Paul Kearney is an author who is perhaps best known today for his Monarchies of God series, a fairly standard epic of sword and sorcery that will be familiar to many readers of the genre. However, back at the start of the 1990’s he wrote a far more intriguing set of novels, each stand-alone but linked thematically – A Different Kingdom, Riding the Unicorn and The Way to Babylon. The most notable common thread in this ‘Different Kingdoms’ series was Kearney’s use of a hero from our world who journeys into a fantastical one. Despite strong reviews, these books had commercially disappointing sales, and Kearney was asked to consider a more traditional fantasy epic, hence the Monarchies of God was born. Although I can completely understand the decision of Kearney, his publishers and his agent from a commercial perspective, for me it is most unfortunate that the author was not allowed to pursue his original vision – after all his concept, known as the ‘portal quest’ theme in fantasy literature, has a venerable history.
Kearney was born in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, and studied Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, and Old Norse at Oxford. His learning really shines through in his early novels, for example in his description of a primeval tribe that his world-travelling hero Michael Fay encounters in the depths of an ancient woodland in A Different Kingdom. We first encounter Michael as a young boy, living with his grandparents on their family farm in rural Ireland. In the woods – once thought safe and well-explored – there are wolves; and other, stranger things. When the wolves follow him from the Other Place to his family’s doorstep, Michael must choose between locking the doors and looking away – or following a mysterious girl named Cat on an adventure that may take an entire lifetime. A Different Kingdom reaches into the same taproots as works such as Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, a comparison most books would not weather well, but this novel stands up to with gusto. For the world that Michael is sucked into is no mere copy of Holdstock’s Ryhope Wood – Kearney has made it is own by steeping it in earthy Celtic mythology and the sensibilities of Irish history.
The above description of the plot of A Different Kingdom may make it sound like too many children’s novels you might once have read, where boys and girls (usually from the city) find their way into an alternate world through a portal (usually in the countryside somewhere). Indeed this sub-genre is usually termed portal fantasy, the classic example of which is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in which a fantastic world is entered through a portal. But, much like the wardrobe in C S Lewis’s story, there is usually far more to this type of fantasy novel than at first meets the eye. Most significantly, a portal fantasy allows and relies upon both protagonist and reader gaining experience. Portal fantasies lead us gradually to the point where the hero(es)/heroine(s) know their world well enough to change it and to enter into that world’s destiny. Characteristically, in a portal fantasy the protagonist goes from a mundane life – in which the fantastic, if they are aware of it, is very distant and unknown (or at least unavailable) – into, first, direct contact with the fantastic, then transition and ultimately triumph.
So, while there are plenty of novels in which characters enter magical realms, A Different Kingdom differs from these novels by being more serious and ambitious. For example, the author explores such themes as adolescence and sexual desire in a deep and mature way. This is certainly not a book for children, for the magical secondary world in which the hero finds himself is not one purely of fairy tales; it is just as hard and gritty as the real world sections of the story. And, if the fantasy parts can offer realism, the real world parts, set in rural Ulster not-so-long ago, offer a lyrical and elegaic vision of a vanished life. During early sequences on the Fay farm you can almost taste the soda bread and buttermilk, whilst later sequences in the fantastical ‘other place’ are rooted in the earth, the musty smells of the forest and in the palpable terror of the hunted. So, whilst the book has some obvious similarities to Mythago Wood, an almost equally apt comparison is to Laurie Lee’s famous rural coming-of-age tale, Cider with Rosie. Again, Kearney’s work does not suffer from this comparison so I would urge you to seek out A Different Kingdom and, if you like that, I’d recommend reading the similarly themed and almost equally excellent Riding the Unicorn and The Way to Babylon. Books like this are so rare that they need to be savoured.