Science fiction and fantasy                                            

The Well of Yearning

by Caiseal Mor


Irish folklore meets Christianity in this tale of clashing cultures during the time of the Norman invasion of Ireland. It is narrated by an old woman who doesn't give her name until well into the latter half of the book. And it features knights returning from the Crusades, immortal ravens, goddesses, and a young monk called Caoimhin with a secret mission.

The Norman troops are busy brutalising the Irish, putting those who resist to the sword and generally failing to endear themselves to the natives. One in particular, Guy d'Alville, is a nasty piece of work renowned for his violence and cruelty. The young, naive Caoimhin is making his way north with a couple of precious religious texts, following the instructions of his late mentor Eriginas. He's heading for the community of Killibegs even though he doesn't know the way. He's been warned about rival Cistercian monks, but his journey also carries the risk of brigands, and he's being pursued by an assassin. Yet these are the least of the dangers he faces.

Meanwhile there's the story of Sianan, an immortal, whose community has come under attack. A pair of massive, unnatural worms have been living in a well for hundreds of years. It they are released they could go on a rampage and eat everyone they can catch. There are ways even an immortal such as Sianan can be killed, although she has more on her mind than saving her own skin. Aoife has her mind set on asserting her dominance over Ireland and being worshipped as a goddess, with the help of her army of bloodthirsty Redcaps. She's a capricious and cruel ruler, fond of turning people into trees and scaring everyone else into submission.

There's also the story of Mirim, a mysterious widow travelling from the Holy Lands to take possession of her husband's lands. She attracts the attention of Lanfranc, a chivalrous (or so he thinks) Norman knight who is drawn to protect her. He is clearly interested in charming her. But Mirim and her travelling companions have secrets that may well confound Lanfranc's plans to woo her.

If this summary seems a bit unfocused, that's because the book itself follows a lot of very different threads. I found it difficult to pin down whose story this is, due to its multiple points of view. Yet at the same time it's full of characters who talk in the same way. There's a clipped-off style to the text, so it has a jarring rhythm which comes from a lack of variety in the length of sentences. I found this quite noticeable. The storytelling also seems cold, perhaps because in between the dialogue and action the characters don't spend enough time thinking about what they're doing, or about anything, really. Not do they have mannerisms that make them easy to tell apart.

After a series of journeys and some long-winded explanations of enticer and frightener spirits and other aspects of Celtic lore, the characters come together for what might be expected to be a big confrontation. But it's a disappointment: too often Guy d'Alville sits around being dull rather than being the villain he's painted as. People have a tendency to blab out their secrets in ways that destroy the suspense. Throughout the book characters manage to get out of seemingly deadly trouble too easily, whether they're evading man-eating worms, marauding warriors, or supernatural threats. But this makes the resolution at the end appear incredibly contrived, as though it's just another set of lucky coincidences that don't force the characters to make difficult choices of any significance.

The Well of Yearning is occasionally very witty, especially when it reflects the narrator's wry take on life. But I found it difficult to get past the character's uniform speech and their lack of introspection, so it didn't work for me.

16th October 2012

Book Details

Year: 2004

Categories: Books


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