I’ve never been a huge alt-history buff. The examples of the genre I’ve tried have been interesting, but the speculative hook has never been enough to keep me reading beyond the halfway point. I guess I just don’t care that much what kind of souvenirs Americans would make in an alternative version of the 20th century where the country was annexed by Japan and Germany after the Second World War.
In the past few weeks, however, I stumbled across a series about an alternative version of history in which Ireland was never conquered by Britain. There are exactly two ways a book like this could go: it will either be rah-rah nationalism written by the kind of people who post on the Ireland sub-forum on Stormfront or else it will be rah-rah nationalism written by an American author who really wishes they were born here.
A Band of Roses, the first book in the creatively-titled Band of Roses series, is written by an American who, judging by her website, is super into Ireland. So I guess we’re leaning towards Option B. Let’s see how this goes!
For some reason I find the juxtaposition of a castle and a helicopter really funny.
Before we begin, I should make it clear that I will not be reading this entire book. [EDIT FROM THE FUTURE: Scratch that, we’re doing more.] Instead I’m going to do a single post where I keep going until I get bored. Should you be filled with a burning desire to see how the story ends, feel free to go and grab the book on Amazon for the low price of $6.11.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the premise!
In 1002 A.D., the chieftan of an obscure Irish clan rose to claim the High Kingship of Ireland. Brian Boru united Ireland’s warring tribes under one leader for the first and only time in Irish history. A scholar as well as a warrior, King Brian rebuilt churches, encouraged education, repaired roads and bridges, and roused the country to rise against the Norse invaders who had ravaged Ireland for centuries.
On Good Friday in 1014 A.D., Brian’s army challenged a host of Vikings and their allies on the plains of Clontarf. Though his troops were victorious, Brian’s son and grandson perished in the battle. Brian himself dies in his tent, murdered by fleeing Vikings who stumbled upon his camp.
Many historians have speculated that Ireland would a different place today if Brian Boru and his heirs had survived the Battle of Clontarf. A Band of Roses presents on possible scenario.
Admittedly I know nothing about Brian Boru except for what’s on his Wikipedia page and the fact that there’s a famous pub in Dublin named after him, but I’m skeptical about whether anything that happened in the year 1014 could really have prevented Ireland from eventually being subsumed into the UK given that all of that occurred much later. Let’s just go with it, though.
(Incidentally, searching for information about Irish history on Wikipedia will, in at least 50% of cases, yield a bunch of outdated and/or factually incorrect horseshit written by people who would probably be in the IRA if they were slightly more motivated about achieving their life goals. I discovered this the hard way after deciding to write a lengthy essay on the Famine in college.)
The book opens with a bunch of fishermen on board a boat called the Fancy Annie. (I’m trying my hardest not to make any jokes about this.) They’re on their way back to Killybegs, which is a real town near Donegal. Many Irish place names sound hilarious even to people from Ireland, by the way, so you are entirely welcome to laugh at ‘Killybegs’. There’s a place in Sligo called, I shit you not, ‘Tubbercurry‘. It is my greatest ambition to one day go there.
Anyway, they’re within sight of the coast when they spot an English military boat. They approach, thinking that it might be in trouble, only to be told that they’re about to be boarded. Understandably perturbed by this, the captain of the Fancy Annie gets some guns…which I guess he has, for some reason?
They get rammed by the military ship, and then this happens:
He’d just snapped magazines into two of the pistols when a thunderous impact knocked him down. The guns went flying.
“Feck and Bedammit!”
FECK AND BEDAMMIT
Holy shit, I just came up with a new meme. Check it out:
Take a picture of a male model and superimpose ‘Feck and Bedammit’ over it in standard meme-font. We can make this a thing, you guys. We can do it.
It turns out the Fancy Annie has been attacked by none other than Geoffrey Wessex, the Regent of England. I’m sure if I watched Game of Thrones I’d have something to say about the fact that his name is Geoffrey, but I don’t, so you’ll have to fill in the joke yourself.
Other fun facts about His Royal Whatever:
- He has heterochromatic eyes (one blue, one brown).
- He’s fat.
- He is apparently not albino, meaning that he misses out on the Trifecta of Cliched Evil.
- He orders his marines to kill the entire crew of the fishing boat just because.
The second chapter opens at ‘Southwick Castle’ in England, where Geoffrey is plotting with his cousin, Andrew. The narration almost immediately reiterates the fact that Geoffrey is a) fat and b) has differently-coloured eyes. I really hope this doesn’t keep being A Thing.
