Mark Tompkins makes his literary debut with the novel The Last Days of Magic. The story, combining fantasy and historical fiction, is a tale of goddesses, fairies, religion, and the honest shortcomings of human beings. The tale follows Aisling, one of the three beings that make up the Morrigna, and goddess to both faeries and humans on Ireland. Aisling and her sister Anya are the two mortal versions of the goddess, while a third, more divine entity exists outside of this realm.
While I will delve further into the characters, world building, and everything else about the book, I do want to lead with one thing: The Last Days of Magic and what Tompkins has done with it is more of an experience than a story. Even beyond the writing itself, the author has included notes and a glossary. Normally, when I see a glossary preceding a book, I get worried. But not so in the case of Last Days. In fact, I went even further than the book and examined Tompkins’s website. First of all, it is one of the most finely-crafted author websites I have come across, with historical notes and extra information about the book and what it was based on. It was more than that, however. The website seems more dedicated to the book itself than to the author, and it adds an extra layer of depth and creativity that only enhances the story.
But now, without further ado, let us examine Mark Tompkins’s The Last Days of Magic.
There is a wide cast of characters in this novel, though it never truly leaves you wondering who is who. Characters are introduced gradually, with context and without undue force in the writing. The story primarily follows two characters: Aisling and Jordan. As previously mentioned, Aisling is one of the twins that, combined with an ethereal being, make up the goddess Morrigna. Aisling lives a life full of hardships and responsibilities that she never asked for, yet are hers to bear the burden of. Jordan, on the other hand, is an agent of the Catholic Church, seeking out witches and supernatural beasts across Europe, and eliminating them. But whether through curiosity or empathy, Jordan is more empathetic than other members of the Church, especially the ruthless exorcists of the VRS League.
I am still not sure if I liked Aisling’s character or not. It was well-crafted, and you definitely empathized with her. The girl who is part of a goddess loses a lot of close people throughout the entirety of the book. Her life truly is tragic, and the weight of her responsibility is thrust upon her with no choice of her own. It is because of this responsibility, to be a protector of Ireland, that she loses so much. However, this leads to a very bleak, very depressed character. Her moments of joy are fleeting and short-lived, which makes you hopeful but ultimately saddens the reader. Combined with the fact that she is only part of an incomplete goddess, and Aisling does not really have the power to make her a hero. There is one scene where she goes toe-to-toe with a demon and, in my opinion, that was a highlight to her role. I wish that the story had more scenes like that, but it unfortunately does not. Aisling constantly struggles with trying to reach the full extent of her Morrigna abilities, but it seems as if she never really gets there.
Jordan, on the other hand, is a much different beast. He is a witch hunter, and exterminator of all things supernatural and unholy (as deemed by the Church). However, Jordan seems to be obsessed with spells himself, and practices magic. If the Church ever found out about his sin, he would assuredly be executed. However, that doesn’t stop him from bedding a witch, taking a half-faerie as a companion, and continuing his studies of magic. Jordan was definitely one of my favourite characters in The Last Days of Magic. He had a certain aura of badass-ness, and was one of the few characters willing to think critically and for himself. However, even Jordan has a drawback. He has so much hero potential: he is empathetic, he is skilled, and he is an outsider. I was always turning a page hoping he would swoop in and save the day. But he didn’t.
It is tough to penalize characters for not being extraordinary. Even if one is part of a goddess, we are frequently reminded of how mortal and fragile even the most incredible beings are. I give credit to Tompkins for that, even if I constantly wished for something else. It is a different take on heroes and villains, one more tragic. But it is historical fiction, after all, and history is not really filled with the happiest of stories.
World building in The Last Days of Magic is where the novel will either captivate you, amaze you, and enthrall you… or it will make you truly dislike the book. Tompkins puts a lot into building this world. For a history and a fantasy buff like myself, I adored this. Certainly some aspects might seem slow at times, but in the end I felt completely immersed in this fictional reality. It treated me to little aspects that made you go “ah-hah!” and delved deep into religion, history, and folklore. Tompkins fully establishes where faeries came from, how different magical creatures came from different heritages, the source of magic, the political struggles of man and the Church, and brought it all together in a wonderful tale. As I mentioned before, simply look at the website. Tompkins has put an incredible amount of work into building this world and, to myself, it paid off.
However, that is not the case for everyone. One of the biggest criticisms around the web is that the world building made this story too slow, that it was too in-depth and actually took away from the story. I can truly see how this is the case. If it had been a different topic, I might have even felt the same way. This book is thick and it is dense. If you cannot take some time to fully immerse yourself in this world, then you will lose the most effective part of its storytelling.
Do not expect to pick this book up and read it during your fifteen minute breaks, or while you’re waiting for someone to get ready, because it will become too difficult. If you are going to read this book, if you are going to fully experience the effort and craft that went into building the very complex world, you need to let it take you there. And that is a commitment.
There is a lot going on in The Last Days of Magic and, like the world building, it could make you fall in love with it, or it could make you hate it. One of the drawbacks to me was that the story continually felt like it was one flashback after another. Many chapters would start with a page or two of a scene, which would then be followed by a memory, or some kind of scene that has already happened. Another negative for the story is that some characters seemed like they were so full of potential, and yet ultimately amounted to nothing of significance. A coven of witches, a tribe of wild folk, some rather exceptional creatures. It seems like they were there because they existed in history or folklore, and the author really wanted to include them. But a few of them served hardly any concrete purpose, or served in ways that could easily have been covered by another, more meaningful character. And, finally, the book is introduced in the modern era, though 99% of it occurs in the past. I can see how the modern element ties in, and hopefully will lead to something else (a sequel perhaps?), but it did seem rather out of place with the rest of the book.
That all being said, there were so many aspects of this book that intrigued me and enthralled me. You could tell that Tompkins put a lot of knowledge and research into this story, and it pays off. More than once I started doubting whether or not folklore and history were two separate things. Furthermore, as I stated before, there are an infinite number of small things that make this book go from good to great. Even the names of demons, their true names, being things that mortals cannot speak:
“‘I know you, Semjaza,’ said Aisling, opening her eyes, which had gone from gray to pale green. ‘I know your hidden, ineffable name.’ A shudder rippled through Semjaza’s blackness [...]. ‘I saw you slip out of heaven with your Grigori followers in your lust for mortal women. I watched as you were eventually rejected by mortals and your Nephilim offspring alike, as you descended into tresspassing against birds and beasts and reptiles, into devouring men’s flesh and drinking their blood. I know you ineffable name -’ Aisling made the sound of lightning striking seawater, a sound no human throat could make.”
In instances like these, Tompkins’s skill in writing truly shines through. There are many examples of these gems throughout, but I will let you find those for yourself.
The Last Days of Magic is not for everyone. You can tell from the many other reviews out there that some people simply did not like this book, that it wasn’t for them. If you are looking for a book that has a quick pace and is filled with spellslinging faeries and depictions of massive armies clashing, then do not look for it in this book.
If, however, you are willing to get invested in this story, to get lost in the world that Tompkins has created, then definitely pick it up. If you enjoy historical fiction and fantasy, if you find the more fantastical parts of religion or folklore interesting, then I believe this is right up your alley. If you are looking for an immersive experience that goes even beyond the book, something that is clearly a product of a lot of effort, then you should read The Last Days of Magic.