Published by Viking on March 1st 2016
Format: Finished hardcover
Diving into a debut novel is always a bit of a gamble, but it can also prove exciting and extremely rewarding—especially when a book ends up surprising me or blowing away all my expectations. These are the moments I live for and this is exactly what I felt with Mark Tompkin’s The Last Days of Magic, a breathtaking historical fantasy saga about mysticism and mythology through the ages.
I am absolutely in love with this novel and its premise, which posits that magic is real but merely forgotten, suppressed and denied. Today we dismiss the tales of the Sidhe as nothing but folklore and legend, but just a few centuries ago humans co-existed with all kinds of supernatural creatures, and in no other place was that bond stronger than in Ireland, the last bastion of magic against the encroaching powers of the Vatican Church. Much of island’s strength comes from the protection of its patron deity the Morrígna, a goddess whose three aspects come together to rule over the Celts and the Sidhe. One of Her aspects resides in the Otherworld as a source of power, while the other two—known as Aisling and Anya—are always reborn in the mortal realm as identical twin girls.
The book begins with the introduction to the last incarnations of the twins Aisling and Anya in the autumn of 1387. But just days before their ascendance ritual to become one with the Goddess, disaster strikes. Without the assurance of the Morrígna on their side, fears begin to rise and alliances start to break down, leading to a weakened Ireland and a fractured Middle Kingdom, which is the home of the Sidhe. Taking advantage of this instability, the Vatican prepares to rid the world of its last remnants of magic by using the forces of King Richard II of England to invade. Thus the story is as much about Aisling and Anya as it is about their protectors, and about Jordan, a mercenary turned Vatican commander who arrives on the shores of Ireland to find that the magic is not all as it seems.
When I’m promised epic historical fantasy, this is exactly the kind of book I’m looking for, pushing the boundaries of multiple genres by blending medieval history, Irish legends, and even Biblical elements. Other religions were mostly stamped out during the Christianization of Europe in the Middle Ages, which serves as the backdrop for The Last Days of Magic. But while this by itself has been a theme in many works of fiction about why real magic has passed from this world, what I find interesting here is foundation for the origins of all supernatural creatures. In this book, magical beings like the Fae (which are typically associated with paganism, earth spirits, and nature worship) also have their roots in Christianity, so that the Sidhe (faeries like the Skeaghshee, gnomes, pixies, fire sprites, leprechauns, dryads, etc.) along with the Elioud (banshees, imps, sirens, goblins, giants, etc.) are all branches of the Nephilim, offspring of humans and fallen angels. Tompkin’s portrayal of the trinity goddess Morrígna as Anann, Aisling and Anya to bring all Irish Fae and humans together adds even more layers to the land’s mysterious and ancient magical customs.
At first, all of this can be a little confusing, and the author’s somewhat pedagogical style also has a tendency to be distracting. He inserts a lot of historical detail, though this isn’t really a criticism since most of the time I find the information helpful and educational. Of more concern is probably the non-linear storytelling. While each chapter is labeled chronologically, within most of these sections are multiple time skips and flashbacks, and it took me several chapters to grow used to this rhythm. Once I got it down though, the story really took off.
Soon enough, this book had me completely captivated. In light of my observations about the writing, I was actually a little surprised at how quickly I took to the characters. I wouldn’t have thought Tompkin’s seemingly didactic style would translate all that well to deep and engaging characterization, but in truth his storytelling is remarkably expressive. There are a lot of players in this book, some fictional and some not, but they are all shaped very convincingly by the story’s events. This is especially true of Aisling, who had her entire worldview ripped away from her on the day she lost everything she loved. Her tale is a tragic one, but after a while Jordan also emerges as a more prominent figure. His role to seek knowledge goes a long way in transforming the narrative by giving it a more hopeful tone. I also enjoyed seeing how everything that happened in this story was placed in a historical context, including all the magically-infused scenarios—a testament to the amount of research that must have gone into the writing of this novel.
All that’s left to say is bravo! The Last Days of Magic is everything I want in a historical fantasy, offering a tale that sparks the imagination and explores the multilayered relationship between truth and myth. Mark Tompkins has created an incredible world filled with vivid characters, capturing the complex nature of faith, love, and conflicting loyalties. A stunning, evocative debut.
This review originally appeared on The BiblioSanctum.