Book Review: The Call

Title:  The Call

Author:  Peadar O’Guilin

Genres:  Horror, Fantasy, Dystopian, Young Adult

Rating:  8 / 10

Summary:  The old myths of Ireland – the ones involving the cruel minded, mischievous fae folk being driven into an alternate world referred to as ‘beneath the mounds’ – have proven themselves to be true. The fairies, known as Sidhe, have found a way to affect the world that banished them. Ireland has been cut off from the rest of the world, and every adolescent and child is at some point in their lives Called to the land of the Sidhe, the Grey Land, to participate in a hunt. The child arrives naked and weaponless in a land bred of nightmares, and has to survive everything thrown at them for twenty-four hours. Once the time is up, they’re sent back, alive, dead or… twisted. The country does its best to survive this new reality, training their youth in hopes that more will survive, and that they’ll survive in such a way that won’t leave them completely broken. We follow one of these adolescents in particular, Nessa, a girl affected by polio, as she goes through that training at Boyle Survival College, and begin to see the deeper plans the Sidhe have for Ireland.

Review:  This is a bleak and somewhat depressing look at what the world could look like if an apocalypse were triggered by something magical rather than something scientific, political or a natural disaster. Or at least what Ireland would look like.

For those who aren’t familiar with what fae folk were like in some of the oldest stories, this book will come as something of a shock. Speaking as one who is familiar with those stories, this book was still startling in some places for just how cruel and twisted the Sidhe are. They are inhuman in every critical sense: their logic, their sense of humor, what they consider to be harm or beauty or justice are all so different from our own as to be irreconcilable. They’ve been banished for thousands of years in a land that’s nightmarish by the broadest standards, and they are pissed.

The Call runs along the lines of Battle Royale or Sea of Glass in some places, but without ever getting quite as weighed down with exposition. Despite the heavy subject matter being presented – children being kidnapped, hunted, tortured and killed – O’Guilin’s style of writing comes across as light and easily absorbed. We are given a clear idea of the challenges the children of Ireland are facing, both in their futures and in their every day, but nothing is described in so much detail as to be truly horrifying. There’s enough there to make your sleep uneasy, but not so much as it make it impossible to sleep.

The main focus of the book is on Nessa, though the POV does bounce around pretty freely to other students and teachers. Because of the crippling effect polio has had on her legs, no one believes that she will survive her Call, while Nessa is determined that she will survive, and works herself harder than anyone else in her college in order to make that a reality.

Nessa’s character is a little hard to come to grips with. In the beginning we start with the standard ‘strong character in the face of overwhelming odds,’ complete with self-denial of anything that could be considered a distraction or detract from her physical preparedness, (social interaction, sex, sweets, smoking, etc.). But as we proceed, we’re shown little bits of softness in her character. She has feelings for a fellow student, Anto, and in her ‘weaker’ moments she allows herself to dream of a future where the two of them both survive and go off to live in the country together. She even occasionally goes to an extreme of sneaking into the boy’s dorms to leave Irish poetry under Anto’s pillow.

Even in the privacy of her own mind these two sides of her personality don’t fit together cleanly. This isn’t necessarily a problem, though. In fact I consider this kind of ‘messiness’ much more realistic. Personalities can have very disparate parts making up the whole, and those parts don’t have to fit together perfectly. It’s a good way of showing Nessa’s inner friction and underscores the fact that despite how much she’s had to grow up, Nessa is still a teenager and subject to the same rollercoaster as any other teen.

It’s only in the last third where it really feels like we’re coming to any sort of point other that Nessa receiving her Call and either living or dying. Given the setup I was expecting some sort of plot to take out the Sidhe once and for all or for someone to accidentally discover a method to have that effect, but it’s actually quite late in the book we get much hint that we’ll be getting more than just a glimpse of what this kind of world is like. That being said, it wasn’t boring. There was plenty to keep me entertained even with that perceived lack. With all of the different characters we’re given and their personal and interpersonal struggles, even if it was just that set against a fairy generated dystopia, would have made for an okay sort of novel. Not great, but still good enough to read.

Conclusions:  The one complaint I have is one that I fully expect to be addressed in coming installments, and is that I would love to know more about how the world of the Sidhe works, their particular plans, and to see a real resolution to the conflict between them and the humans.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. The use of traditional Irish mythos in this way was done effectively to create a world that feels oppressive and, in a strange kind of way, believable. I can believe that a world like this could come about just as easily, and in some cases more easily than many of the other post apocalyptic scenarios that are put out there. I attribute this as much to O’Guilin’s superb word craft as to my own predisposition towards Irish myth. The characters he creates are all believable as well, nuanced and distinct. The subject matter is dark, dreary, and to abuse the word, bleak, but O’Guilin’s use of prose makes the reading of this book feel light and easy. It’s an odd balance, struck quite expertly.

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