I wasn’t familiar with Margaret Irwin until a few months ago when Jane wrote about one of her other books, Still She Wished for Company. It sounded intriguing, so when I had the opportunity to read this one, which has been released this month as an ebook by Bloomsbury Reader, I decided to investigate.
These Mortals is a fantasy novel originally published in 1925, taking its title from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“Lord, what fools these mortals be”). But it was another of his plays – The Tempest – that I was reminded of when I began to read, because like Miranda in The Tempest, the heroine in this book is the daughter of a powerful magician. Her name is Melusine and she has grown up isolated from human society, living with her father, the Enchanter Aldebaran, in his palace by the sea.
Although Melusine loves her three best friends, the Cat, the Raven and the Snake, she longs to meet other human beings like herself. One day she makes a magic ship from a shell, a rose petal and a silver pin and uses it to sail across a moonbeam to the human world beyond. Arriving in the kingdom of the Emperor Eminondas, Melusine begins to learn the ways of mortals and discovers what it means to fall in love.
This book is written in the style of a fairy tale, complete with princes and princesses, shipwrecked kings and woodcutters’ daughters, poets, magicians and talking animals. It’s all very dreamlike and it feels timeless. There are elements of other classic myths and legends too, particularly the legend of the water fairy, Melusina, who married a mortal man, Count Raymond of Poitou.
The only problem with this fairy tale atmosphere is that I felt there was a distance between the reader and the characters; they didn’t feel like real people and apart from Melusine herself, they didn’t come to life at all. I found it difficult at first to distinguish between the various members of the Emperor’s court (Princess Blanchelys, Lady Valeria, Sir Oliver and Sir Diarmid) and to remember who was in love with who. I was much more interested in Melusine’s personal story. I particularly enjoyed the scenes where she uses her magical powers – and I found myself looking forward to any appearances of the Cat, the Raven and the Snake!
There’s also some humour in the story, as there are so many aspects of human life of which Melusine has no knowledge or understanding.
“Tell me,” she said, “of that game I have heard you speak of to others, an ancient solitary game that is played with clubs by half-naked savages in the northern hills. There seems so much to tell of that game that it must surely be more exciting than any tale of love or perilous adventure.”
“Ah, there’s nothing like a good game of golf,” he said.
I suspect this was probably not the best Margaret Irwin book for me to have started with, but it was an unusual and entertaining novel and I still enjoyed it. It’s a very short book, but long enough for the story that is being told. Now I’m interested in trying some of the historical novels the author is more famous for.
Thanks to Bloomsbury for providing a review copy via NetGalley