Friday, March 28, 2008

Pat O’Shea

The Hounds of the Mórrígan
by Pat O’Shea
Recommended Age: 12+

The Book Trolley is all about the question, “What would be the perfect book to turn to after reading Harry Potter?” Answering that question becomes more and more complex as the Harry Potter series develops. Jenny Nimmo’s Children of the Red King series, for instance, is one possible answer – if you’re looking for something on the level of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone. This book by Pat O’Shea, on the other hand, is the nearest thing to Order of the Phoenix, at least in size.

Yes, this book has over 600 pages. So it does require a fairly mature reader, who can handle a few Irish and Gaelic terms (the glossary is helpful), a dash of myth and folk tale, a large canvas, and the patience and concentration to see a lot of plot-lines through to a long-delayed payoff. Yet at the same time, it is so funny, so charming, so vivid, so engaging, that it really seems like light reading!

Pidge and Brigit live in the west of Ireland, near the town of Galway. Pidge is a protective older brother to his unnervingly fearless, mischievous sister. But they are both good at heart, so it is they who are given a quest by the Dagda (the old “good god” of pre-Christian Ireland). All the “true creatures” of the land are on their side, plus a couple of other gods in various disguises; and the two children are given several magical gifts to aid them on their journey. However, it won’t be easy. For they also have enemies – chiefly the Mórrígan (More-Ree-yan, “Great Queen”) and her two witchy alter-egos, who really make up one awful, magical being. The Mórrígan is a nasty, manipulative piece of work who delights in human misery, especially warfare. If the two children fail in their quest, she may become so powerful that every living thing in the world may suffer for it.

It’s a long journey, then, full of wonderful creatures, deceptions, escapes, and miracles, in which Pidge and Brigit are trailed by a pack of hounds who will only really become dangerous if the children run from them. Meanwhile they befriend spiders, earwigs, frogs, donkeys, an extinct elk, and a sly fox; they meet people from other times, pass amazing obstacles, experience violent weather conditions, survive a furious battle, lose hope and find it again, and all this before a climactic race against a merciless foe.

The book’s cheerful respect for ancient “folk ways” may require a parental “occult content” advisory. Please understand that I only mention this because I know that many Christian parents are concerned about guiding their children spiritually; they should read this book with their kids and be prepared to discuss it with them. I am not saying there is anything disturbing about the book or that anyone shouldn’t read it. But I foresee there being some interesting conversations, in Christian families, about the way Ms. O’Shea depicts the native spirituality of her land. On the other hand, I would like to point out that most of the book takes place in the world of Faery, where animals talk and immortal beings dwell. This is a kind of story, in a kind of setting, that some of the most revered Christian authors (such as Tolkien and Lewis) used to tell. And though it is the evil god of the book who has a disturbing “Three in One” thing going on, it is the “good god,” the Dagda, whose invisible presence in the background works through his faithful servants, and who never fails to provide help when it is truly needed.

EDIT: This author's real name was Patricia Mary Shiels. She passed away last year. Her other books are Finn MacCool and the Small Men of Deeds (which sounds like the Irish equivalent of Terry Pratchett's Wee Free Men) and The Magic Bottle, shown here.

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