This really hit the spot. I’ve been craving some good, old-fashioned fantasy—the kind of stuff I mainlined as a kid, you know, the high fantasy stuff with dragons and wizards. But I find that when I go back and try to revisit the fantasy from my youth, when I read it with the more critical eyes of a modern feminist adult, there’s just too much problematic stuff in there for me to enjoy it as much. Or, as was the case when I tried re-reading L.E. Modesitt, Jr.’s Recluce saga, I found that the writing that had captivated me as a younger reader was too tedious for me these days.
Enter Erinsmore, portal fantasy with an Arthurian twist but with more modern, enjoyable protagonists in the form of Ruby and Cassie Markson. It’s a little more self-aware, but not so much that it breaks the fourth wall or gets silly.
Full disclosure: Julia Blake was my landlady when I lived in England a few years ago. At that time, Erinsmore was a novel she had written years before that and filed away. It has been a pleasure to watch Julia launch herself as an indie author and publish many of her books, including this one. I previously reviewed her SF novella Lifesong. I purchased a copy of Erinsmore for Kindle, but Julia did end up sending me a paperback version as a gift.
Erinsmore is another world with your perhaps stereotypical medieval European level of development, though it’s a little more magical than our own. Darkness is stirring, of course (doesn’t darkness always do that?), in the form of Lorcan, an evil wizard who is bent on conquering not just Erinsmore but, if possible, all worlds (at least he thinks big). Travel between Erinsmore and our world used to be more common, but Ruby and Cassie are the first to cross over in generations. They have a role to play in a prophecy. As they soon discover, however, prophecies seldom work out the way one would expect. There’s more to Erinsmore than fighting evil.
Erinsmore in a few ways reminded me of The Fionavar Tapestry, a book that I could not abide—and which Erinsmore is utterly superior to in every respect, for it avoids so many of the problems that The Fionavar Tapestry has. I was really annoyed by how that book’s characters, upon arriving in Fionavar, suddenly seem to “know” whatever they are required to know to attain their roles in this new world. Not so with Erinsmore. Although Ruby and Cassie’s bloodline privileges them with certain innate feelings of connection and power, Blake has them work at it—especially Cassie. Nothing was more welcome, and believable, than a months-long training montage for Cassie in sword-fighting. I remember sighing with a kind of pent-up relief when that transpired.
Similarly, I’m not all that big on books heavy in prophecy, because I find myself increasingly uninterested in “chosen ones” as my chronological age catches up to my clothing style age. The more it seems like characters are fated/destined/prophesied to do certain things, the less I enjoy a story, because at that point it feels like all sense of agency is gone. Ruby and Cassie are definitely prophecy girls here, and in a way they do fulfill the prophecy (no spoilers!), but it’s clear throughout that they are making their own choices. Blake constructs the narrative around a loose quest structure, although the quest itself is flexible and really only in the foreground for a few parts of the book. There’s something quite enjoyable about watching these two characters figure out, from the clues left by their author, what they need to do to stymie Lorcan.
As far as Big Bads go, Lorcan is all right. I’ve seen worse, more clichéd Dark Lords. He has a believable enough—read, tragic—backstory, the whole corrupted by power schtick going on, etc. The third person narration gives us enough time with him to get a sense of his character and just how mad he seems to have become as a result of his time spent asleep/in captivity. Even some of his dark minions are like, “Uh, dude, you’re being a little bit extra right now” and he just shrugs his shoulders. It’s just shy of being camp, in the best possible way.
Indeed, I was actually kind of disappointed with the climax and resolution around Lorcan. OK, well, not exactly the manner in which he goes—the whole scene feels rather fitting and well done. More specifically, I guess I was just surprised when it happened. The whole climax kind of came upon us very suddenly, and I wasn’t ready! I. Wasn’t. Ready. I just kind of stared at the page going, “Wait, you mean it’s happening now??” But it was! It did!
So many good characters in here. The difference between Ruby and Cassie, in terms of their age and how they acted, of course, makes for some good tension and character development. And the way everyone around him tries to defuse and challenge Colwyn’s sexism is funny (though puzzling how he developed such attitudes, since his dad didn’t seem to share them?). But I’m talking about even the minor characters, like Garth. Garth is awesome. He’s this loyal dude who never asked for what happens to him, yet he makes the best of it.
The time that Ruby and Cassie spend on Earth between their visits to Erinsmore might actually be my favourite part of this book, to be honest, and Garth is a big part of that. In general, though, it’s just so moving to watch the way that their brief first trip to Erinsmore has already altered the two girls so much. The way they take it upon themselves to take on more responsibility in their family, which is going through some tough times. You can tell that both Ruby and Cassie have genuinely grown and started to mature into young women, and that of course continues when they return to Erinsmore.
This book does get dark at times, too. I mean, we’re talking entire villages slain and their souls consumed by hell-beasts. So, yeah. Not for the faint of heart. And, to Blake’s credit, the characters treat this issue with the sombreness it requires, which is another area that fantasy novels sometimes neglect. It’s always a little jarring when your villain is engaging in literal genocide and none of the good guys seem all that broken up about another whole town being massacred.
I’ve mentioned before how I don’t visualize when I read, so it isn’t often I talk about a book being “cinematic.” But that’s how I feel about Erinsmore. This is a book that I’d enjoy watching as a movie (properly adapted, of course, and not terribly butchered and transformed into generic fantasy movie of the month because screenwriters think no one cares about Arthurian legend or some such). It has the structure, the pacing, the characterization that would work well in such a form, and the right balance between epic adventure and close-knit tale of two sisters.