Friday 15 July 2022

A Discovering Diamonds Review of Hag of the Hills, by J.T.T. Ryder

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Fictional Drama  / (slightly supernatural/fantasy)
Iron Age, 2nd Century BC
Skye - Scotland

Iron Age Skye, in the second century BC. A place of hillforts and homesteads, cattle and seabirds, a land where warriors and druids are honoured – but also not an isolated island, but one known to traders from the east, and a land that men leave to find employment and glory fighting in wars not their own.

Brennus’s father is one of these warriors, leaving his family to fight in and die in distant lands. Brennus should follow his father into the warrior’s life, but this is not to be his fate, he believes (and regrets) – until his home is invaded by an unknown group of men he labels ‘the Hillmen’. Eschewing iron, fighting with stone tools, they are nonetheless a formidable foe.

Brennus’s world is one where the border between the world of men and the world of the Sidhe, the supernatural beings of his land, is thin, at least for him. He can see ‘beyond the fields we know’ to interact with the powers of the land, one of whom, the Cailleach, the hag of the title, tells him he can have what he wants – at a price. His journey towards the achievement of his dream is the heart of Hag of the Hills. Brennus is no stoic hero: the price the Cailleach spoke of is great; his doubts and fears are many, and only an oath sworn to a Druid keeps him on track for much of the story. 

Hag of the Hills is an imagined recreation of a time before history – a written record – has much to say about the location and time of the book. Perhaps Himlico of Carthage explored these lands in the 5th C BC, as Pliny says. According to Avienius’s Oro Maritima, written 900 years later in the 4th C AD, the Carthaginian explorer was following routes set down by earlier traders from southern Iberia. Disputed as reliable history, these accounts nonetheless provide an anchor to the ‘what if’ of the story.

The inclusion of various manifestations of the Sidhe might suggest to some readers that Hag of the Hills is historical fantasy, but I hesitate to call it that. Author J.T.T. Ryder is an archaeologist specializing in Iron Age cultures of northern Europe, and in Hag of the Hills he has attempted to show us a world interpreted through Iron Age eyes and beliefs. While these are clearly not those of our modern world of scientific rationalism, they are not ‘magical’ either, but a different way of interacting with reality. The Sidhe serve to guide Brennus, not to intervene. 

The sense of a different experience of reality is increased by Ryder’s unconventional switching of tenses within paragraphs as Brennus narrates his experiences. For me, it added to the feeling of a world experienced and understood differently, one in which time might not be always or entirely linear. There are a few errors, mostly homophones, and a few word choices which sound too modern, perhaps the archeologist’s vocabulary overriding the writer’s. 

Brennus’s attitude towards women is very much that of the ‘male gaze’, and this may feel uncomfortable to some readers, especially in an era where the role of women warriors and leaders is central to many stories. But overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Hag of the Hills, and am looking forward to its sequel, completing the duology, later this year.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Marian L Thorpe
 e-version reviewed

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