A Different Kingdom is a reprint of one of Paul Kearney’s first novels, first published in 1993. The good news is that this doesn’t read like an early novel in an illustrious career: it actually reads like something a well-practiced author would produce after a lot of hard work.
A Different Kingdom is set in the picturesque countryside of Ireland and the farm where Michael lives. Alongside this, perhaps on top of it or layered throughout it, is a fantasy world where other creatures live, creatures that seem to spring out of our own myths and legends. The fact that this other world is set in a landscape that has thrilled many (myself included) with beautiful myths and legends is just perfect. This is a book for dreamers.
When the wolves follow him from the Other Place to his family’s doorstep, Michael must choose between locking the doors and looking away — or following Cat on an adventure that may take an entire lifetime in the Other Place. He will become a man, and a warrior, and confront the Devil himself: the terrible Dark Horseman…
While this quote from the back cover might put some readers off, as it seems a little clichéd, rest assured that A Different Kingdom is anything but tired. In fact, I take some minor issues with the back-cover blurb because it does a very bad job at conveying the sheer depth, scope, and maturity this book contains. A book about a teenaged kid seems like it would be classified as young adult. Yes, protagonist Michael Fay is young, and this book does focus quite a bit on his youth and growth from boy into man, but the central themes of much of the novel are very, very adult. In Michael’s world, children have to mature fast. Life on a farm in Northern Ireland in the early 1900’s was nothing to shake a stick at; it was hard, and it made the people who lived it even harder. Kearney mixes that reality with the fact that many of the book’s central conflicts and themes are driven by different kinds of desire, including sexual longing. Desire is a common feeling for teenagers, but Kearney’s use of it is much more mature than the lust that would fill an angsty young adult book.
The plot is fast paced, and even when it seems like the only thing you are really learning about is how Michael grows up and his various life experiences, things are happening. Kearney fills the story with a central, commanding plot, while peppering the book with background detail. You have Michael, the other fantasy world, and the drama which results from Michael’s choices. On top of this you have Michael’s slightly awkward family situation — an orphan, he lives with his grandparents — as well as how Irish society at that time handled situations like pregnancy out of wedlock. Kearney also includes everyday details about how one traveled from one location to another, contemporary treatment of children, common chores, and other aspects of life.
Kearney isn’t just telling a story, he’s bringing a world to life. The Other Place that is layered alongside Michael’s Ireland is truly magical and absolutely intoxicating. But the glory really doesn’t end there. Kearney fills A Different Kingdom with such emotional intensity it is impossible to put down. So much happens — not just growing pains, but real action and plot developments, and the reader will keenly feel every bit of it.
Between the blunt peaks of the Sperrin mountains where the sun always sets, and the stony, gorse-ridden heights of the Antrim plateau to the east, the wide river valley of the Bann opens out for twenty miles, encompassing two counties. It is dark with woods and entangled with fields of barley and potato, kale and turnip, and the rich rolling pastures and meadows with their attendant hedges. Villages are spattered over all, islands in the green mantle of the word. There are no towns worth speaking of, and the sprawl of housing estates will not infect the land for another twenty years. It is a last breathing space, a final look around at the soon-to-be-felled woods, the rush-choked bottom meadows, the fields with the wild flowers that have seeded for a thousand years and which knew the feet of the Druids.
If you ask me what my absolute favorite part of A Different Kingdom is, it is Kearney’s writing. The first few pages of this book are a description of Ireland, starting wide, and narrowing down to the farm itself, and it is probably the most beautiful, realistic landscape description I’ve ever read. It brought me right back to Ireland and my time there, those weeks I toured that island, saw the farms, ate the food, and laughed with the locals. It rocketed me back in time, and it firmly planted me in that “other” place I’ve been obsessed with most of my life. But the truly glorious thing is the fact that Kearney doesn’t turn off his stunning writing after he’s hooked you with the first few pages. The whole book is written like that. If I am being honest with you I have to admit that I would read books full of Kearney’s landscape descriptions just because he is such a powerfully vivid author and his prose is so stunningly beautiful.