All Folk’d Up in Belfast

Folk'd UpFolk’d Up
Laurence Donaghy
Blackstaff Press; £7.99
Review: Val Nolan

Folk’d, the first part of Laurence Donaghy’s Belfast-set fantasy trilogy, offered readers a contemporary, Joseph Campbell style Hero’s Journey sprinkled with amusing pop-cultural references and an irreverent tone. Strong domestic scenes served to ground the more fantastic aspects of a novel focused on Danny Morrigan, a young man with “a genial manner which made everyone surmise (correctly) that he was harmless and (incorrectly) that he was not all that sharp”. The book combined a casual writing style with relatable concerns and an IT fluency which made it an ideal read for a teenage audience in particular.

Danny, who suffers from synaesthesia, worked in a call centre run by a successful Irish telecommunications company about to launch a “super-duper-ethernet project” marketed as “a gateway to a better world”. Living with his girlfriend Ellie and their son Luke, Folk’d followed Danny’s coming to terms with the existence of “Faeries” or “The Low Folk”. In its biggest gamble, and what was also its most intriguing  twist, the second half of that book turned the story on its head by offering not just a parallel timeline altered by the magical erasing of Danny and Ellie’s relationship but, intriguingly, the concept of a course-correcting universe with characters gradually growing aware that things were not as they were meant to be.

This second volume, Folk’d Up, resumes the story with an immediately apparent stylistic tightening. It is a more confident novel, a book less beholden to Campbell’s narrative template (though that is still present) and one eager to wed Donaghy’s loosey-goosey prose with a more intricate structure than that offered by the first book. Folk’d Up also builds on the initial novel’s hints of corporate skulduggery, arguable as unsettling as the accompanying giant spiders, and so solidifies the link between its very modern story of mysterious, eerie signals heard on mobile phones and its backdrop of old-school Irish superstitions about faeries and the dangers of disturbing raths.

Folk’d Up begins with a short recap before diving into the underworld alongside Danny, who is taken into the care of the war goddess Ériu, matron of the island and a deity who seeks to prepare him for his role in the coming battle against The Low Folk. Ériu provides Danny with whistle-stop survey of Irish supernatural history from the arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann (a race who don’t see magic as magical, instead “that was how the world worked”) through to the bloody uprising of the United Irishmen and onward to the Ireland of today. It is weighty backstory, though with Danny often an observer rather than a participant, it does give a touch of the Tour-of-the-Museum to the first half of Folk’d Up. That said, Donoghy’s battle scenes are otherwise engagingly and energetically described. Moreover, Danny gains in agency once he realizes that “this is no fairy tale” and involves himself more heavily in the proceedings. It will be interesting to see this new assurance play out in the promised third volume, Completely Folk’d.

One is curious too to see how the mythology of Ireland further connects to Danny’s family history. His father, especially, is granted a greater depth by Folk’d Up, emerging here as a proud but tragic figure. Indeed, he proves to be the sequel’s breakout character and his flashback action sequences, filled with terrifying “wolf-faeries” and the like, serve to contextualise the saga’s magical conflicts against more familiar struggles: “Up and down and across this miserable wee island, chasing shadows and shades and worst things besides. He’d fought changelings in castle ruins, battled faerie soldiers in back alleys while the British fought the IRA mere streets away.”

Unlike soldiers, however, the faeries of Folk’d Up operate more like something out of a gangster movie. Their leader wields a sword which can remake reality and, as CEO of the company Danny worked for, is about to unveil his “super advanced, top secret, only within Ireland’ network, a kind of twenty-first century update and exploitation of the ley-line concept: “Hundreds of thousands of thoughts – human thoughts – travelling across lines”, a commodification of the subconscious ready to be drawn upon by dark forces.

Though it is a darker outing than Folk’d – very much The Empire Strikes Back to the initial volume’s Star Wars (exactly the kind of reference Danny would appreciate) – Folk’d Up does preserve the first book’s sense of humour (along with Donaghy’s love of obscenity, again seemingly designed to appeal to the YA market). There is an increased and successful use of the saga’s supporting cast here too, not just Danny’s father but also his best friend Steve, who takes up the mantle of hero in the mortal world in Danny’s absence while simultaneously coping with the breakdown of everything he and Ellie (the parallel timeline having retconned them into a relationship) have believed to be true.

Handsomely produced by Blackstaff Press, Folk’d and Folk’d Up both display Donaghy’s genuine fondness for SF/F material and his lively approach to long-form storytelling. Wry observations about Northern Irish life (“Expert linguists have agreed that the Belfast ‘so’ is unique among all retorts contained in all dialects of the world’s languages. There exists no counter-move.”) compete for space with twists, turns, and Donaghy’s willingness to take the story in unexpected directions. Specifically, Folk’d Up’s excellent cliffhanger leaves the reader genuinely curious as to how Danny Morrigan’s story will conclude in the final volume.

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