So he’s got this slightly convoluted plan involving an obscure maritime law that lets him lay claim to ‘Fargan’, an uninhabited island in the off the coast of Ireland. (I have no idea if this is a real place or not; Google tells me that ‘Fargan’ is the name of a drug.) There’s apparently oil under the island, but he doesn’t actually want the oil. Instead he’s going to use it to do some sort of political wrangling that will let him…overthrow the King of England, I think? I’ve read the conversation several times now and I’m still not entirely sure how this is supposed to work.
Whatever, the important part is that he made it look as if the Fancy Annie just sank of natural causes. Better hope nobody recovers those bullet-riddled bodies! Also his gunboat would have had to sail all the way around the southern or northern coasts of Ireland to get to Fargan from England, which I’m pretty sure somebody would notice unless it can turn invisible.
Oh, also Geoffrey is also planning on arranging a marriage between the Crown Princess of Ireland, which is a thing that exists in this world, and somebody in the English Royal Family.
Would you believe that the aforementioned Crown Princess is our main character? Because she totally is!
Taillte, or ‘Talty’, is next in line for the throne. Google tells me that ‘Taillte’ is the name of some sort of goddess from Irish mythology.
(Actually wait, I just thought of something. Shouldn’t the fishermen in the first chapter have been speaking Irish? How did Geoffrey understand them? Maybe everyone is bilingual or something.)
In a shocking twist, it turns out that Talty hates being the Crown Princess. Thankfully, it’s not because she feels stifled by all the wealth and privilege surrounding her; instead she just finds it depressing to have to be constantly prepared for her father’s death. That’s pretty understandable.
So there’s something in Brussels called the ‘World Court’, which makes me think the EU doesn’t exist in this world. (Edit: Apparently the World Court is another name for the International Court of Justice, so there is a UN at least.) I’m really not sure why that would be the case, but let’s just go with it. Talty’s ‘Uncle Jack’ is due to return from said Court shortly. Presumably he’s going to bring the plot with him.
There’s some stuff about Talty (that name is really stupid) being a member of the modern-day incarnation of the Fianna, which are a group of elite soldiers. The narration makes it sound as if Talty thinks there actually were people called the Fianna led by a real guy called Fionn mac Cumhaill – I’m not sure if we’re supposed to interpret this as a nationalist myth that she buys into or if she’s thinking in figurative terms.
She’s also planning on going to California for some reason, which prompts this exchange between her and her father:
“Paedar thinks so. So tell your old father, is there any special fella you’ll be leaving behind when you go off to California?”
“Just you, Daddy,” she said in a little-girl voice.
Nope, nothing creepy about that! Immediately after this her father narrows his eyes and grins simultaneously, which I believe is enough to fulfil the World Health Organisation’s criteria for a diagnosis of Bad Writing.
Uncle Jack arrives and is greeted by Talty:
Talty set down her cup and stood. “Howya, Uncle Jack!”
All right, this one is going to take a bit of explaining.
‘Howya’ is a phonetic rendering of the way some people in Ireland pronounce ‘How are you’. I associate it with Dublin because I live near there, but I think people probably say it elsewhere as well. It’s pretty common.
The problem is that it’s not anywhere close to being the Irish equivalent of Standard English, or whatever you call that accent you need to have if you want to be a talking head on the BBC. It would be a bit like having a novel about the real-life British royal family where the Queen ends a sentence with ‘innit’.
Basically, this looks like the author threw in something that ‘sounds Irish’ without thinking of the context.
Brian and Jack try to convince Talty to marry the ageing (and possibly dying) Thomas, who I believe is the King of England, in a purely political marriage. They seven specify, in an extremely roundabout way, that she won’t have to have sex with him.
So, this is taking place in some version of the 20th century, right? Because I’m trying to remember the last time a marriage between royal families had any real political significance in Europe. I know they still happen to a certain extent, but they don’t really matter any more, do they?
There’s some stuff about oil wells (there actually might be oil under Ireland in real life, but it’s not particularly accessible) and Talty considers telling her dad to ‘go to the devil sideways’, whatever that means.
They’re interrupted by the arrival of Daisy, Talty’s friend among the royal servants. I’d just like to point out that I have never met an Irish person named Daisy. She also refers to her mother as ‘mum’. I’ve seen this come up before when Americans try to write Irish characters, so here’s a PSA: almost nobody here says ‘mum’. The American ‘mom’ is more common than ‘mum’.
Anyway, Brian goes on to explain that if Talty marries what’s-his-name she’d have to relinquish her status as Crown Princess of Ireland because it would apparently be a bad thing if she was simultaneously Queen of Ireland and England.
