The Flight of Michael McBride, by Midori Snyder (Tor, 1995)

“Once, long ago when the Tuatha Da Danann rode their fairy horses over the green hills, a mortal man fell in love with Etian, the second and much-neglected wife of Midhir, King of the Fairy Hill of Bri Leith. This man came one night into the King’s court and challenged the King to a game of chess. Foolish was Etian, for she looked upon the mortal man and saw his desire. Flattered, she said nothing to the King, but she knew in her heart that the man would win and that she would be the prize he would claim.”

Those words mark an ending and a beginning for Michael McBride, son of James and Eileen McBride. An ending, for those are the last words Eileen speaks to Michael as she lies on her deathbed. A beginning, for this story will plunge Michael deep into a series of harrowing adventures that will take him from New York City to Texas, and beyond.

The year is 1878, and Michael McBride is a strapping young man, just into his twenties. His father is a cold, distant man who speaks little of familial love and concentrates more on his chess game than his wife or son. His mother, as we’ve seen, is recently dead, leaving behind the wealth of Irish folklore and myths that she’s related to Michael since he was old enough to understand them. That, and a strange blessing placed upon his left eye, one that signifies more than he realizes at the time.

Things take a turn for the weird (and dangerous!) when Michael begins to see and hear things which shouldn’t be there, such as a log enchanted to appear as his mother’s corpse, tiny creatures living in the trees, and a darkly handsome, evil man named Red Cap, intent upon killing Michael.

Faced with phantoms determined to kill him, and things he can’t explain, Michael flees New York, hopping the first train west. And that’s the start of an odyssey that will take him further than he ever expects. Before he’s through, he’ll confront Red Cap, encounter the Morrigu (ancient Celtic battle goddess), dare the wrath of the Night Hatchet (Native American creature of dark legends), make and lose friends, discover the truths his parents could never share with him, and become master of his own destiny. Oh, and have a reason to use his chess skills.

The Flight of Michael McBride is a beautifully spun tale of magic, love, loss, and growing up. It juxtaposes Irish myth, the enigmatic mystique of Native American folklore, the simple charm of folk magic, and the illusion of the Wild West, creating a tapestry that few writers can equal. The only author who’s done anything comparable who springs to mind is Tom Deitz, and his work is more focused on Cherokee myth. There are other authors who have juxtaposed Celtic and Native American themes — Charles de Lint, for example — but in my opinion, Snyder hits a home run with this novel.

Besides the original concept, it’s a compelling story. Tragedy seems to follow in Michael McBride’s footsteps, but still he perseveres, and finds help in the most unexpected places. Whether it’s a horse that only he can tame, a woman card sharp who befriends him on the train, or even the beautiful young woman who saves his life through the use of her charms, Michael is never at a loss for friends. Of course, he’ll find every aspect of his being tested before the end of the story.

Snyder’s grasp of dialect and language is exceptional, from the “voice” of the Sidhe, to the language of the cowboys, to the mannerisms and slang used by the backwoods characters. Her imagery is downright gorgeous, evocative of whatever setting she chooses. Witness this sample passage:

“There was no carriage standing before him, but as he turned to look behind him, Michael tensed. There, waiting on a black horse, was the man with the red cap. Only now Michael saw it wasn’t a cap, but long red hair slicked down to the sides of the man’s narrow face. Surrounding the man were other mounted horsemen spread across the street, their spears and axes held upright. On the pommels of their saddles were skulls tied together, festooned with red and green ribbons and the glint of twirling gold coins. In the shadows of the building, the horsemen’s faces were a deep mottled brown, their bodies thick and strong like carved oak. But in the open street, the sunlight drenched the armor and the warriors shone transparent as a sheet of gold rain. They were attended by wraiths whose pale gray faces worse masks of misery and who stared at Michael out of haunted eyes. Hands soft as dust clung to the bridles and held the mounts steady. Shadowed substance and shining light, they appeared to Michael at once solid and threatening as a closing storm and as vaporous as a misty dream. The man with the long red hair nodded to Michael.

This is one of those books I hold out as an example not just of urban fantasy done right, but of urban fantasy done right in an unexpected setting. As some of you may know, this is one of those books I’ve selected for my top ten urban fantasy novels list, so my wholehearted support shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Unfortunately, you may need to scour your local used bookstores or libraries to find this book. But it is definitely worth the effort.

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