Cliff of the Ruin by Bonnie McKernan is an awesome historical fantasy with complex undercurrents, spiritual depth and many surprises. It takes us from post revolution America, across the ocean to Ireland and into the lair of the Shee (the Sidhe). The story begins like a straight historical novel. Mae lives with her aunt and uncle, and their children, Aaron, a young man, and Charlotte, still a child. All of them are keen to find a husband for twenty six year old Mae, but after a broken engagement, she isn’t particularly interested in taking the risk of opening up again.
Until she meets the man on the riverbank.
Kieran the fisherman was so beautiful, that I suspected some other worldly intervention, but the full truth of what was to become a mystery around this man only became clear at the end. The influence of the Shee grew as the story progressed, and I found myself gradually drawn deeper and deeper into a world where spaces dwelled within spaces and time had a different meaning.
After a shocking revelation about her supposedly dead father, Mae disappears with Kieran for two weeks, then returns with a fever, a ring on her finger and no memory of how it got there. Clearly, Kieran is a scoundrel, and Will, a handsome lawyer friend of Mae’s uncle, is called in to help sort out the mess. Mae must become free of this husband, but the options for divorce for women in the nineteenth century were limited.
To reveal more of the story would do the potential reader a disservice, so I will only say that the plot is full of unexpected twists and turns, and the end provides a dramatic culmination of a rich story. The pacing is impeccable, and there is nothing extraneous yet everything we need to go deeply into the characters which are finely drawn and very real.
Mae, Will, Aaron and Finegal, the old man who befriends them on the ship, positively leap off the page. Each have their secrets, their flaws, and their ghosts from the past, and for Mae and Will in particular, their journey to find the scoundrel husband and force a divorce becomes one of personal reckoning and eventually healing.
Will in particular is an interesting character, his qualities of faith, strength and discipline are endearing, and his words to Mae about love underline the theme of the book.”A love that rests on beauty is meaningless.” He also says that though God is love, love is not God. A distinction that becomes clear in the actions of Petra, a Shee woman who wants to keep Kieran for herself.
The other major theme is that of forgiveness. It is clear from this story that bearing a grudge brings no happiness and rights no wrongs, and that no matter how much others forgive us, we are only forgiven when we forgive ourselves.
There are some lovely passages and snippets of wisdom in the book, like this one from Mae’s aunt when referring to issues in our life that we would rather forget, but need to deal with.
“No. Not forget. We never forget.” Aunt Gwendoline caressed her cheek. “To drain poison from the memory.”
And this lovely metaphor as a description of the state of grace that came over Will when he put his trust in God.
He didn’t need to search for the truth or even test it; it poured over him now and filled him like a dried up sponge becoming new again.
When I first read this wonderful book, I could not be as enthusiastic as I would have liked due to a lack of sophistication in some of the prose, particularly at the beginning. However, the author has earned my great respect by researching the private comments I gave her, and when she found them to be valid, studied the principals involved, then made the changes needed to turn a good book into a great one. I haven’t re-read the book, but she gave me a list of the changes she made and I now have no hesitation in awarding it 5 sparkly stars.
Buy it now: it’s a must-read for fantasy lovers.