History is often stranger than fiction—unless that fiction is of the speculative variety. Imagining world politics being settled via aerial dragon warfare or a back-and-forth of increasingly large fireball spells will always be more fun than what really happened. Mark Tompkins understands this, and has gone one step further than merely taking inspiration from history with his novel The […]
—DIANA GABALDON, THE WASHINGTON POST
"A fantastical treat."
“Simultaneously sweeping and intricate . . . Tompkins’s amazing debut novel conjures an epic battle for the soul of Ireland. Filled with papal machination and royal intrigue, magic and mayhem, faeries, Vikings, legates, kings and queens, angels and goddesses, this is one wild and breathless ride.”
—KAREN JOY FOWLER
“Plundering the treasure chest of human myths, from mysterious biblical giants to ferocious Celtic faeries, Tompkins has created a fantasy adventure with the shifting perspectives of dreamscape. A novel rich and strange.”
What became of magic in the world? Who needed to do away with it, and for what reasons? Drawing on myth, legend, fairy tales, and Biblical mysteries, The Last Days of Magic brilliantly imagines answers to these questions, sweeping us back to a world where humans and magical beings co-exist as they had for centuries.
Aisling, a goddess in human form, was born to rule both domains and—with her twin, Anya—unite the Celts with the powerful faeries of the Middle Kingdom. But within medieval Ireland interests are divided, and far from its shores greater forces are mustering. Both England and Rome have a stake in driving magic from the Emerald Isle. Jordan, the Vatican commander tasked with vanquishing the remnants of otherworldly creatures from a disenchanted Europe, has built a career on such plots. But increasingly he finds himself torn between duty and his desire to understand the magic that has been forbidden.
As kings prepare, exorcists gather, and divisions widen between the warring clans of Ireland, Aisling and Jordan must come to terms with powers given and withheld, while a world that can still foster magic hangs in the balance. Loyalties are tested, betrayals sown, and the coming war will have repercussions that ripple centuries later, in today’s world—and in particular for a young graduate student named Sara Hill.
The Last Days of Magic introduces us to unforgettable characters who grapple with quests for power, human frailty, and the longing for knowledge that has been made taboo. Mark Tompkins has crafted a remarkable tale—a feat of world-building that poses astonishing and resonant answers to epic questions.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2016 Mark Tompkins
When Sara Hill’s body washed up on shore, the police concluded— logically, given the lack of injuries— that she must have accidentally fallen overboard and drowned. The previous day she had taken a train from Manchester to Liverpool to catch the ferry to Ireland. The police ascertained that she’d boarded for the overnight passage across the Irish Sea but did not disembark.
On the morning she was to take the ferry, Sara watched the sun emerge above the dreary city, chasing away some of Manchester’s November gray. She had not slept since yesterday’s unsettling call from her grandmother in Ireland. Sweet milky tea had been abandoned for strong coffee until her whole body vibrated, though she knew it had little to do with the caffeine. She leaned back from the desk that dominated her cramped attic bed-sit and rolled her shoulders to ease the knots of tension along her neck and spine.
Her Grandmother O’Trehy was like a second mother to her. She had left her Irish homeland and moved into the family’s London flat for the first fifteen years of Sara’s life, when it turned out that Sara’s workaholic professor parents were woefully ill equipped to keep up with their energetic infant daughter. Over the years Sara and her grandmother became best friends, tramping through the parks of London while her grandmother recited rich and elaborate tales.
“Sara, do you still have the books I gave you when I left?” her grandmother had demanded over the phone the previous day, without so much as a hello.
“Of course,” Sara responded, struck by her grandmother’s unusual tone. “I would never lose those.”
“Well, get them, right now. There’s something you need to see.”
“Okay,” Sara agreed, recalling where she had stashed them. “Let me call you back in a few minutes.”
“No! No, I’m not in Dublin anymore. I’m not anyplace where you can call. I’m sorry, Sara, to be so abrupt. Please, just do this for me. I’ll wait on the line.”
Sara had never before heard her grandmother sound rattled. She fished the two battered boxes out from under her bed, still sealed as they had remained since her arrival at the University of Manchester as a freshman, six apartment moves ago. She tore them open and, one by one, removed the beautiful books of her childhood, placing them on her desk—books full of Celtic myths, legends, and faerie tales.
