Revenge of the banished faeries
Young Adult: The Call, Peadar Ó Guilín, David Fickling Books, hdbk, €13, 334 pages
Early in The Call, 14-year-old Nessa Doherty is sitting on a bus with best friend Megan, en route from their Donegal home to Boyle, Co Roscommon. A good-looking young lad gets on at Omagh; they chat, maybe flirt a little. And then… he disappears.
Literally: his clothes fall to the floor, empty. The boy is gone. Exactly three minutes and four seconds later, he returns: naked, bloodied, dead. He has been Called - and like nine out of 10 Irish youngsters in this Young Adult novel, that means certain death… a lingering, painful, horrible one.
The Call is a blend of alternate-history and fantasy, where the travails of adolescence, which sometimes feel like life-and-death, become actually so. A little background: 25 years beforehand, the Sídhe - faeries banished to a hellish underworld, millennia ago, by the invading Irish - had returned. They encased Ireland in a sort of impermeable mist. Nobody has entered or left since, which is why some characters are French, American or British: unlucky souls who happened to be here when the "walls" went up.
Ever since, the Sídhe have amused themselves by torturing their hated enemies: the Irish race. They intend to wipe us out for good and all, and reclaim the "Many-Coloured Land" they consider their birth-right.
In the meantime, they abduct - Call - teenagers for a day-long trial-by-fire (three minutes, four seconds in our time) in their Grey Land. It's a horrendous place, filled with nightmarish creatures forged from the bodies and souls of previously kidnapped people.
The faeries are magical, but it's a dark magic: they use it to maim and defile and eventually - unless the person Called is very good or very lucky - kill. These are not the cutesy faeries of children's picture-books. They're more like those in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: beautiful, powerful, vindictive, capricious… and crazier than a dog howling at the moon.
Now the Irish train their children in special boarding schools from the onset of adolescence: how to fight, evade, survive. The results are slowly improving, but you still have a 90pc chance of dying over there. And those who do return are profoundly damaged, whether physically or mentally.
In the case of Nessa (short for Vanessa), the odds are even shorter. Her legs are weak, basically useless, because of childhood polio. As her friends, classmates, enemies and sweetheart get picked off one by one, the clock ticks inexorably towards her almost certain doom.
The Call skilfully weaves Celtic mythology into the story. According to the real-life medieval Book of Conquests, mentioned here (we usually know it as The Book of Invasions), this island was once settled by the Tuatha Dé Danann, a semi-godlike race.
Then the proto-Irish, or Milesians, came here from Iberia and banished them to a joyless, colourless demi-monde. Since then, in Ó Guilín's version, the Tuatha Dé Danann/Sídhe have nurtured their hatred, endured purgatory and dreamed of vengeance.
Not all the plot strands hang together - more precisely, some storylines are raised and then not quite resolved - but it's a gripping story, very well-told, which you could easily see as an equally gripping movie or TV series.
A word of caution, though: The Call is hugely violent and horrific, to the point where I'm almost surprised it's being published as a YA novel. The Grey Land scenes, in particular, are very disturbing: Hieronymus Bosch meets Celtic mythology. There's endless torture, deformed minds and bodies, shocking deaths, body-horror, random injustice, sadism, madness. I'm an adult who loves scary movies, and I found this book starting to infect my dreams, so vividly and relentlessly rendered are its many nightmares.
Not for younger readers, then, but definitely recommended for anyone else who likes an exciting, frightening tale. But a strong stomach and nerves of steel are also recommended.
Darragh McManus' novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl