BOOK REVIEW: The Call by Peadar Ó Guilín
David Fickling Books
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
‘Listen,’ he says, ‘we don’t need the Sidhe to teach us evil. We were the ones who put them in the Grey Land, remember? And not just for a day or however long it is the Call lasts. We Irish… we trapped an entire race of people in hell for all eternity, just so we could take their homes for ourselves.’
In the Iron Age, the people of Ireland chased the fairyfolk away and trapped them in a nightmarish other dimension. 25 years ago the Sidhe successfully cursed Ireland, cutting it off from the rest of the world, and began picking off its children.
Sometime between the ages of ten and seventeen, every child will be called to this nightmarish dimension without warning. There, naked and without any weapons, they must run and fight, and do whatever it takes to survive the day. If they make it through 24 hours in the Grey Land (three minutes and four seconds in our world), they can return home, though they will never be the same, because that other world is so very gruesome.
The silver landscape falls away in front of her like a scroll with a map drawn on it. Fairyland in its entirety: lakes of red fire, the only colour here, spewing and bubbling in the distance; forests growing terrible fruits; tornadoes, that look like a giant’s fingers digging into the soil; scattered lightening; burning rains and murderous flora of every kind.
The creature was once a human woman. Now she pads along on all fours. Her back legs bend the wrong way. Her jaws have grown thick and large with massive teeth that don’t fit properly together so that the mouth can never fully close, and a constant stream of drool hangs down from her chin. Her paws are still recognizably human hands. Her all-too human breasts hang down, catching on rocks and bushes so that Antoinette aches to see it and wishes she could do something to help.
A worse smell than usual tickles his nostrils. It began with Dagda’s arrival. He sees why when he looks at the man’t clothing, and he gasps, for the hem of each sleeve is a set of human lips – a whole human mouth, in fact, panting in distress around the Sidhe’s wrists, while a tiny trail of what might be vomit drips away to the ground.
And if they catch you, well… you really don’t want them to catch you.
The boy’s body reappears and thumps down hard onto the floor. Nessa is relieved to see that it’s not one of the really awful ones. There’s nothing to churn the stomach here, other than a little blood and a set of tiny antlers growing from the back of his head. The Sidhe can be a lot more imaginative than that, and they even have what experts refer to as a ‘sense of fun’. Nessa shivers.
And suddenly something is there: not a corpse and far too large for a human being. Two metres high, it stands on four legs that end in a parody of a man’s toes. Its skin is the pale white of most Irish, but it has stretched so thinly over such a large frame that parts of it lie torn and bleeding.
The next morning is Halloween. To celebrate, the Sidhe have left a gift in the boy’s dorm. It is Keith, one of the Round Table. They have sculpted his face into a delicate flower of blood and skin.
But the people of Ireland have banded together and created survival schools to increase the chances their children will survive, and to stop the population from dying out.
Twenty-five years ago, when the Sidhe began taking teenagers, less than one in a hundred survived. These days, with constant training, with fitness and study, with every spare cent in an impoverished country aimed at keeping them alive, the odds have improved tenfold. It is still low enough that the thought that somebody she knows has made it through fills Nessa with excitement.
The Year 1s are about to get the most important lesson the survival college can teach. In a few hours, each of them will wake up naked and alone in the forest. It is an experience that will terrify them, that will mark them for ever. It’s meant to, because if it ever happens again, it means they’ve been Called by the Sidhe.
Typically, if a child is unwell enough that there’s no belief they might survive the Call, a quick and painless death is seen as the much kinder option. But Nessa’s parents couldn’t bring themselves to do it after she caught polio, and now she’s determined to survive at any cost. She doesn’t want special treatment, she just wants to survive, and she knows that special treatment now will only sign her death warrant.
When it comes to Nessa’s turn, the guard stares at her legs and can’t keep the pity off his face. Didn’t your parents love you enough to kill you?
Nessa’s own expression stays bland. ‘Was there something else?’ she asks.
Megan butts in. ‘Sorry, Sergeant.’ Her tone is polite and respectful. She has the sweetest face in creation: rosy cheeks and sparkling green eyes. ‘What my friend is trying to say is, Mind your own business, you goggle-eyed turd sniffer.’
‘So what’s my punishment?’
‘Oh, there isn’t one. I just didn’t want to embarrass you. The thing is… we can’t have you weak now, can we?’ And she winks, actually winks. As in, I’m doing you this massive favour because you’re a useless cripple-type wink.
It takes every scintilla of Nessa’s willpower to keep her face straight, to prevent herself from lifting up the table and battering Mrs Breen to death with it.
Nessa has always intended to survive her Call, regardless of what anybody else thinks. But now, lying on her back with the silver spirals above her head, and air that burns worse than the smoke she just left behind, she knows she is going to die.
And she and her friends must bide their time, learning whatever they can in preparation for their own time, and worrying about when another of their number is going to disappear.
Not for the first time Nessa wastes precious minutes fretting about her friend. Foolishly she allows the worry to grow. It’s normal for the young to imagine their companions dead whenever they fail to turn up for something. Whenever they spend too long, as Megan is now doing, in the bathroom.
‘I would hate to be the last,’ says Marya now, waving little fists about. ‘Can you imagine?’ And they can. Among the terrible outcomes, it’s one that crops up again and again. Watching your friends live or die, while all the time the odds of finding yourself in the Grey Land keep climbing. Far better to be taken soon. But not now. Never right now!
Because they all know their Call is coming. It’s just a matter of time.
The Call is a cross between Hunger Games (with kids fighting and killing to save their own skin, though in this one they’re most often completely alone, and it’s not people they’re killing), Irish folklore (with fairies that were forced out of their homes and into another dimension), and horror (with the horrible nightmarescape – full of “dogs” and “horses” and various other animals that are actually made out of mutilated people – into which these children are Called and then hunted for sport) on an acid trip.
This is a good, fun, though rather gory and confronting read, nicely cobbled together with the kind of world building that trickles in subtly, until suddenly you know a lot more about this cut-off Ireland than you realised.
With the exception of the fact that everyone either wants the main character, or is jealous of her, or wants to be her friend despite how coldly she has treated all except her best friend for the past five years, this is a pretty unique YA!
Readers of Hunger Games, Maze Runner, and Unwind will love it, and I’m keen to get my hands on any past and future works by Ó Guilín.
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