“Got them,” she said.
“Good. Now get a knife and pry open the paperboard of their covers.”
“What? Grandmother, no. You can’t be serious. What’s this about?”
“Please just do as I ask, Sara,” her grandmother implored. “You’re not going to believe me until you see for yourself.”
Sara didn’t respond, dismayed at the notion of destroying her treasured books. She picked one up and examined it carefully, touching its broken spine and tattered pages, recalling that her grandmother must have read it to her a thousand times. The cover featured a faerie prince, tall and handsome, holding the hand of a shy human milkmaid. Their love was ultimately doomed, of course, their children to be transformed into swans—a story Sara had always found strangely appealing.
“Listen carefully, Sara,” her grandmother said, breaking the silence. “People came for me, and I barely slipped away. They will come for you, too. They’re after those books. There’s a whole other set of faerie stories, much older, as old as it gets, hidden in them. You have to look in their covers to understand.”
Sara feared that her grandmother must have fallen into some sort of dementia and tried to humor her. “Okay, if that’s what you really want.” She reluctantly took her knife, cut through the linen covering of the front hard cover of the book, and split apart the interior paperboard. To her surprise, a photograph was hidden inside, showing dense Hebrew script elegantly hanging from an invisible line. It was a portion of an ancient scroll—she knew that much from her studies.
Back when Sara was deciding on where to go to university, she had chosen Manchester because her grandmother had studied there. And just as it had with her grandmother, Sara’s major in Middle Eastern Studies led to a graduate program in the region’s historic languages, for which she had a flair—a trait that apparently ran in the family.
As dusk gathered outside, Sara, no longer convinced that her grandmother’s mind was slipping, hurried to disassemble the covers of all the books while pressing the phone to her ear with her shoulder.
“Grandmother, how did you get these?”
“John—Dr. Allegro—and I . . . were . . .” her grandmother stammered, and Sara could practically hear her blushing. “We were more than friends when I was in grad school.”
“The Dr. Allegro?” Sara exclaimed. She knew the name well. Decades ago he’d been a professor in her department who had become legendary when he was appointed as the British representative to the international team assembled to study and translate the controversial Qumran scrolls.
“The same,” said her grandmother. “So I saw the whole debacle unfold from his perspective.”
Sara knew well the events her grandmother referred to. Christened “the Dead Sea Scrolls” by the press in the 1950s, the ancient documents were discovered accidentally, along with the remains of a shelving system and an index, in secluded man-made caves located in a hotly disputed area on the West Bank near Qumran. It did not take long for it to become clear that the caves held a carefully arranged, cataloged, and preserved collection of works making up the earliest biblical library ever found—all the books of the modern Hebrew Bible and the Catholic Old Testament were present.
Sara’s grandmother recounted the initial, exciting days when the team worked well together as they began the slow, methodical process of translation, publishing completed sections as their mandate directed. The early results dazzled scholars and the general public alike, and newspapers worldwide reeled off a steady stream of stories devoted to the discoveries being made. Working from text a thousand years older than any previous source material, the team began to fill in gaps in the Old Testament, places where grammatically or structurally there was obviously a missing word or sentence or paragraph.
Soon, though, the publications slowed, then stopped altogether. The press started spinning theories that more than missing paragraphs had been found.
“That’s when the Vatican began to take over and John became frustrated,” Sara’s grandmother said. “By chance, the UN official in charge of the scrolls was Catholic, and he had them shipped off to a Church facility. Unfortunately, John’s letters to another team member were leaked to the press and became headlines.”
Everyone in Sara’s class had seen reprints of those reports. Too interesting for the students to ignore, they seemed to recirculate every year. Allegro wrote, “I am convinced that if something does turn up which affects the Roman Catholic dogma, the world will never see it.” And then, “The non-Catholic members of the team are being removed as quickly as possible.”
“The next year, only four years into the project, John was denied further access,” Sara’s grandmother continued. “And the Vatican took complete and exclusive control of all unpublished scrolls.”
“Yes, I know all that, Grandma. But the scrolls have been published now.”
“Look at the photographs again, and the work papers. John brought those to me late one night and helped me hide them. This was shortly after his disbarment.”
