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And Blue Skies from Pain by Stina LeichtTwo and a half stars

Buy from IndieBoundIf you think Joe Abercrombie is brutal, you haven’t read Stina Leicht, an author with a documentarian’s hard, unflinching eye when it comes to depicting the beast within. She’s earned no fewer than two Astounding Award (formerly Campbell) nominations for such a fearless voice. But it is the case that And Blue Skies from Pain, the sequel to her acclaimed debut Of Blood and Honey, will be tough going even for Leicht’s biggest admirers. (It will be incomprehensible, and completely off-putting, to anyone who hasn’t read the earlier book.) The bleak, even oppressive mood that blankets both novels is, here, so strong it pretty well overwhelms the narrative. That the cold cruel world of Troubles-era Northern Ireland was probably far meaner in reality than even she portrays it may not be enough of a mitigating factor for some. Suffice it to say that this pitch black, very adult urban fantasy is only for the most battle-hardened readers. I never had a book leave me with greater mixed emotions, which is, I suppose, kind of a tribute to it.

Liam Kelly, the fey/human halfbreed, is still in his early twenties, and he must be the most miserable and abused fantasy protagonist not written by George R.R. Martin. If you read the first book, you know what he endured then. Here, he’s repeatedly beaten, imprisoned, subject to horrible experiments, beaten, shot, kidnapped, beaten some more. Many of these things happen simultaneously. He is, you might say, a little angsty.

As anyone with any degree of musical literacy hopefully knows, Leicht has taken this book’s title from a famous Pink Floyd lyric. Her use of the line subtly changes its meaning. In the song, it appealed to the listener’s ability to distinguish the good from the bad in life. In Leicht’s title, it implies inner strength, the courage one must have to wrest happiness from even the greatest sorrow. The catch is that the price of a little blue sky is one hell of a lot of pain, at least, for a young man in Northern Ireland caught between two wars and a darkness deep within his own being. Truly, this is a story with pain to spare. Blue skies...not so much.

One distinction between this novel and its predecessor is that here, fantasy elements are in the foreground, whereas Blood often barely felt like fantasy at all. Blue Skies opens explosively, with a riveting prologue offering insight into the conflict (and the not-exactly-pure motives of those fighting it) through backstory. Flash forward to 1977, where a tentative truce has been struck between the Fey and the Catholic Church, who, it has been revealed, were unwittingly killing Fey allies in their zeal to eradicate the demon spawn of the Fallen. Father Joseph Murray has resigned his commission in the Order of Milites Dei in his disgust and remorse over the Church’s past deeds. But the present truce does not mean all in the Church are convinced of the Fey’s good intentions, nor are they all on board in agreeing upon Liam’s humanity. The truce allows the Church essentially to imprison Liam and subject him to all manner of horrendous “examinations” until they are satisfied he isn’t evil, the criteria for which, of course, they are allowed to set themselves. That Liam’s Fey father Bran so readily agreed to the conditions must have been a powerful betrayal. Only Father Murray — whose own relationship is Liam is strained due to events in Blood — is willing to stay by Liam’s side as his protector.

Perhaps Blue Skies is simply too well-written and effective. Like an IRA bombing, it offers no quarter or solace. Liam is little but a pawn between opposing forces. His rage is undeniably justified, especially as he must keep his inner púca suppressed, for the sake of both the treaty and his humanity, even as its bloodlust increases. I think Liam tells literally every other character in the book to fuck off, go fuck themselves, or some similar F-bomb-related insult at least once. He understandably feels adrift, having lost all those dearest to him, and unsure whether to trust the friendship and support of those still offering. It makes for emotionally draining reading.

The pall of despair that blankets the story is lifted somewhat in later chapters, especially in a third act bank robbery and chase sequence in which Leicht proves she can write action as well as anyone and better than most. There are appealing supporting characters who get more play this time, especially Liam’s uncle Sceolán. But I would have liked to see more attention paid to some underdeveloped plot elements. For instance, the story is set during the rise of the punk rock era, and Liam’s embracing of the punk lifestyle and ethos — he’s even got the spiky hair — entirely fits his angry, don’t-trust-anyone personality. But disappointingly, we see very little of punk culture in this story. Liam attends all of one party, but I’d have enjoyed being witness to punk’s greater influence on the times overall, in the way that Leicht so impressively captured the zeitgeist of the Troubles in Blood. While I appreciated seeing more of the Fey world in this book, some new, promising supporting characters are seen too little to make the impression they could, like Eirnín, a girl from a rival clan, or the punk boy Conor. And what’s up with these battle-trained combat nuns that pop up out of the blue at the climax?

Despite my misgivings, I honestly don’t see how Stina Leicht could have written this book much differently. There is no faulting her writing, which is substantially improved upon her first book. And no admirer of that book —  and there are plenty of them, to have given Leicht such love at awards season —  should miss it. But there is some searing emotion and deep inner anguish at work in this story, and the grim world of cruelty, betrayal, death and joylessness it so chillingly depicts is likely to leave most readers with something like literary PTSD.