The Lion of Skye, by J.T.T. Ryder

’Celtic’ is a magic bag, into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come … Anything is possible in the fabulous Celtic twilight, which is not so much a twilight of the gods as of the reason.

This J.R.R. Tolkien quote would be an apt epigram for The Lion of Skye. Not in a derogatory way, but an introductory one, a warning to the reader not to expect the world of Skye in 200BC to behave in a way consistent with the modern world of reason and causality.

The Lion of Skye picks up immediately after the end of Hag of the Hills, and it picks up running and doesn’t stop for a breath for many chapters. Brennus, now renamed Vidav after the sword he found (or was given) continues in his sworn purpose to rid Skye of the Hillmen and their queen, Slighan. Over the course of the story he will make and break alliances, battle human and the sidhe, but his oath to protect the maiden Myrnna is still a driving force.

In my review of the first of this duology, Hag of the Hills, I categorized the books as more magic realism than fantasy, because this is a world imagined through eyes and minds whose concept of reality differs from ours. Gods and monsters walk the land, and perspective swirls and shatters like the shards of a kaleidoscope. Author J.T.T. Ryder’s style reflects this; the view never stands still. Characters move from friend to foe in a few brief strokes of a sword; brothers are sworn allies and then enemies. Nothing is quite what it seems in this violent world of sworn oaths and ritual battles.

Vidav’s companions are men, but it is women who drive him forward: his hatred for Slighan, his oath to keep Myrnna safe.  His ability to see into the otherworld is a gift from the Cailleach, the hag of the hills.  He both is drawn to and repulsed by the women whose fates drive his own, whether human or something else. But they wield power, both that of sexual attraction and that of judgement, and he cannot escape that, even when he believes he has.

Ryder pulls on many sources and many legends: the Wild Hunt chases through the sky; the Blue Men of Minch, selkies, Amazons all make an appearance. They fit into Vidav’s concepts of his world; while he may be surprised they have manifested, he’s not surprised they exist. Echoes of Cuchulainn – a hero to Vidav—resonate in his worldview: death matters little, fame does.

The Lion of Skye should be read after Hag of the Hills for a full appreciation of the world and characters Ryder envisions; it lacks the worldbuilding of the first book which is necessary to understanding Brennus/Vidav and what drives him. Together they make up an unusual story steeped in mythology; an envisioning of a culture inseparable from the mountains and rivers and oceans in which it developed, and whose spirits of those places are as real to its inhabitants as the birds of the air or the fish of the sea, but with behaviour far less predictable.

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