Sara spread out the illicit material. She could tell from the translations, meticulously written out in tiny handwriting on onionskin paper, which had also been pressed into the hiding spaces, that the photographs were of significant Qumran scrolls, the books of Enoch and Jubilees. Ostensibly, the scrolls covering these books had been released years ago and were available to anyone online—Sara herself had read them as part of her coursework—except that large sections of those were missing due to rot or other damage. But not the scrolls shown in the photographs in front of her. These scrolls were virtually intact.
Sara was aware that early in its history the Vatican had excluded these two books from its Bible, even though they had appeared in older and much longer versions of the Old Testament. As late as the eighteenth century, scholars who argued that those older versions were closer to the original writings, and therefore more accurate, had been vigorously discredited as heretics and even burned alive.
“The book of Enoch was allegedly written by the great-grandfather of Noah, but the Vatican repudiated that notion. They ridiculed it as a fifteenth-century forgery at best, or a second-century satirical work of blasphemy at worst,” explained her grandmother. “Can you imagine their panic when the copies found among the scrolls dated back to at least 300 bce? Throughout their history they had killed people to suppress the idea that this book was legitimate!”
Sara’s grandmother went on to assert that as the third-most-common scroll discovered, Enoch must have been an important part of a version of the Hebrew Bible that existed before the Christian era and very likely the Christian Bible that existed before the dominance of the Vatican.
“The other photographs are of the book of Jubilees. For centuries it was rumored there was a longer and more complete version of Genesis, but no copies were known to exist, at least not publicly, before the scrolls, where Jubilees was also a common book. You see, Sara”—her grandmother’s voice lowered—“the ones you have are the complete works. The Vatican released only heavily damaged copies. But it was never safe for me to tell anyone about these, and then John died of that heart attack.”
“But why would the Vatican care?” Sara was making herself a cup of tea.
“That’s the point: the fact that they cared so much proves that the content of these photographs must be important. I believe these scrolls may recount the true history of the early days of our world, a time when angels mated with humans against God’s orders and produced a hybrid offspring, the Nephilim. Sara, those were the faeries.”
“Come on, that’s absurd!” exclaimed Sara. “You know as well as I do that ancient origin myths tend to . . .” Sara’s voice trailed off. She tried again. “These stories were probably invented to explain the genesis of . . .”
Her grandmother completed the academic principle for her. “The genesis of actual things. And that would mean there were real nonhuman beings in that time, which were endowed with strange powers. But that’s almost as absurd.”
“Almost,” echoed Sara, plopping into her desk chair, her tea momentarily forgotten.
“Read the translations. There is detail there that will leave you questioning what you know of the Old Testament. And bring the photographs and work papers to me. Leave tomorrow, and don’t fly or use a credit card. Take the ferry to Belfast, then a bus to Derry. I’ll meet you there.”
“Who is after you? What’s going on, Grandmother? You’re scaring me.”
“There’s more, Sara. I need to tell you something that even your parents don’t know.” There was an excruciatingly long pause. “I had a twin sister who disappeared while we were in grad school. It must be connected somehow. I know it must. That’s why I held on to the photographs and kept them secret for all these years. In case one day I could use them somehow to get her back.”
Sara could her hear grandmother’s breathing get ragged. A twin?Sara’s grip on the phone tightened, she was shocked and hurt that there was so much her grandmother had kept from her.
“I really didn’t know what to do at the time, after a hasty investigation faded out,” her grandmother continued. “No one listened to me. I knew she hadn’t run away. But now I think those who came for me are the ones who took her. I’ll tell you everything when I see you. I just can’t right now.”
But she had already hung up.
Sara studied the photographs. These scrolls were much more complete than the fragments that she’d seen when she visited the modern home of the Qumran scrolls, the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. At the time she’d thought the shrine’s architectural symbolism merely interesting—a parabolic wave frozen into a white dome opposing a monolithic black basalt wall—but now it reverberated with meaning. The design represented a prophecy in the scrolls of a war between the sons of light and the sons of darkness, a war in which humans and Nephilim would fight in both factions, along with angels holy and fallen. She wondered if it was a war to come or one that had already been fought.
