Trigger Warning: Today’s book, Only Human (Act One): The Pooka’s Tales: Speak of the Devil by Leigh Holland contains brief moments of gore, violence, and sexual innuendo. The book also focuses on a view of Heaven, Hell, God, and the Devil which varies in many ways from mainstream Christian views. Although this work is fiction, proceed with caution if you take offense to or otherwise wish to avoid any of these matters.
As part of Banned Books Week, it seems appropriate that I review a book which, for some people, discusses a controversial subject: the concept of Heaven, Hell, God, and the Devil. Today’s book is fiction—fantasy, even—and deals with this very familiar concept in a different way than one normally envisions these Christian constructs. This book takes an approach to the role of the Devil in the cycle of eternal life and punishment reminiscent of Anne Rice’s Memnoch the Devil. You may even find yourself having sympathy for the Devil and his minions by the time you finish Only Human (Act One): The Pooka’s Tales: Speak of the Devil by Leigh Holland.
Framed by a device similar to 1001 Arabian Nights, Only Human begins with the rescue of a Twyleth Teg, also called a pooka, by an Irish Catholic priest, Father Patrick O’Donnell. The pooka, nicknamed “Rory” by Father O’Donnell, makes the mistake of telling the good priest that he owes the man for saving his life. What does Father O’Donnell ask for in return? Stories. Stories about the Devil, about demons, all the stories that Rory knows first-hand. Rory agrees, but with a twist: he’ll tell Father O’Donnell his stories in a way which won’t allow him to know which of the players Rory is.
That’s where the meat of Holland’s work begins. Rory the Pooka throws Father O’Donnell and the readers into a string of stories from five different characters’ perspectives: Heather, a witch who only wishes to be reunited with her husband after his premature death; Todd, Heather’s husband, who tries desperately to return to her when he wakes in a befuddling situation; Father Eustace, a priest with a dark secret; Magnus, a demon—i.e. one of the Devil’s workers—who hates how things operate in his world; and, to top off the list, the Devil himself, known more informally as “Luke.” At first, the stories of people like Heather, Todd, and Father Eustace appear unrelated. By the end of the book, Holland—through Rory—reveals them to be intricately intertwined in ways which not even the most observant reader will figure out until well over halfway through the novel.
Holland weaves a plot that’s both heart-warming and heart-wrenching and keeps readers on the edge of their seats until the very end. Yet when we return to Rory and Father O’Donnell, we are left with more questions than answers. Who is Rory in this story? Why is Father O’Donnell so obsessed with the question of whether the Devil regretted his fall from grace? What secret is Father O’Donnell hiding, and what exactly does Rory have brewing in that mischievous head of his? The story within the story appears to have ended, but Rory and Father O’Donnell’s has just begun.
Holland packs a lot into 137 pages, and her writing has me hooked. Quick, funny, but appropriately emotional, I flew this short book much faster than normal. The cliffhanger, while a little frustrating, was also a bit of a relief to me; I don’t want this world to end, not yet, and I can’t wait to see what else is hiding in the pooka’s head.
Not surprisingly, my favorite character turned out to be Luke, a.k.a. the Devil. He is pessimistic, stubborn, and sometimes pushy, bordering on a creepy stalker, but he is also a romantic with a distinct sense of right and wrong, a longing to do right by the good and innocent, and an underlying backstory which made my heart hurt for him. Unfortunately, Holland only hints at this backstory. Still, she gives enough for the readers to understand where Luke is coming from and, with any luck, more of his tragic background will be revealed in future books.
Holland also gives the other characters interesting backgrounds and reasons for doing what they do, which allows the readers to emotionally investment in them and their ultimate fates. Whether they’re innocent humans, witches, or even demons, it’s hard not to have sympathy—or at least empathy—for them and understand their motivations. Will readers approve of their actions? Not all of them, but they will understand them.
Admittedly, I grew a little confused when the stories transitioned from our world to Luke’s. It forced me to wonder: what’s real? What’s not? What actually happened, and whose truth should we believe? I had a hard time reconciling Luke’s world with the human world Holland depicts earlier—both in the stories and in the frame narrative—but I feel that effect is purposeful. After all, some of the themes in this book include the fine line between good and evil and the fact that nothing is what it seems. This confusion helps put the readers into Father O’Donnell’s shoes as he listens to the pooka’s tales, trying to work through the moral dilemma which he still hasn’t revealed.
If you’re looking for a happy ending, you probably won’t appreciate this book as much as I do. As in life, things get ugly and not everything wraps itself up in a neat little bow. The stories are being told by a pooka, and one which we don’t even know if it’s light or dark, at that; readers are lucky that the stories are as heart-warming as they are. Holland doesn’t deal her readers fluff pieces about good winning out over evil. She gives us compelling, action-packed, and emotional stories which tell us that nothing is black-and-white and, often times, life is bittersweet.
I didn’t find too many proofreading errors in this book. I located a couple but they’re minor, and many of what I saw as “errors” are probably a difference in writing style preferences more than actual proofreading errors. This book is actually one of the better-edited small-scale publications I’ve reviewed in a while, and I appreciate the effort put into that.
Overall, Only Human is an exciting and compelling tale of fantasy. I love Holland’s take on the Devil and Hell, and even her depiction of Heaven is one I’ve never really seen before. Some aspects are a little cheesy, like the name “Godfrey Goddard” for God. Others, however, are well-planned and amusing, such as the name “Mormo” for Luke’s closest servant. Holland liberally uses humor without, making some uneasy situations more palatable and helping the story go by even quicker. The cliffhanger has me wanting to get my hands on the next book immediately so that I can learn the secrets hiding within Rory the Pooka and Father Patrick O’Donnell, as well as watch their rickety friendship grow.
To read Leigh Holland’s Only Human (Act One), follow this link to Amazon, where you can either buy the book or borrow it on Kindle Unlimited. If you want more information on the book or the author, be sure to check out Leigh Holland’s blog and follow her on Twitter as @Leigh_Holland1.
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