Teagan Wylltson (“Tea”), age 16, believes she is from a normal (if whimsical), loving family of four. Her father is a librarian and her mother writes and illustrates books for children. Her younger brother Aiden can sing beautifully any song he has ever heard. He also has an uncanny sense of direction; Tea explains, “His brain came bundled with an MP3 player and GPS.” Tea works in an animal research lab, and hopes to go to vet school one day.
As the story begins, Tea’s best friend Abby tells her she dreamed that the goblins in the paintings done by Tea’s mom came alive and tried to kill Tea. Tea laughs it off, until her 17-year-old step-cousin Finn MacCumhaill comes to live with them. He does not arrive alone. Finn is the latest in the line of MacCumhaills – Irish travelers, or tinkerers, who were cursed by Fear Doirich, the goblin god, to be plagued by goblins for all eternity.
[The original Fionn mac Cumhaill is called Finn McCool in English. Finn McCool is the alleged builder of the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, and is featured in much Irish literature, including James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. In fact, the very title is thought to be a portmanteau for “Finn again is awake,” referring to McCool’s eventual awakening (as foretold) to defend Ireland.]
Suddenly Tea starts seeing bizarre creatures all around her. To make matters worse, she feels an incredible attraction to Finn that she knows he feels too. Then her parents are attacked, and Tea, Aiden and Finn decide they must go after them and confront the dreaded Fear Doirich himself.
Discussion: Irish mythology is incredibly complicated, and I think Hamilton does a great job of simplifying the parts of it she tackles, by having the adult characters tell stories to the younger ones, in order to explain their dilemma. She also does a very nice job of making the integrated mythology not seem stupid. In part, she accomplishes this by having her supernatural creatures evolved: a goblin is as likely to look like “an Abercrombie & Fitch model” as a green-skinned witch or deranged cat. She also has Tea’s father, faced with his scientifically-minded children, often quoting the Shakespeare line, “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” with Tea giving this sentiment due epistemological consideration. (Truth, she eventually discovers, comes in many guises.) In addition, Hamilton insinuates the fantasy elements into such a normal framework as to make them seem like part of the landscape that it just so happens only some of us can see.
Most importantly for the reader, the author makes it clear that the magic in the story carries a greater meaning than just exercising the imagination; it is all part of how we can derive insights into human nature for those open to the connection. Goblinhood, for example, is identified as a metaphor for the dark potential in each of us. It is not inevitable, however; we have a choice whether to “stumble down that road, pretending you can’t help it” or to walk down a better path, and fight to be better.
The biggest appeal of this book for me, however, on account of my being stuck at the developmental level of a teenager, is the relationship between Finn and Tea. Finn is not only a sexy, forthright and electrifying suitor, but he does it all with a brogue. He delivers some of the most romantic lines ever. And as icing on the cake, Finn also has a wonderful rapport with Tea’s little brother, making him all the more attractive. He is definitely one of the best YA boyfriend-types out there.
I also really like the prayers Mrs. Wylltson recites with her children at night:
“I do not ask for a path with no trouble or regret. I ask instead for a friend who’ll walk with me down any path.
I do not ask never to feel pain. I ask instead for courage, even when hope can scarce shine through.
And one more thing I ask: That in every hour of joy or pain, I feel the Creator close by my side. This is my truest prayer for myself and for all I love, now and forever. Amen.”
(Tea’s friend Abby asks: “Why don’t you pray like normal people: No pain, God. Lots of money. Thanks.” Teagan answers, “Because we’re Irish. Mom says things never go well for the Irish for very long. She says we’ve got to be realistic.”)
The only negative I would bring up is that the book begins with a very entertaining section on Tea’s work with primates, but that whole story line is dropped.
Evaluation: Lots to like about this book, which is book one of a trilogy. Yes! Of course it is!
Published in hardcover by Clarion Books and in paperback by Graphia, both imprints of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2010