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

A 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.


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