Thu
Dec 9 2010 6:11pm

Knotwork and custom: R.A. MacAvoy’s The Book of Kells

The Book of Kells by R.A. MacAvoyA little while ago I wrote about R.A. MacAvoy’s Tea With the Black Dragon. I just re-read the other book of hers I really like, The Book of Kells. It’s very different. It’s the story of an Irish historian and an artist from Newfoundland who go into tenth century Ireland by the power of a song, a carved cross, and the saint, or goddess, Bridget. It’s about culture clashes—between Newfoundland and eighties Ireland, between the Norse and the Celts of tenth century Ireland, and between the old and the new. It’s also about the things that work across culture—art and learning and love. And it’s a lovely warm book—bad things happen, but good triumphs. It’s funny and sweet and it has great characters. Like Tea With the Black Dragon, it makes me smile to think of it.

No spoilers.

There are a million books about people who go to and fro between fantasy worlds, but surprisingly few where people time travel by magic. The world they go into is far odder and more interesting than most fantasy worlds. The method of time travel here is by tracing the spirals on a Celtic cross while hearing a particular tune. It works with the tracing paper alone, and it doesn’t work when they can’t remember the right song. We’re told in a very creepy scene that it’s done by Bridget, and that she is putting the old into the new and the new into the old.

The book has great characters—Derval the Irish historian who has to cope with history coming alive around her and learn what learning means, John the short gentle Newfoundland artist who finally finds people to appreciate him, Ailesh the daughter of a stonemason who runs from the Viking attack and suddenly finds herself in the twentieth century, and Labres the Ollave who wants to know everything and worries that he doesn’t have the true poetic madness.

There are lots of lovely pieces, but my favourite is John, temporarily back in modern Dublin, getting all of his money out of the bank and spending it on steel needles, which were wealth a thousand years ago. After he’s bought the needles he stuffs himself with chips, because he’s missed potatoes so much. My other favourite bit—it’s a book where you can have a lot of favourite bits—is John drawing cartoons of how to make pitch, for an Icelandic boat builder. I also love the cautious way they get around saying they’re from the future “Neither of them are now living men” and so on.

The Celtic and Norse cultures are done very well, and the axiom lock that occurs almost every time they come together. I’m qualified to say that MacAvoy has done her homework here, the details of culture and technology are right—and I love Derval thinking that she has the crib sheet and knows the answers to questions scholars in the twentieth century have been arguing over, but she has no authority and can’t tell anyone. The magic is well integrated too, there’s not too much of it and what there is feels right. It also, astonishingly, does sex very well—there’s sex, and it’s not embarrassing or titillating or unnecessary. And there’s consensual sex between people who don’t love each other and don’t end up together, which was almost unprecedented in fantasy in 1985.

The book didn’t attract much attention and seemed to sink without trace although it’s a favourite of mine—nobody ever seems to have read it when I mention it. It is in print as a paperback and as an e-book.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight novels, most recently Lifelode. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

14 comments
David Goldfarb
1. David_Goldfarb
I know I read it when it came out, though it was so many years ago that were I to re-read it now, it would be like reading it new. I don't think I have my copy anymore; probably it was one of the books I lost when I had a fire.
Andrew Barton
2. MadLogician
I still have my copy - I liked this book for all the reasons you did.

I see that after a long gap she has a new one out, 'In Between' from Subterranean Press. I'll have to see whether I can get it in the UK.
Claire de Trafford
3. ClairedeT
Thanks for reminding me about this Jo. I missed it when it came out and have never seen it in a second hand bookshop. I'll put it on my Wishlist for when I do an order and look forward to reading it. I love her other books.

@MadLogician I've ordered from Subterranean in the past for the UK and it was no problem. The exchange rate was better then tho and the books seemed very cheap - now :(
LizardBreath
4. LizardBreath
I liked the book, but I remember being annoyed by the gender politics a little -- it's so long ago that I'm not clear on the names of the character, but there's a tenth century woman and a modern woman, both lovers of the male protagonist (the modern woman is an ex? or something like that?) and they're contrasted in a way that I found irksome. The tenth century woman is presented as both physically more attractive and warmer and realer in a way that makes her looks evidence of her moral superiority, and the modern woman gets the 'cold bitch' treatment: she's a bad person for being ambitious and she's not as pretty as she thinks she is.

I'm remembering this from reading the book twenty years ago, so I may be misremembering or being unfair. But I recall being indignant at the time.
LizardBreath
5. Dasein
I see that after a long gap she has a new one out, 'In Between' from Subterranean Press. I'll have to see whether I can get it in the UK.


I ordered it from Amazon UK. NB it's a 98-page novella rather than a novel.

It's great news that she's writing again. There's another book, Death & Resurrection, announced too.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Lizardbreath: SPOILERS. On the gender politics, the people from the present start out uneasily together and each end up with a person from the past. I thought it was portrayed more as two people who were both good people but wrong for each other each finding somebody who'd appreciate it more -- because the same applied to Derval and Labres as to John and Ailesh. So I didn't have a problem with that, since we get it from all points of view.
Scot Taylor
8. flapdragon
I remember this book mainly as my introduction to the horrific Viking practice of the "blood eagle."
Bruce Cohen
9. SpeakerToManagers
I find I don't remember the book at all, so it's clearly time for a re-read. Luckily I know I still have my copy; I saw it just last night while putting "Eight Skilled Gentlemen" back in the bookcase after re-reading.

"the other book of hers I really like"

Oh, dear, please don't tell me you don't like the "Lens of the World" trilogy. Well, de gustibus ...

MadLogician @ 2:
I've read "In Between" and I liked it a great deal; in some ways it reminded me of "Tea with a Black Dragon", but, as you might expect, Macavoy has used the last 25 years to become a much better writer.
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
Speaker to Managers: I sort of like the Lens of the World books, and I sort of like the Damiano books, and I sort of like Third Eagle, but they're not books I feel all that much urge to go back to.
LizardBreath
11. muurankerain't
One of my favourite points was where John gently encourages a present-day Dubliner to take up craftwork.

It's what I do in my professional life, and thus this has a special resonance for me.
LizardBreath
12. Neil in Chicago
(Is it a spoiler that the horse breeder is really Anne McCaffrey?)
LizardBreath
13. kvon
I remembered the bit about the needles too, but didn't remember from where. Thanks, Jo.
David Dyer-Bennet
14. dd-b
Seemed like she was the hot thing for a few books; Tea With the Black Dragon and this one certainly got attention in the circles I moved in (and, while you say nobody seems to have read it, you also note it's still in print). And the books that actually came out after that didn't, to me, seem to live up to the early promise.
LizardBreath
15. david lawrence
The scene which Jo Walton describes as "very creepy" -- where Saint Bridget interacts with the four lead characters -- evolves into one of the most memorable I've ever read: Derval crying, "Mother, don't go!" Yes,
some of the violence perpetrated by Norsemen is horrific, yet the mindset (or mindlessness-set) of the perpetrators is examined by MacAvoy. I was given a copy of the book in 1985 by a friend who said "I think you'd really like this," but it took three tries to get into it. I'm reading it for the third time, and have lent it to eight people who have signed their names and made comments in the back. A great book,
regardless of category.

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