Right off the bat, let me just say that, as is the case with Guy Gavriel Kay and L. E. Modesitt, jr., it feels as though Paul Kearney, even after all these years of writing quality novels, remains criminally unread for the most part. The Macht trilogy, his latest work, is in my humble opinion one of the very best fantasy series of the new millennium. So when it was announced that Solaris were reissuing A Different Kingdom, what many fans consider Kearney's best novel to date, I was pretty excited and knew I wanted to give it a shot ASAP.
Still, since the book was first published more than two decades ago, I was wondering if A Different Kingdom had aged well and could be read and enjoyed as much by readers in 2014 as those who fell in love with the novel when it was originally released in 1993. The answer, I'm pleased to report, is a resounding yes!
Here's the blurb:
Michael Fay is a normal boy, living with his grandparents on their family farm in rural Ireland. In the woods—once thought safe and well-explored—there are wolves; and other, stranger things. He keeps them from his family, even his Aunt Rose, his closest friend, until the day he finds himself in the Other Place. There are wild people, and terrible monsters, and a girl called Cat. 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...
By SFF standards, A Different Kingdom is not a big novel. Weighing in at 423 pages, I have a feeling that had it been published in this day and age, the tale would have probably been a duology instead of a stand-alone work. And even though you get the feeling that Kearney didn't have the luxury of elaborating a whole lot when it comes to worldbuilding, this book is neverheless full of depth. My only complaint about it would be that I would have loved to learn more about most ideas and concepts the author introduced in A Different Kingdom. Perhaps due to the limited wordcount, Paul Kearney's narrative is superior to everything else he has ever written. His prose creates an imagery that makes the land and the characters come alive in a way that you seldom see.
It takes a little while to get used to the structure of the novel, as portions of basically every chapter jump from the present (Michael, now a grown and broken man living in England), to the past (Michael as a young man traveling in the Other Place), and an even more distant past (Michael as a young boy living in Ireland). But once you make sense of it, then everything works quite splendidly and Michael's tale grabs hold of you and captures your imagination. Michael Fray is, as a matter of course, the main protagonist of the book. I feel that Kearney did a great job portraying him at various stages of his life, from the curious boy, to the courageous young man, and then the broken man who grew old before his time. The supporting cast is comprised of a number of interesting characters, namely Michael's grandparents and his aunt Rose in the past, and of course Cat once he enters the Other Place.
The pace remains crisp throughout the book, and unfortunately you reach the end of this one all too quickly. Kudos to Paul Kearney for managing to fool the readers and bring A Different Kingdom to a close with a totally unanticipated ending. Although I wish this novel had been longer, the fact that it's a relatively short work by today's speculative fiction standards (with no info-dumps, no focus on extraneous plotlines that bring little to the overall story arc, and not a single dull moment between the covers) makes for a fully satisfying read. The blurb might make one think that this is a generic, run-of-the-mill fantasy story that you've seen many times before. Believe you me: It's far from that!
Simply put, A Different Kingdom is an awesome fantasy work produced by one of the most underappreciated speculative fiction authors out there. Better yet, it's Paul Kearney writing at the top of his game. If you are looking for an engaging and original stand-alone fantasy work to read, A Different Kingdom might just be what the doctor ordered!