QUIZ TIME: What happened in previous eras when the English monarch was also the Scottish monarch? Easy: you just had one guy who was the king of multiple countries. This was back when the monarchy actually mattered, so it was a big deal. Since A Band of Roses is taking place in modern times, I don’t see why it would be that difficult to have a dual monarchy…
…unless, of course, England and Ireland are genuinely ruled by Thomas and Brian, respectively, with no democratic system beneath them. So far there’s been no mention of Prime Ministers or anything like that, which means that Brian, Jack and Talty are making some fairly serious political decisions entirely on their own. I’m having trouble even imagining the kinds of historical deviations that would have to occur in order for this situation to be viable in modern-day Europe.
(Also, they’ve been dealing exclusively with ‘England’ here, not ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’. So far I don’t think there’s been any mention at all of what the deal is with Scotland and Wales.)
We cut to Howth, where Talty’s uncle lives. She goes to his house to do some Fiana training, which involves fighting with some kind of staff called a ‘Bata’.
A Bata is also an item in World of Warcraft. It does 85.9 damage per second!
Talty spars with a guy who is apparently her ‘Shivail’. That doesn’t look remotely like an Irish word to me and googling it brings up only references to this book or Italian YouTube videos, so I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean.
There’s some more banter, someone busts out the phrase ‘randy sailors’, and Talty is understandably upset because she has to marry some guy she’s never met and won’t get to be Queen of Ireland.
Holy shit, we’re only two chapters into this thing.
Philip and Roger Wessex are in Dublin for the big wedding. I honestly can’t remember which of them is which. I think Roger is the evil one? Although they both openly discuss usurping the throne (of England), with force if necessary, so I guess they’re both supposed to be evil.
They’re playing organ music at the wedding, which offends Talty’s ‘Irish Pride’.
I just realised that nobody has mentioned religion once so far. Although actually there’s an ‘archbishop’ officiating the wedding, so I guess Ireland is Catholic. Hey news flash, the English monarch can’t be Catholic. They can now marry a Catholic, so Thomas is in the clear on that one, but it’s going to be a bit awkward when he dies and Talty suddenly finds herself having to be the symbolic leader of the Church of England.
Unless all of that is completely different in this world, of course. So far the cultures we’re dealing with have been so poorly explained that I’m picturing everything taking place in a featureless void.
There’s a party after the wedding. I’m sure you will be shocked to learn that the Irish royal family are all fun-loving free spirits who are into wild traditional dancing, but their English counterparts want to do stuffy waltzes or whatever. Personally I’ve always assumed that when the royal family gets together behind closed doors it’s a non-stop parade of strippers and cocaine. That’s what rich people do, right?
The party drags on, Talty makes plans to escape to a ‘real party’ in the basement, oh god this is going to be like that scene in Titanic, isn’t it? I sweat god, book, you’d better not bring out that goddamn cliche.
Oh, also it seems like Thomas is senile. As in the characters actually talk about him as if he isn’t there while he’s standing right next to them because they don’t think he knows what’s going on.
Wait, then Thomas suddenly stabs Talty? What the fuck?
Okay, so it was a plan by Roger to, I don’t know, assassinate half the Irish royal family? Keep in mind his underhanded ploy involves tricking the King into personally murdering Talty hours after marrying her.
Basically, they wanted to get their hands on the oil wells that were part of Talty’s dowry without having to deal with her on the throne. If it was part of a dowry then they already had control of the oil wells. That means that they staged the most audacious assassination attempt in history solely because they didn’t want Talty around to annoy them.
This is the kind of shit that would start a war if it happened in our world, let alone one where the monarchy still seems to hold real power. I’m pretty sure Brian’s reaction to all of this would be ‘Fuck you, we’re declaring the marriage annulled on grounds of attempted murder‘. And since someone else killed his wife at the same time, actual murder.
This book just went completely off the rails, and I can’t decide if it’s the worst thing ever or the best thing ever.
Roger hears that Talty is still alive and decides to go and finish her off himself. Personally. In her hospital room. That means he’s going to be the second member of the English royal family who attempts to brutally murder a member of the Irish royal family in two days. Keep in mind this guy is supposed to be some sort of Machiavellian schemer. Couldn’t he just hire a hitman for this? Or do anything apart from stride into Talty’s hospital room and personally kill her while she’s unconscious?
Actually, you know what? This is the most entertaining thing I’ve read in weeks. I’m doing another post on it. Next time: royal fisticuffs, a trip to Scotland, and Talty faking her own death!
Shit just got real.