Ratings 3.75 stars out of 5 (rounded up to 4)
Twenty years ago a virus spread around the world, and the resulting deadly pandemic left all countries in ruin, its populations and governments destroyed in the aftermath. Darragh Fergus Anluan and the other children of the Irish village Cuíl Aodha survived when their elders died but only just. Hard winters and a disease which seems to return on a cycle has left the small group further decimated. Desperate for medicine, Darragh is leaving his home against the pleas of the others to search for medicine to help them survive another winter in their small village. Unsure of what has survived, Darragh is horrified to find that Dublin is nothing more than a ruin, ruled by a sadistic despot who has taken the name of King Boru.
King Boru rules by fear and force, accumulating an army of thieves, murderers and rapists eager to do his bidding. Those who oppose him are killed or sold off as slaves. And sitting at his feet is his Boy, a pretty sex slave, whose looks entrance Darragh even as the abuse and rape the Boy endures at the hands of the King and his soldiers draw out Darragh’s protective instincts. If Darragh is to get his hands on any medicine, he must appear to join the ranks of the king’s men.
Ciaran Daly is the son of a high official in Belfast, a place of relative civility and safety. Ciaran wanted to help out Ireland, believing good deeds and good intentions would triumph over the problems and issues he thought he would find in Dublin. So Ciaran and his band of naive friends gathered together supplies and snuck away from their families and friends. But they were unprepared for their capture at the hands of the brutish soldiers of Boru as soon as they crossed the border. All died except for Ciaran.
Ostensibly held as a hostage, Ciaran has been reduced to Boy, King Boru’s sex slave. The continual abuse Ciaran suffers has torn away all hope but the arrival of Darragh in the King’s court sparks it back to life. Darragh is different no matter how hard he tries to hide it. And Darragh’s gentle attraction to the King’s pet is a dangerous one should anyone notice. The madness that is King Boru is just the type, however, that incites treason instead of loyalty. And soon Darragh and Ciaran realize that if their hopes are to become reality, then the King must fall.*
Heidi Belleau has a fondness for Ireland and its culture, all of which translates to her writing (see The Druid Stone). Lisa Henry shares Belleau’s fascination with the Irish people and their culture. So a dystopian society based in Ireland, where the characters bear Irish names that speak of the past and the lore of the people makes perfect sense. From the names to the places and mentions of Irish history, this story is steeped in the love of Ireland. And no matter how bad it gets (and it gets very bad indeed), the moments of cultural recognition and love shine as in scenes at Newgrange, home of The Dagda, and the high kings of Tara.
If you are familiar at all with the novels of Heidi Belleau and Lisa Henry, than the shear scope of the universe and the enormous amount of attention to detail given to the world building here is to be expected from these remarkable authors. So too is the level of darkness and brutality of existence in the dystopian society created they have created. As society and governments fell, so too did all laws and structure that would have protected the remaining populace. Instead, it deteriorated into a deadly scramble for power and the acquisition of material wealth and modern vehicles such as cars and gasoline. Dublin becomes a harsh and deadly world, ruled by gangs and petty despots of which King Boru is at the top of the corrupt pile.
Belleau and Henry are never ones to shy away from difficult material or subject matter. The descriptions of the ruined Dublin are vivid and intense. Urine soaked courtyards and streets full of human misery, and waste, the authors bring their dystopian society alive. Here is an excerpt as Darragh goes on his first patrol with King Boru’s soldiers:
The warehouse was full of people, penned in like cattle. Worse somehow than the heads on posts, because they were still alive. Still full of fear and hope.
“Trader can get three hundred for one in good condition,” Hugh said. “That’s worth a few bags of supplies our way.”
“What happens to them then?” Darragh asked. His brain felt like it was stuffed with cotton. He couldn’t think.
Hugh shrugged. “Don’t much care.”
“Isn’t that the way of it though,” Seamus said, “Even in the old days, the only thing Ireland ever had of value for export was the Irish.”
But never like this.
“These traders. They are . . .” Darragh struggled for the word. It seemed so childish, a word from a fantasy like elves or wizards, but no, he knew it was real as well, even if it seemed absurd. “Pirates?”
Noel laughed, the sound terrible and twisted in this place of human suffering. “I think Viking’s the better word, considering, but sure, some are pirates. And some are pirates in the hire of governments, not that the ones paying them would ever admit it.”
