adversary is expected to be available at the end of February 2017.
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Earlier this year I entered a competition (initiated by author Mark Lawrence – of ‘Prince of Thorns’ fame) called the ‘Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog Off 2016’. This basically sees three hundred self-published and small-publisher fantasy books assessed by ten different speculative fantasy book review bloggers and … (well, yes. A bit difficult to explain and I haven’t quite got my own head around it yet). Just click on the link. That’ll explain everything.
Having entered, I promptly forgot about it so it was a nice surprise this afternoon (having returned from the temporarily internet-free Aran Islands) to receive an email from a fan telling me that I’d won my heat (not sure what that is but apparently the competition is still ongoing and there isn’t an actual prize per se). In any case, the book received a nice review from the Bookworm Blues blog (attached below):
FIONN: DEFENCE OF RATH BLADHMA BY BRIAN O’SULLIVAN
You know how some books come out of left field and just shock you? Well, this was one of those. If you’re looking for an action/adventure fantasy that is different than the normal, look no further. This book has some welcome diversity, and a story that is absolutely unforgiving. This is a novel based on some ancient Irish texts, and is full of myth and magic and I just loved it for that. The writing is tight and the book is well edited. I welcomed the strong female characters, the obvious twist on tropes, and the way the author genuinely owned the book he wrote. Some of the names were a bit of a mouthful to try and pronounce (even mentally) but that’s not the author’s fault, and as far as complaints go, that’s not even one that’s worth registering.
Interestingly, I’d also entered Liath Luachra in the same competition. This was reviewed by a different blogger but it got dumped about a month or two ago (which I hadn’t been aware of). They also did a quick review as follows:
LIATH LUACHRA: THE GREY ONE BY BRIAN O’SULLIVAN
Dark historical fantasy. It is 188 A.D in Ireland, a land of tribal conflict. The book starts with a young warrior woman called Liath Luachra (the Gray One) fighting a battle with her fellow band of mercenaries. Pleased by her prowess and potential, her battle leader offers her a mission that she cannot refuse. Writing is good, though there’re a lot of straight-up translations for the large number of Celtic terms used, which can be very distracting. Despite the battle at the beginning, the story is also slow to take off, though soon enough an interesting conflict presents itself and the character finds herself in a bit of a bind. This book was a strong contender, but it didn’t hook us as quickly as a few others did. Still, we loved the atmosphere, and there are some very strong grimdark fantasy vibes here, so it’s worth checking out if you are a fan of this sub-genre.
It’s always interesting to see how different people react to my books. That’s the beauty of individual tastes, I suppose – it’s different for everyone.
In May 2014, I was champing at the bit to start a new creative writing project. Feeling somewhat tired and shagged out from publishing Beara Dark Legends (that particular epic took about two years out of my life) however, I was keen to try something different, but different in a way that let me use some of the material I’d collected during my research on Beara. The Fenian Cycle is made up of thousands of narratives collected over hundreds of years from many different Celtic countries. In a creative sense, there are several lifetimes’ worth of material to draw from and despite all the research I’d put into Beara Dark Legends, I felt that I’d barely scratched the surface.
Initially, I wasn’t sure what aspect of the Fenian Cycle I’d write about but it seemed logical to do a more action-based narrative. The prospect of a simple, linear plot line appealed and I’d been mulling over a fresh – more Irish approach – to what many people think of as ‘Irish mythology’ for years.
The startling truth is that very few contemporary Irish authors actually write Irish historical fiction or Irish historical fantasy for adults. Despite the huge amount of native mythological material available, fewer still revamp or produce contemporary versions of Fenian Cycle stories (although some use elements of it to spring of into their own particular stories).
It’s always struck me as bizarre that although Fionn has probably been the key figure in Irish literature since the sixth century, the Fenian Cycle-related literature that exists on the adult reading market today consists predominantly of:
- the republished ‘dry as bones’ sanitized stuff from the Celtic Twilight period (late 1800s to the early 1900s); or
- modern interpretations of Irish mythology from non-Irish authors.
In terms of reading entertainment, there’s nothing wrong with the above although my research to date suggests that the Irish reader (generally) finds the former a bit childish and patronising and the latter overly romanticised. Although there’ll always be exceptions, neither appear to reflect the aspirations or yearnings of contemporary Irish culture and hold little resonance for Irish people. It seems a bit ironic but most are published to target the international market as opposed to the market from which the material actually originates.
It’s interesting that this trend also appears to be reflected in the mainstream Irish publishing market. Few Irish publishing houses actually publish Irish historical fantasy for adults (to be honest, I don’t actually know of any – but I’m happy to be corrected). It’s unclear whether this is an effective reflection of market taste or simply a case of literary snobbery. No-one’s ever looked close enough to tell so it could be either, neither or both.
The challenge then (as least, as far as I saw it) was to write something that was true to the established mythology but which Irish people wouldn’t snort at in derision, something that downplayed the fantasy elements of the Cycle and focussed on a grittier, more realistic and more culturally authentic narrative.
I’ll tell you how I got on next time.