Sara had read through the night. With dawn sunlight streaming in her attic bed-sit window, she stood, stretched, and packed the translations and the photographs into a weathered leather satchel. What could her beloved grandmother have gotten herself into? she worried. She pulled some clothes out of a dresser and tossed them into her dilapidated suitcase. Before leaving she surveyed the mess on the desk—all her childhood books with their covers split open—and vowed to repair them upon her return.
On the train to Liverpool, as the English countryside rushed by, Sara’s concerned mind kept replaying what her grandmother had said. She had trouble enough believing in a God above, let alone in randy angels sneaking out of heaven to have forbidden sex with humans and in their resulting offspring. She withdrew two of her own handwritten pages from her satchel, notes she’d made about the hybrid beings in the scrolls and their striking similarity to the magical beings from her grandmother’s old stories: pixies, giants, trolls, goblins, merpeople, and faeries.
The elegant, powerful, and passionate faeries that had populated the tales of her grandmother’s Irish homeland were known as the Tuatha Dé Danann, a name shortened by the Celts to the Sidhe. Sara loved the fact that the Sidhe were not the shy, diminutive faeries of today’s children’s books—they even married and bore children with the Celts, when they weren’t fighting them. The Sidhe ruled the Middle Kingdom, a mostly hidden land that occupied a parallel plane with Ireland and was accessed through magical doorways.
Sara’s favorite of these tales featured enchanted twins, and now she knew why her grandmother’s voice was always tinged with sadness when she told them. These were stories of the Goddess Morrígna, who ruled over both the Celts and the Sidhe. The Morrígna, a triple-faceted goddess, carried three female aspects, much as the Christian God carried three male aspects—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, what St. Patrick likened to a three-leaf clover. The Morrígna’s aspects were Anann, who remained in the spirit realm as the source of power to the other two, and a set of twin girls who were periodically reborn into the human realm during times of great trouble: the sage Anya and the warrior Aisling.
Kingdom of Meath, Ireland
Aisling fell through the rain in a land bright and dark, where the edges of contrast were sharp, often bloody. She had thought, even at thirteen, that she understood the many dangers of this land where the boundaries of the human and the Sidhe realms merged, as only someone who had been trained since birth to rule both worlds could. Now it was knowing, not understanding, that was carried on the tip of the arrow that had slipped beneath her left shoulder blade on its way to her heart. Launched from her galloping horse, her body attempting to flee the arrow’s intrusion, her arc ended abruptly in mud, facedown. Then the pain came, an edge flaying her chest from the inside.
Riding beside her as he always did, Liam, guardian of the Morrígna twins, twisted on his horse to follow Aisling’s unexpected flight. A moment earlier his attention had been drawn across the clearing ahead, where he had sensed a rush of fear and desire, a sudden movement of iron, and a flood of intent. He had thrown his dagger even before the assailant he perceived—a crossbreed like himself, neither pure human nor pure Sidhe— had fully emerged from behind the ring of seven standing stones. The knife had caught the attacker just under the chin, lifted him off his feet, and sent his already drawn arrow flying wide. As if a single iron-tipped arrow would ever make it past him and on to her without one of them deflecting it. Now, seeing Aisling land in the mud, he wondered how he could have fallen for such a diversion. The arrow that pierced her back had come from the opposite direction, undetected from the woods behind them.
Two of the four guards who had thundered into the clearing with Liam and Aisling wheeled and charged the tree line. The others, swords drawn, surveyed their surroundings while reining in their horses, whose nervous hooves sprayed more mud across Aisling’s body.
Liam sat calmly, turning his mount to scan the woods, then walking it over to where she lay, the shaft protruding from her back. He had inherited his muscular build from his human father, who was of a warrior clan, while his dignified stature came from his mother, a Sidhe—a Celtic term for those the Irish Christian Church called Nephilim or, more casually, faeries. Leaning a forearm on his horse’s neck, Liam studied Aisling. The splattering of rain mixed with the sounds of branches snapping as the guards zigzagged their horses through the undergrowth in a futile search for the second archer.
“Are you going to get up?” demanded Liam. “The high king’s waiting for us. We can’t dally here all afternoon. You’re going to make us late for the full-moon ritual, and I don’t want to miss the feast. You have to be stronger than this.”
