‘The Last Days of Magic’: Myth, fantasy and medieval Ireland
“The Last Days of Magic” is out now from Viking.
Mythology, magic and medieval history mix marvelously in “The Last Days of Magic,” a centuries-spanning story of how magical beings once were real — and maybe still are.
The events are set primarily in Ireland in the 14th century, where the Celts and Irish faeries (known as the Sidhe) live in relative peace under a truce and give allegiance to the Morrigna, their triple goddess.
But tensions are simmering among rival Sidhe clans and between the fairies and humans. Aisling and Anya, two teenage twins, are the goddess Morrigna in human form, prepped to reign over the Sidhe and Celts. Then Anya is assassinated, keeping Aisling from being able to become a full goddess and threatening the peace and safety of Ireland.
Meanwhile, the Vatican is set on ridding Europe of all magic and asserting the Roman Church as the true form of Christianity. So they set their sights on Ireland, the last bastion of faerie magic.
Then there’s also the High Coven of witches in France, working spells of their own, and they aren’t on the same side as the Vatican or the Irish.
Mark Tompkins’ novel is impressive, especially for a debut. The history and Celtic mythology seem expertly researched and the fantasy world is imagined in rich, realistic detail.
Sometimes, the plot is dragged down by exposition. There is a lot of mythology and real-life history to explain, and while this context is great, it can slow down the action. We don’t want to feel like we are reading a textbook.
But the premise and execution of the plot are engaging from beginning to end. While you know you’re reading a fantasy, the way it’s mixed with historical figures and events makes it seem so real. It’s enough to make one actually believe in faeries — and to be angry at the Vatican for wanting to get rid of them.
History buffs will find much to smile at, and those less familiar with medieval Ireland might be enticed to do some homework and find out what’s real and what’s not. Geoffrey Chaucer is a character, for example, and Tompkins draws on some lesser-known legends about Ireland’s St. Patrick.
He also takes some amorphous parts of history and reinterprets them. The Dead Sea Scrolls, for one, were suppressed for some time by the Vatican and parts of the Bible have been rewritten. “The Last Days of Magic” speculates why this might be.
It’s enough to make one actually believe in faeries — and to be angry at the Vatican for wanting to get rid of them.
Tompkins also gives us strong, memorable characters. There’s Aisling, the goddess who will never be whole, as she struggles to find her duty and destiny, and her loyal Sidhe and Celtic supporters. Jordan, a Sicilian enlisted as a commander by the Vatican, has a gift with magic himself and isn’t so sure he wants to help destroy it. There’s a particularly scary exorcist Cardinal in service of the Vatican.
Fans of similar epic, violent fantasy novels like “Game of Thrones” know that, inevitably, characters we love will be lost. Even if you know it’s coming, it still hurts, and it’s a testament to the characters and their bonds that we feel such emotion.
A few minor characters, on the other hand, could do with a little more fleshing out. It can occasionally become difficult to juggle all of the different kings, queens, lords, priestesses, marshals, etc., when we are dealing with so many rival groups of people (and faeries.) The High Coven, for example, aren’t as well developed as the other players in the saga.
But with only a couple minor complaints, “The Last Days of Magic” is intricate, bold and memorable long after you put it down. It succeeds in bringing magic and mythology to life and, despite all the violence and despair, still delivers a shimmer of optimism and the possibility that magic is not quite dead.