Summer Country by James Hetley
Tor, Trade: ISBN 0441009727 PubDate Oct 2002
Review by Victoria McManus
361 pages List price $14.00
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The Summer Country, James A. Hetley's debut novel, takes a look at the dark side of Celtic myth. This urban fantasy is set in Naskeag Falls, Maine during a hard, dirty February that is a sharp contrast to the rich greens and soft air of the magical Summer Country. The Summer Country, unfortunately, isn't as wonderful underneath as it is on the surface. The Old Ones, some of whom appear more human than others, control everything in their land, from the weather to the speed of combustion, and jealously guard their territories with plots and counterplots.
It's refreshing to see a book based on Celtic myth that isn't all carefree elves and superhuman bards. Hetley presents his readers with a primeval forest filled with dragons and animate plants and a true sense of magic.
The most powerful Old Ones are hybrids of human and nonhuman, but the crossbreeding yields limited viable gene combinations that usually result in sterility. Thus Old Ones capable of breeding must often search in the human world for their mates. The protagonist of The Summer Country, Maureen Pierce, carries the blood of the Old Ones. Dougal MacKenzie, a forest lord, wants to own her. Maureen, who was a victim of rape in her past, refuses, and Dougal uses unscrupulous methods, including torture, to try and convince her to be his bride. Brian Albion, an Old One of the type known as a Pendragon, is sworn to protect the denizens of our world, and he journeys into the Summer Country to attempt Maureen's rescue, accompanied by David, the boyfriend of Maureen's sister Jo. All the characters have slightly conflicting goals, and chapters from the point of view of each make for an engaging read.
The book is tidily constructed with its contrast between dirty, icy Maine winter that is nevertheless normal and the balmy green Summer Country with its core of deception. All magic is shown to have a price, and denial of magic a price that is even worse. Maureen's victimization as a child has apparently made her schizophrenic, except that what appear to the results of insanity are in fact the reality of her magical heritage. Her magic becomes a source of strength to her which she is able to wield more powerfully thanks to coping skills learned from many years of dealing with fear. She was wounded much as Dougal's rule constrained and wounded his portion of the Summer Country. Maureen and the Summer Country must heal together.
The difficulties of writing a possibly insane and definitely traumatized character like Maureen are obvious. Hetley managed to convey both Maureen's problems and her coping methods without allowing her to become a caricature. Her sister Jo was wonderfully complex and real; her love for and rivalry with her sister is very true to life. Brian Albion, the Pendragon, was my least favorite character in the novel, not because he lacks depth but because he was too perfect in skills and morals; unlike the other characters, his inner conflicts did not clash with the other characters' goals. Despite the fact that he might have been intended to serve as a moral benchmark in the novel, he rang too good to be true.
The ending of the book left possibilities for sequels featuring either the children of the characters or Maureen's sister, Jo. Also, a rivalry in the Summer Country was left open and could yield future plot developments. It will be interesting to see what Hetley writes next.