Holder of Lightning is the first book of S.L. Farrell’s Cloudmages trilogy. The story takes place in a well-imagined Celtic world and there is plenty of action, particularly in the last third, where Farrell is putting things in place for a multi-generational saga.
Jenna Aoire is a simple village girl, daughter of the widow Maeve, content to herd the sheep and listen to music at Tara’s tavern. One night, when she is late getting the sheep down from Knobtop, the sky comes alive in sheets of dancing colors, and Jenna finds a strange green pebble. She brings the stone home with her without thinking much about it, but her destiny and her world have just changed.
The stone is a Cloch Mor, a stone of power that comes to life when the lights, something like the aurora borealis, dance overhead. Jenna holds not just any Cloch Mor, but the Lamh Shabhala, the First Stone, the one that draws down the magical energy from the sky and opens all the other Great Stones and minor stones. Sky magic in this world ebbs and flows, and with each cycle there is a First Holder, to open the stones, and a Last Holder, who holds Lamb Shabhala when the magic fades. Jenna is the First Holder of this cycle.
Within days raiders from the neighboring kingdom attack Jenna’s village, but she and her mother escape with the help of a Riocha or aristocrat who has also come searching for the cloch. They make their way through an ancient forest with trees that speak, and have no love of humans, guided by one of the Old Ones. Along the way Jenna discovers the shocking and devastating power of the cloch. In the royal city of Lar Bhaile, where smiling faces hide treacherous hearts and the royalty feels entitled to artifacts of power, Jenna is no safer than she was in the forest.
Farrell lets Jenna learn the powers of the stone in an interesting way. She can interact with the spirit of every previous Holder. Some are helpful, some are not, but each one tells her something important about the cloch. Jenna has more immediate problems in the royal city, however, and soon is fleeing for her life, making her way toward Inish Thuaidh, the island kingdom that, not so coincidentally, was her father’s home.
The story follows the traditional action-adventure heroic journey. The hero must discover secrets about her own lineage, makes mistakes, must make amends, and learns to wield the magical artifact she has inherited. She must confront a monster and face her own inner demons. She has magical animal helpers. There is only one real surprise in this book and it is the outcome of the Scuru, an ancient trial some Holders choose to undergo. Generally, the plot ticks along just as the reader expects. Jenna’s choices are predictable even when they’re bad, such as when she decides to make a stop in her home village even though she is being pursued by the king and his cloch-wielding minions, who know where she is from.
Predictable it may be; this doesn’t mean the book is boring. Farrell’s world is well-realized. The use of Irish folktales like the seals who turn into humans, interspersed with the stories of previous Holders, carry the story along. During the battle scenes, Jenna shifts from the psychic sight of the cloch to the “mundane” sight of the carnage around her in a convincing manner, sharing with the reader the real sense of chaos a battle holds. In the last third of Holder of Lightning, Farrell shifts away from Jenna and her character development to set the stage for the second book. This short-changes Jenna’s story.
The book is speckled with Irish — or fantasy Irish — words. Farrel thoughtfully provides a glossary at the end of the volume. A pronunciation guide would have been more helpful. Cloch Mor, Inish Thuaidh, Lamh Shabhala might be fine, but to add “Maister” for Master and “brathier” for Brother is just annoying. In other places, Farrell has created different units of measure. Time is measured by stripes on certain types of candles, and counts are done in base-five, or “hands.” Twenty would be twice two-hands’ worth. This helps cement the sense of a society that has evolved differently. For me, this type of choice works much better to create an immersion in a different world than tossing in unpronounceable names. I’m sure vast throngs of Celtic fantasy readers will disagree. For all I know, there’s an iPhone app for Irish pronunciation.
Throughout her adventure, Jenna wonders if the Lamh Shabhala can be anything other than a weapon, yet she never experiments with that idea. Particularly, she never tries to do the two most obvious things: heal an injured ally, or bring someone back to life. Even if she failed at both, which I assume she would, it is a shortcoming of her character that she doesn’t try. I think this is because the plot requires that Jenna be a warrior, not a healer, and she is acting because the plot needs her to, not out of the motivations of her own character. This weakens the book.
Holder of Lightning is an enjoyable read, but my sense that the characters are prisoners of the plotline reduces my desire to seek out the other two books, unless I can find them cheap. I still recommend it, however. Even with very few surprises, it is a solid entry in the Celtic fantasy saga category.
The Cloudmages — (2003-2005) Publisher: Seventeen-year-old Jenna had led a peaceful life, herding sheep and tending crops, until the night she picked up a small but strangely alluring stone that would change her entire future. For what she held in her hand was Lámh Shábhála, the master stone of legend which could reawaken all the other stones of power and bring magic back to the world. And there were many among the nobility who would risk anything, including murder, to claim Lámh Shábhála for themselves.