The Second Death by Peter Tremayne is the 26th book in the Mysteries of Ancient Ireland series.
Seventh-century Ireland—it wasn’t quite Westeros, but it was still a tough town. In this 26th book of Peter Tremayne’s Mysteries of Ancient Ireland series, we see just how dangerous it was, as murder disrupts the preparations for an annual celebration that offers citizens a nine-day respite from their toil and hardship.
Eadulf, husband to Fidelma—no longer a “sister”—has not attended the fair in many a year, and his young traveling companion Aidan is beside himself with pride as he describes the treats in store:
‘‘The fair lasts nine days in which there are athletic sporting contests of all sorts, such as archery, and demonstrations of prowess with arms, horse racing, feats of skill from professional entertainers, feasting, assemblies presided over by the King and his Chief Brehon…why, even the great fairs of Taillteann, Tlachtga and Carman pale into insignificance compared with our fair.’’
Eadulf has every expectation that he is in for a pleasant diversion as he makes his way home. This is a summer festival, and the author’s prologue tells us the events traditionally took place “in the last days of the month once called Giblean, now April, during the approach of the Bealtaine Fair at Cashel, held on the first day of Cetsoman, which is explained in Cormac’s ninth-century Glossary (Sanas Chormaic) as cét-sam-sín, the first weather of summer, which we now call May.” There’s something deeply poetic about that sentence, which isn’t even a part of the story, though it sets the stage for what follows.
Ireland has a long bardic tradition of poetry that is both political and historical, and it’s fitting that this novel is so steeped in poetic language because it is part of the spell the author is weaving as he embarks on his story. There are times that we get the sense that Tremayne is quoting from some lost manuscript he’s found, perhaps some treatise on the building of roads.
Eadulf smiled at the young man’s boastful enthusiasm and turned his attention back to the line of wagons moving steadily south-west along the great road of timber planking, placed directly over the low-lying and boggy marshlands. On firmer terrain, roads were built differently. They were formed of impacted earth and stone, but through bogland the ingenuity and sophistication of the road-builders was apparent. The road was laid with birch runners traversed by large oak planks, the latters’ weight keeping the runners in place and providing a broad and level surface – to the extent that two wagons could pass each other at speed. The road could cross waterlogged areas in the manner of a pontoon, or cross streams and rivers by means of wooden or stone bridges. As Eadulf had discovered, their building and maintenance were strictly governed by law, and the responsibility for the upkeep of the roads lay with the local chieftain.
Eadulf knew that from this spot where he and Aidan had halted, the road ran on for another twenty or so kilometres to the great Rock of Cashel, which reared above the plains and on which the fortress of Colgú the King dominated the surrounding countryside. As the road moved through this marshland, here and there little hillocks rose out of the bog, like islands rising from the sea. And the bogland could be just as treacherous and unforgiving as the sea to those who missed their way and were sucked into its greedy maws. And even if he had forgotten that it was soon to be the feast day of the Fires of Bel, the ancient God of Light, he should have been reminded by the mass of yellow flowers, symbolic of ‘fire’, that were now bursting into life across the countryside: broom, bog myrtle, marsh-marigolds, even hawksweed appeared here and there.
Bog myrtle? Marsh-marigolds? Even hawksweed? These are plants we might read about in heroic poems where all the deer were “red roebucks” and all the horses were “milk-white steeds.” Tremayne gives us a real sense for the music of his characters’ speech without falling into caricature or comedy.
“She was dressed as a boy and claimed to be such,” a witness says.
“And now she is dead,” Eadulf observes, “what did she call herself?”
The answer, “The boy—girl—gave no name to me,” is evocative and mysterious and also a reminder that gender identity was just as much a “thing” in past centuries as it is today.
Who was she?
Why was she masquerading as a man?
And, what of the corpse found in the back of her wagon, the “second death” that gives the book its title? These are questions that must be answered before the fair begins in earnest, and it is up to Fidelma to solve the mystery (or mysteries).
She is a plain-spoken woman and not to be rushed, not even by her own brother, who is frustrated by the slow pace of her investigation. When he presses her to jump in, she calmly answers, “I think something very strange happened. Until we have the facts, it is best to form no conclusion.”
The down-to-earth quality of Fidelma’s shrewd observations is a link between her time and our present, and this play of language is one of the pleasures of reading this meticulously researched historical mystery series, with its political and legal details.
The case intrigues us, but in the end, readers are left with a sense that they’ve participated in a thrilling living history adventure that leaves them avid for a return trip.
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Katherine Tomlinson is a former reporter who prefers making things up. She was editor of Astonishing Adventures Magazine and the publisher of Dark Valentine Magazine. She edited the charity anthology Nightfalls. Her dark fiction has appeared in Shotgun Honey, A Twist of Noir, Luna Station Quarterly, and Eaten Alive, as well as anthologies, including Weird Noir, Pulp Ink 2, Alt-Dead, Alt-Zombie, and the upcoming Grimm Futures, which she also edited. Her most recent collection of short stories is Suicide Blonde. She sees way too many movies.