I really liked the bones of this story. Many of my criticisms I feel safely fall under the rubric of "first novel problems" and can be resolved in anyI really liked the bones of this story. Many of my criticisms I feel safely fall under the rubric of "first novel problems" and can be resolved in any future novels. I love the world that Tompkins has created and I want to read more novels set in it and am optimistic they will be an improvement. The one fatal flaw may have been Aisling, the part goddess and nominal heroine of the novel (or so the book flap promised me). The book almost lost a whole star due to her, and how utterly useless she was.
The Last Days of Magic is set in 14th century Europe, between 1387 and 1400. The Morrigna twins have been reborn, as they always are in Ireland's time of need. The twins are a goddess in human form - warrior Aisling and scholar Anya. Morrigna is a tripartite goddess, and her third aspect (Annan) remains in the Otherworld. The twins are destined to rule over both human Celts and the inhuman Sidhe. Unfortunately for the twins (and Ireland), Kellach, the Sidhe king of the Skeaghshee (tree Sidhe) attempts to assassinate both twins. Kellach is tired of sharing Ireland with the Celts, and dreams of killing all the humans and becoming the high king of a Sidhe-only Ireland. Kellach half fails: he kills Anya but Aisling survives. The Sidhe and humans of Ireland debate whether to kill off Aisling, to allow the Morrigna to be reborn again. They really should have. They could not have gotten a worse Morrigna than Aisling.
Although I thought Aisling was the heroine of this novel, she is mostly absent from this story. The focus is more often on Jordan, a Vatican mercenary. Jordan is half-Sidhe and is quite interested in his magical half. He eventually picks up a witch named Najia as his lover, who plays a somewhat critical role in the story. Jordan is tasked with aiding the Vatican's plot to invade Ireland, take over the rebel Irish Church, and rid the island of Europe's last large Nephilim population (the Sidhe, like the other magical creatures, are Nephilim, the descendants of angels and humans). The Vatican allies with King Henry II and the evil Sidhe Kellach (the one who tried to kill the Morrigna twins) to conquer Ireland. There are also a coven of French witches peripherally entangled, as they want the alliance to succeed so Ireland is weakened and they can sneak in to kill Sidhe for their spells and learn their secrets.
If you think that's a lot of plot and characters to fit into under 400 pages, you are right. The introduction of so many characters slows down the plot for the first half, as action is halted almost every time a point of view is switched. This was especially noticeable with Aisling, where it felt like it took far too long to find out where her storyline was going (before I realized it was going nowhere). What slows the story down even more are extraneous flashbacks. Backstories are slipped in that feel unnecessary, given how much has to be accomplished in such a short time. The backstories of Liam (Aislin's mentor) and Oren (a captured Welsh faerie) are two that I felt were noticeably extraneous. Although the story often felt slowed, at the same time it felt rushed, especially in the second half as Ireland is invaded. Battles and deaths sweep by, and it feels like we barely get to know several characters that should be key players (like the kings and especially queens of Ireland - Ireland has five queens/kings and one elected high king - and almost any of the good Sidhe).
My biggest problem with the book, as I said above, was Aisling. The idea of a reborn goddess in human form is intriguing and I had high hopes for her. Turns out, Aisling is the most useless, selfish, moping, maddening character I have met in ages. Despite being trained as a warrior and raised to rule and protect Ireland, Aisling cannot give two figs about her people or her land. After her twin's death she is understandably bereft, but she never seems to have regained any spark or fight, even when Ireland is invaded. She makes a series of rash and stupid actions and it is clear that she cares for her husband and later her daughters, but not at all for anything or anyone else. She is perfectly willing to throw everything else away without a thought. She is supposedly Ireland's great hope, but she cannot even be bothered to pretend to care about Ireland. During the battle with the invaders, Aisling (view spoiler)[almost loses the spell to protect her army against iron - including the deadly English longbows - by trying to cast a personal protective spell around her husband Conor; flees the scene entirely and leaves her army and Conor to be massacred because her daughters are in danger - and it is utterly baffling how NO ONE sought to guard and protect Aisling's daughters; refuses to heal the mortally wounded Brigid; and ultimately decides to go surrender to the English with her daughter, without considering they may slaughter both of them - they don't, surprisingly (hide spoiler)].
I also was not fond of:
-The bad guys being SO BAD. Richard II was a bit more complex, and I suppose Kellach had his reasons even if his methods were bloody, but they had no real redeeming qualities. The Vatican members were to a man corrupt, venal, and self-serving. I don't think any of them even pretended to be motivated by religious fervor - it was all about the power and the money.
-The present day storyline, which only occurred in the prologue and epilogue. I am not sure what the point of it was, as it had no bearing on the main story, except as a setup for a sequel.
-The unrelentingly grim tone. I would hope for at least a little comic relief or some humor. Any happiness was squashed, usually within the same chapter. I blame Game of Thrones and the popularity of the grimdark genre.
-The French High Coven. They are like the third villain in a superhero movie - it's just one villain too many, and it makes the plot feel too crowded. There was nothing wrong with the High Coven itself, but there was not room for Coven Point of View chapters in the story.
- The "In the End" section featuring snippets about the fates of various characters. I have no issues with the section existing, and found it interesting, but, like the rest of the book, what was included (and what was excluded) left me baffled. Important characters like Liam, Jordan, and Najia were not included. And yet numerous witches and High Coven members were - including Catherine de Thouars, who I have absolutely no memory of in the story. Historical figures like Joan of Arc and Johannes Gutenberg also appear - they were not in the story at all.
With all that being said, I still have a lot of fondness for this book. I want to read more books set in this world. I think the problems I had with pacing, editing, and character development are symptomatic of a first novel, not anything that is systematic to the author. Tompkins has clearly done his research, and his is a welcome addition to the historical fantasy genre (which really does not have enough books - I want more historical fantasy!). The world that Tompkins created is vibrant and full of possibility, and I adored the mix of myth, folklore, and Biblical stories. ...more