If you go down to the woods today, be sure of a big surprise… but I dare say it won’t be bears. And that’s assuming there are even woods within reach of you.
Where I live, I’m lucky. I have natural landscape to the left of me, supermarkets and the like to the right: the conveniences of 21st century living combined with the beauty of the world as it once was. But so many places today have no balance. Particularly in cities we have systematically stamped out the environment to make more room for humanity to do what humanity does: taint everything it touches.
Young Michael Fay, a boy about to become a man in rural Ireland sixty or so years ago, has been aware of this fact most foul ever since his parents passed.
He lives amid the acres his family has occupied for generations. They have multiplied through the years, growing from a single unit into a clan, a tribe. Sons have built houses and scraped together farms in their fathers’ shadows. Daughters have married neighbours. Exiles have been and gone, have sailed away and returned to where they were born. His family has roots here as old as the hill fort nestled on the highest of the pastures. They have possess the land, raped it, nurtured it, cursed it and been enslaved by it.
His parents have been killed by it. He was orphaned by a bomb meant for someone else.
In their place, Michael is raised by his grandparents, however he finds more in the mode of closeness with his Aunt Rose. Ten years his senior, she’s like a big sister to our man in the making, but also a little like a lover, so when she’s bundled away by scandalised nuns, only to die giving birth to her baby—gone beyond “like a letter lost in the post”—the poor dear is devastated.
Years later, Michael’s isolation grows greater when his teachers turn to despair over his behaviour. His abiding love of the land leads him to seek solace in the forest, where he haunts a special spot. Playing there one day, he sees something unbelievable. There are wolves in the woods! Wolves and weirder: men with fox faces.
The memory of the Fox-People (as he came to call them) filled him with a mixture of dread and curiosity. There were strange things in the woods and fields, the meadows and hills, and only he was aware of them. His literary diet primed him for them, and his ceaseless wanderings inured him to the sudden sights that would skitter out of the shadows at odd times and disappear again—never harming him, no matter how fearsome they appeared.
Inevitably, Michael is called into the different kingdom from whence these fearsome creatures came, and ultimately, it’s the power of love what does it. In the first he has deepening feelings for a curious girl called Cat—one of the friendlier forest folk—but the lifelong journey he embarks upon has another purpose:
Time passed, unrecorded and unaccounted for. He lost track of the months, but was conscious of a disharmony, a thing half forgotten at the back of his mind, and as the snows melted and the woods began to flame with buds and birdsong, the feeling grew. He had to be moving on. He had to journey deeper to the heart of things. He had not lost the conviction that his Aunt Rose was here somewhere; perhaps in the Castle of the Horseman than Mirkady had spoken of. His quest drew him.
And quite the quest it is. He has a maiden to save; myriad mythical dangers to brave; and along the way, whether success or failure awaits, he comes of age. Michael is a naturally nuanced character who begins an innocent but quickly becomes conflicted: a powerful protagonist so deftly developed that the state of change he exists in is itself thrilling enough to sustain the story… though the narrative needs little assistance.
In a sense, it hones close to the classic fantasy formula—it’s nothing worth writing home about on its own—but A Different Kingdom’s structure helps to set it apart from said. The framing fiction finds Michael a dissatisfied adult, having come crashing back to reality at some point in the past, so we know from the get go that his earlier quest will not be the end of him. Yet there’s plenty of tale left to tell. What, one wonders, caused him to come back? Why, if he saved his maiden, is he so woebegone? And what in the worlds could have happened to Cat?
Though the finale of A Different Kingdom is ambiguous—neither good nor bad, neither happy nor sad—that’s part of its power. The story stops at a perfect point, with the author having answered the questions he posed appropriately. Make of it what you will: I loved the book and its conclusion. And we haven’t even plumbed the depths of its sublime setting: of “the country before Man had made his mark—beautiful and untouched. Dangerous, too, he reminded himself. Odd things walked in the moonlight.” But believe you me: this wilderness has its wonders as well.
Paul Kearney’s plain but poised prose makes this majestic fantasy in the Mythago Wood mould all the more magical. Twenty-odd years on from its first publication date, and long since out of print, A Different Kingdom remains “a tale […] worthy of savouring. It is a thing to be embroidered and dived into. It is a thing to be mined and smelted and reforged with every telling.” I can only hope this much prettier edition reaches the leagues of new readers it rates.
A Different Kingdom in available now from Solaris
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.