The Children of Gods and Fighting Men is the debut novel of Shauna Lawless. It is a thoroughly amazing historical fantasy from Ad Astra, the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint of Head of Zeus. This was one of my most anticipated releases of the year and I am so pleased to be able to read it and provide a review for Grimdark Magazine.
This really is a fantastic novel and as debut I think Lawless has knocked it out of the park. I would put The Children of Gods and Fighting Men as one of my favourite books of the year because everything about it is done well. Lawless has seamlessly woven Irish mythology and history together and created a well-structured and paced novel which can be enjoyed if you know nothing about the history or folk lore of Ireland but, if you do, her attention to historical detail and accuracy adds to the pleasure of reading The Children of Gods and Fighting Men. If also (like me) you are a reader who will mispronounce words in your mind, Lawless has also provided a very handy glossary at the start of the novel showing the kingdoms of all the characters and their name pronunciations.
The fantasy elements of The Children of Gods and Fighting Men are low magic, and use the Irish legends of the Fomorians, hostile supernatural beings, and their rivals the Descendants of the Tuatha Dé Danann. These factions are represented through the two narrative perspectives in the novel. Firstly Gormflaith, the widow of the King of Dublin and one of the last of the Fomorians, and Fódla, a Descendent with the power to heal. Through these two female voices Lawless has shown the novel in a unique way. There are no clear cut good or bad sides, and as women in medieval society neither Gormflaith nor Fódla hold power in their own rights. Though Gormflaith has the brains and political acumen to rival Cersei Lannister for maternal ambition and she holds a relatively high position in Dublin society, she frustratingly has to persuade and cajole those around her to try and further her plans. Fódla is less cunning and struggles with her enforced role as a spy on the humans. Both women though are very engaging and relatable. The other character are compelling and well written, even if they are not the main focuses of the novel.
The moral greyness of the characters in The Children of Gods and Fighting Men will absolutely appeal to fans of grimdark. The physical violence is less directly gritty or visceral than fantasy novels set in a similar era but this is absolutely down to the fact that the narrative perspectives are removed from those events. Lawless does not shy away from the violent realities of a tenth century world, but her main characters will either be watching from a distance or dealing with the aftermath of much of the bloody altercations. I would say also that due to the seldom seen nature of the magic in The Children of Gods and Fighting Men that it is definitely more a historical fantasy than a fantastical history. Personally, I loved these elements and the restrained way the plot moves forward emphasised the frustration the main characters must feel as they navigate (or are navigated) through nearly two decades of events. It may not be a fast-paced action packed novel, but this is beautifully written and totally captivating. I wish I had been able to sit and read it in one go.
I am so glad that The Children of Gods and Fighting Men is the first in a trilogy because I really do want to read more from Lawless and this world. There was no palpitation inducing cliff hanger but the set is laid for the next novel and I am very excited to read where Lawless will take the story next. The second instalment in the Gael Song trilogy is The Words of Kings and Prophets and is slated for release in late 2023 which gives me plenty of time to indulge in a reread or two. A massive ‘thank you’ to the team at Ad Astra / Head of Zeus and Shauna Lawless for sending it over.