Aisling dragged one arm under her chest, then the other, and struggled up to her hands and knees. Water trickled from her deep red hair, leaving pale streaks down the side of her grime-soaked face. Liam could not see her eyes but knew they would have gone from light gray to vivid green. He also knew that she should be on her feet already—something was wrong.
“Poison,” Aisling gasped. “In . . . my . . . heart. Spreading. Burning.”
“Great Mother Danu!” exclaimed Liam in frustration. “I told the king that we should have you in mail already, even if you haven’t been enthroned yet.” He reached down and tore the arrow out. She grunted and collapsed back into mud that was beginning to take on a red tint—her red.
“He thinks if one of you is safe, then the other is too. Well, now he’ll grasp that he has too narrow a view of ‘safe.’ ”
As a warrior, Liam had to admit that the shot had been remarkable. The archer had to adjust for a target galloping away in the rain. At that angle the bowman had to miss the shoulder blade and hit the gap between the seventh and eight ribs to catch the only part of her heart not protected by bone. Shot too softly, the arrow would not reach the critical vessel, too hard and the tip would pass through the heart, taking the bulk of the poison with it. He knew of no human archer with such skill.
Aisling was back on her hands and knees, head hanging limp. She reached out and fumbled for the dangling reins of her horse. Raising her head, she climbed the reins with both hands until she was standing, clinging to the bridle, shaking.
Liam studied the unusual arrow, making no move to help her. It had been carefully constructed to be undetectable even by a crossbreed such as himself, whose senses were inhumanly sharp. There was nothing unnatural or even animal to draw his attention, to differentiate it from the wooded background. A hawthorn shaft, he noted; a Celtic assassin would have used elm. No human would dare to cut a hawthorn tree, sacred to the Sidhe, not in this land and suffer the curse that was sure to follow. Instead of feathers, ash leaves, meticulously sliced lengthwise along their stems, were used for flights. The head was made of oak, hardened by centuries buried in a bog and then polished razor sharp. The Sidhe archer had to have been a member of an old-line assassin clan or the arrowhead purchased from one at a high price. Few could afford such a rare thing. Sniffing, Liam was surprised that he could not identify the poison, but there had been a lot of it, judging by the warren of small channels drilled into its head.
But why bother? Liam wondered. Whoever had staged this attack would have known that Aisling could not be killed, not so long as her twin sister, Anya, was safe. And Liam always made sure that Anya was protected in a secure room while Aisling was traveling. Were they trying to send a message? He shook his head. No, there had been too much effort and expense; there was serious intent to kill here. Then it hit him: Anya must not be safe. They must have found a way to get to both twins. Liam jumped from his horse, reaching Aisling just as she began screaming.
As he held her, his chest too tight to utter any words of comfort, he feared that he must have failed in his duty, his oath to protect the Morrígna twins. He picked Aisling up and carried her to his horse while her screams faded into sobs.
Reading Group Guide
1. How were we told, as children, that fairy tales came about, and have you ever questioned those ideas? What strikes you about how the question is taken up in The Last Days of Magic?
2. Almost every culture has old stories of faeries, giants, and other nonhuman beings. How do you think the mythology of these beings arose?
3. Do you think it’s possible that magic and magical beings were deliberately expunged from the historical record? Or is The Last Days of Magic purely an imaginative fiction? What do you think the author intended in dramatizing this question for us?
4. Aisling and Anya represent two aspects of the goddess considered important to rule Ireland and unite the divided factions. What are their different aspects, and what resonance might these qualities have for us today?
5. How and why is Jordan so conflicted, and what drives the evolution of his relationship with Najia? What role does their relationship play in his personal transformation?
6. A number of intimate relationships in the novel are formed during periods of crisis. Do you think that relationships forged in this way are more or less enduring than those developed in calmer times?
7. Brigid forsook her desire for a relationship with Liam in order to fulfill her calling as High Priestess. What ramifications does her choice have?
8. Did Liam’s decision to continue to support Aisling after Anya’s death seem like a wise choice? How did Liam and Aisling differently perceive this support?
9. How do feel about who and what Aisling becomes at the end of the novel?
10. What do you think happens to Sara, and why?
11. What is the author conveying with the concept of Ardor? If Ardor is present today, where do you think it exists?