A condensed version of this review appeared in the May 2022 issue of The Historical Novels Review.
John Crowley’s Flint and Mirror brims with fascinating, well-crafted history. Sadly, the accompanying magic feels less essential.
The story is primarily set in 16th-century Ireland following Queen Elizabeth’s assumption of the English throne. Her father, Henry VIII (the second monarch of the infamous Tudor dynasty), had already begun England’s shift to Protestantism and conquest of Ireland. Much of its people remained staunchly Catholic, however, and Elizabeth sought to finish bringing the isle to heel.
Crowley’s protagonist is Hugh O’Neill, heir to a line of Irish royalty. Flint and Mirror tells the tale of O’Neill’s long life in a short span of pages, chronicling his early days as an English ward—brought to London under the premise that “like an eyas falcon, a young Irish lord if taken early enough might later come more willingly to the English wrist”—his rise to power in Ireland, and his eventual rebellion against his former colonial benefactors.
There’s much to admire here. Crowley relates the brutality of the occupying English forces without casting O’Neill as a wholly innocent hero. Flint and Mirror also gives a sense of larger happenings in Europe, often from unexpected vantages. (My favorite example: when a minor character watches a storm wreck wayward ships of the Spanish Armada upon a rocky section of the Irish coast. O’Neill then takes in some of the survivors—allies in the fight against Protestant England—and shelters them until the time comes to wage “the last war against … the Queen’s armies.”)
And the prose is gorgeous. Some memorable lines:
“The Earl looked down on himself, the red curls of his breast gone gray, the scars and welts where no hair grew. The land that was himself, in all its history.”
"With a great yawn, a gulp of morning, he awoke entirely at last.”
“As though she were some fabulous many-walled fort, mined and breached, through the slashings and partings of her outer dress another could be seen, and where that was opened there was another, and lace beneath that.”
Yet Crowley casts Flint and Mirror as a historical fantasy without making the fantasy consequential.
The two objects in the title are magical artifacts given to O’Neill during his youth. One is of Irish origin, the other English. But despite suggestions that they might allow him to summon mythical allies to his aid or spy on his enemies, we never see him wield these powers in meaningful fashion. We’re also told there’s a larger “war in heaven” underway, but this doesn’t play out on the page either. Mostly, the magic in Flint and Mirror serves the symbolic function of explaining O’Neill’s conflicting loyalties (and perhaps doubles as a larger metaphor for Ireland’s fraught relationship with England). For similar reasons, I wish the subplot featuring an Irish woman and a creature of legend had impacted the main storyline.
To repeat, though, Crowley’s writing is beautiful—more than good enough to keep me going through the sections where I wondered whether Flint and Mirror should have been straight historical fiction. Here’s another quote to whet your appetite (a description of the Spanish sailors O’Neill rescued): “Only when they were called to war at last, given arms and armor from the hidden stores of the earl of Ulster and the lord of Tyrconnell and ordered to the south for the last battle, did they inspire fear as they went: dressed in white, as they had when they were seamen, daghaidhe duvh, dark of face, they would seem as they moved over the land to be of that black tribe of the O’Donahues that cast no shadow. Yet they went in hope to join their old ships, that were sailing again for Ireland from Spain: to join the fight against the English on Ireland’s behalf, and on the side of those who had saved them.”
Stirring stuff in any genre, and worth reading in full.
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