Wednesday 6 April 2016

The Call by Peadar O'Guilin

The island of Ireland has been sealed off from the rest of the world by a mystical barrier. Technology cannot penetrate it. The people of Ireland, the division between north and south no longer mattering, are under constant attack. Every teenager is "Called", summoned to another realm where they do battle with the Aes Sidhe, the ancient rulers of Ireland before they were banished in a great war. The Sidhe have a day in their realm (three minutes in ours) to hunt down and kill the child, otherwise the victime escapes. Sometimes the Sidhe spare the victim, to return them home mutilated or "changed" in some horrific fashion. Most of the time, the Sidhe kill the victim.

Nessa is a teenager at school, but in this age schools do not teach algebra or humanities. Instead they teach each student on how to survive in the Sidhe realm, how to kill the fairies and how to escape back home. Nessa's prospects are dim due to a childhood brush with polio and the resulting weakening of her legs. But Nessa has made a vow to survive, no matter the cost.

It's been nine years since Peadar O'Guilin released his debut novel, The Inferior, an SF story of high-tech and savage, cannibalistic societies coexisting next to each other. Since then, he's made a habit of writing stories that combine mythology, SF and horror, told with verve and intelligence. The Call is an evolution of that storytelling style, and should be a major step forward for his career.

The Call is a rich story mixing horror, survivalism and deep-rooted Irish mythology. "Hey, this sounds a bit like The Hunger Games," some may say, and I suspect the comparison will become a cornerstone of future reviews. However, I would argue that the story is less like The Hunger Games and, at least in spirit and tone, more like that's novel's considerably darker and more adult inspiration, Koushun Takami's Battle Royale. Like that novel The Call channels many of the real issues, challenges and emotional turmoils of being a teenager, given greater resonance by being studied through the lens of an extraordinary situation that transforms the foibles of adolescence into a grim and deadly game of survival.

The result is a mash-up of Battle Royale, Terry Pratchett's Lord and Ladies and an Irish version of Skins, but parsed by O'Guilin's signature dark wit and expert pacing. The book moves like a rollercoaster from the off, but has time to delve into Irish mythology, reflect on teenage angst and sexuality (this is a pretty frank book in that regard) and develop its key characters, not just redoubtable protagonist Nessa but also her friends, the teachers at the school and her sworn enemies. O'Guilin has developed that most enviable knack of dropping us into a character's head for a few moments and establishing them as a full-realised person in just a page or two. He does this so well that it's hard not feel sympathy even for the "bad guys" when they get offed.

It's a short novel at 320 pages, but it moves fast, is extremely bloody-minded and has a body count that might make even George R.R. Martin wince. It's also very smart, with its premise and "rules" interrogated by the characters as much as by the reader, and tremendously adult. It may be marketed as a "YA" book but it does not pander to presupposed juvenile tastes. It treats its audience with respect and credits them with intelligence.

There's not much to say that is negative. It's another one of these books that's the first of a series but the marketing doesn't really mention it (a sequel, The Invasion, will follow in due course). It also feels like the danger of "sleeper agents", people sent back by the Sidhe having apparently survived their Calling but in reality transformed into their slaves, should have been more properly considered by the Irish authorities and protected against. But these are less than minor issues.

The Call (****½) will be published by David Fickling Books in the UK and Ireland on 30 August this year, and in the USA by Scholastic around the same time (no listing yet). I very strongly recommend it.

Edit: I've now had a couple of people ask about this. The term "Aes Sidhe" is the original Irish term ("Aos Si" is a more recent form) for a mythological species of fairies or elves who originally ruled Ireland before being defeated by men. The Book of Conquests (also The Book of Invasions or The Book of the Taking of Ireland) is an account of this conflict, dating back to the 11th Century but based on considerably older oral traditions.

Needless to say, the term massively predates the term "Aes Sedai", which Robert Jordan borrowed from the Irish for his Wheel of Time sequence beginning in 1990. O'Guilin is simply using the original term from Irish mythology.

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