Governments trading in human chattel, and the king turning a profit.
And now Darragh was aiding them in the effort.
Medicine. He needed medicine. Not wealth or power or boys dripping with gold.
Medicine, upon which the lives of his people depended.
He looked down at the pens below, at the people standing huddled together, shifting and hugging themselves in the cold. Men, women, and even children. The whole place stinking of desperation and human waste.
Their lives for the lives of Darragh’s kin.
A grim trade, to be sure.
As grim as any the king might make.
With its rank slave markets down by the docks, heads of Boru’s enemies on stakes lining the harbor, the grim reality of life in Dublin is made real to both Darragh and the reader. Death and enslavement have been made common. So when abuse and rape arrive as part of the norm of this brutal regime than it follows that those details and sometimes hard to read scenes are included in the narrative as well.
The characters found here are as intense as the situations they find themselves in. There are scenes of constant degradation and humiliation to go along with the continual rape and abuse. Its overpowering and its meant to be. Darragh is everything that King Boru and Dublin is not. Darragh is the best that Ireland has to offer. He is compassionate, unwaveringly loyal to those who deserve his loyalty, and he has a moral center that did not decay along with rise of disease. The contrast of Darragh against the terror and horrific extremes of the court of Boru is frightening, heightening up the anxiety and suspense for Darragh safety and mission.
Ciaran’s character is far more complicated. Ciaran’s naive idealogical crossing of borders without thinking of the possible consequences seems so unbelievably unworldly and gullible. Sheltered in Belfast, a northern city that remains healthy and relatively safe, Ciaran and his friends actions and belief that their ideological and righteous intentions would act like a shield to keep them safe seems idiotic. But one only has to look to current events and the media to find examples of just such behavior in like minded American youths today. Ones who expect their nationality and beliefs to raise them up over the problems they think they will face only to find it a chimera, no more solid than smoke and or able to keep the worst from happening. Which it did. For them and for Ciaran.
Kept starved and in the dark in a state that mimics a deprivation tank, Ciaran’s isolation by Boru is such that the alternative however hellish is preferable. That seems authentic as a state of mind. Victimized, abused, raped, Ciaran struggles to hold onto remnants of who he was, fearing he will disappear into Boy for good. However, later on in the story, that same naïveté and stubbornness that brought him to Dublin and into the clutches of Boru continues, surfacing and impacting his actions until I had problems with staying invested in this character. At what point does naivete turn into stupidity and stubbornness become a cover for self centered delusion? Each reader will have to answer those questions for themselves.
Moments of shattering emotional impact are made more hurtful because these characterizations are so well done that it feels as though it is happening to people we have gotten to know. And instead of being able to keep our distance as we could with one note personas we are trapped in the moment with Darragh, Ciaran and Rabbit (another wonderful character). When the authors put these people in danger, then scenes such as these demand a response from the reader equivalent in emotion to the ones the characters are experiencing. Trust me when I say it will double the impact of the events unfolding in front of you.
And just when the graphic abuse and the horrific intensity of Ciaren’s pain and humiliation get to be too much, then Belleau and Henry give their characters and the readers a much needed break as the narrative takes a turn towards hope and freedom. For me, it didn’t come too soon. I was starting to have some issues with the major characters starting with Ciaran. He’s learned nothing apparently until its almost too late. And in my opinion, that aspect of his character makes it a tougher sale in keeping the readers fully invested in Ciaran.
Darragh too has gone through some transformations, understandable given the events he survived. Part of that is that Darragh apparently forgets all about the medicine his people need in his obsession over Ciaran who continues to lie and manipulate him. We can relate to his actions to some degree but still I am not sure that Henry and Belleau made that case here for Darragh completely dismissing his mission to the degree that he does so.
But other characters arrive to take hold of your affections, chief among them is Rabbit, a young boy of extreme resourcefulness and rough charm. He actually became my favorite at the end.
King of Dublin has much to recommend it, great characters, intense storytelling, and a realistic dystopian Irish society. If you find that the descriptions and scenes of graphic abuse are ones that you can adjust to, then I recommend this book to you. If, on the other hand, sexual violence and scenes of non consent are outside your comfort zone, then I would look to many of these authors other stories. I am sure you will find one there to love.
Cover Art by Vongue, http://vongue.deviantart.com. This cover is well done in conveying the characters and the setting in Dublin.