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The Children of Gods and Fighting Men
- Shawna Lawless

Read Autumn 2022




This debut novel from Shauna Lawless is set in a fantastical Ireland in the tenth century, where vikings, britons and celts vie for crowns, and the descendants of the mythical Tuatha De Dananan hunt down the fearsome Formorians and their gift of fire. If you know anything about Irish mythology, you’ll know these two antagonists are as ingrained as fae and little people and Lawless explores this world with a depth of knowledge and a light touch. The narrative is delivered from a dual point of view. Firstly from Gormflaith, an ambitious woman who is willing to take the risks her own mother never did in order to secure power for her mortal son. The second thread focuses on Fodla. Her gift of healing is a blessing, if only she was allowed to help the mortals who would benefit from it most. In short, Lawless crafts a world of intrigue and strategy on par with any machiavellian plot, and intersperses it with a deep-rooted magic. The Children of Gods and Fighting Men will appeal to anyone interested in low fantasy and myth.


The Story


Amlav, King of Dublin, is dead, leaving his kingdom to his son, Gluniairn. For Amlav's widow, this is both a blessing and a curse. The protection of her husband has been lost, and for women, even those with the ability to age slowly and control fire, Ireland is a dangerous place. But Gormflaith is also a woman of ambition. Her goal is to install her own son onto the throne of Dublin and beyond. After all, why stop with one kingdom when he could be the High King of Ireland. To do this, she must survive not only the usual backstabbing and treachery that coalesces around a throne, but also the attentions of the Descendants of the Tuatha De Danann who have vowed to wipe out her kind. Gormflaith is a Formorian, an ancient race of beings locked in a feud with the Descendants. A feud that can only be ended with the extermination of one of the sides. It's a feud the Formorian are losing. To succeed, Gormflaith will need to seize her allies and her opportunities wisely.

On the other side of the divide, Fodla's quiet existence is thrown into turmoil when her sister's nunnery is sacked by Dublin warriors. Not only is Ronnat injured, but her affair with a mortal man is discovered. A transgression in the eyes of the Descendants. Fodla is left to raise her nephew alone, but she is not permitted to do so in peace. The Council of Descendants needs someone to keep an eye on the King of Munster, an upstart king from the wrong clan with designs on the whole of Ireland. Fodla must gain his confidence without the use of her healing powers and relay information back to the Descendants. But mortal men take pleasure in violence, they cannot be trusted, and Fodla is to live amongst them? She will need to learn who to trust to keep her and her nephew safe but also how to earn trust in return. For how else will she get close enough to King Brian Boru to learn his secrets?


My Thoughts


Briefly, I found this book took a little while to get going but once it did there was more than enough to keep me reading. Lawless paints a picture of Ireland in the vein of Bernard Cornwall. A vivid image I felt I could walk right into and grab a cup of wine. The story is well told and does justice to the known history of the time while imbuing it with legend. If you want a slow-burn, female-led myth filled with king-making, back-stabbing and magic then you need look no further than The Children of Gods and Fighting Men.


In more depth, this is not a rip-roaring page turner. Instead, we are introduced slowly to the players in this particular game of thrones. Information is revealed throughout that left me feeling like I'd just scratched an itch I didn't know I had, and this builds towards the end of the book. While the dual POVs keep the story moving, I felt they both had a similar pace and tone which didn't give me quite the change I was hoping for between characters. However, when the story does come to a flash point, the pace picks up and the experience changes entirely. This mix of speeds gives the book a cadence that carries you through.


The plot is more than just who will end up on the throne of Ireland. It focuses on motherhood, both true and surrogate, and how far a mother will go for her child. Ambition or safety? Power or peace? Is there even a right answer to these questions? This book could quite easily slot into a historical fiction shelf without too much bother, and I don't think it would lose much. In turn, this brings a richness to the story that is sometimes lacking in modern fantasy. Historical accuracy aside for a moment, The Children of Gods and Fighting Men does a fantastic job of opening Irish mythology to a wider audience and for that alone it deserves to be lauded.


Shauna Lawless has created a cast of characters who have walked from an Irish feast hall onto the page. The two point of view characters are 'strong' women, but not in the kicking-ass and being a man with breasts way that many male fantasy authors are guilty of. Gormflaith and Fodla are fully rounded people with faults, foibles and strengths. They are mothers too. Far too often, fantasy hides mothers away or otherwise sidelines them. In this book, motherhood takes front and center. What Lawless does not make clear is which side is good or bad or if there is good and bad at all, a subversion of the original myths. She leaves that difficult choice to the reader.


Lawless has adopted an unadorned approach to dialogue. It neither overpowers the story, nor does it leave it lacking. It progresses the story without distraction and leaves space from the rest of the prose to shine while keeping each character's voice sufficiently distinct. Quite honestly, I think this is the best approach to take unless the author is a master of dialogue. While amazing dialogue can elevate a book, overdone dialogue can make it unreadable. Thankfully, the dialogue in this book clears the bar with flying colors.


Overall, this is a cracking debut which deserves the plaudits it has already received. This Ireland is a harsh one, and only the strong survive, but does that strength best come from a sword or a kindness? The Children of Gods and Fighting Men asks that very question whilst enveloping you in the setting and period. Shauna Lawless has taken an ancient myth and exposed all the gritty bits of real history that traditional tellings hide. This series is only going to get better and I look forward to the publication of The Words of Kings and Prophets in the not too distant future.


Inkborn Rating - 7/10

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