GUEST REVIEW: Celtic Storms by Delaney Rhodes

GUEST REVIEW: Celtic Storms by Delaney Rhodes

Dear Delaney Rhodes,

Last weekend I picked up your new book, Celtic Storms, from Amazon because it was free, and the cover, designed by the talented Kim Killion, was slick and very pretty. The setting also intrigued me since it was set in late medieval Ireland. Granted, I can be picky about Irish-set novels, as I used to attend the University of Ulster in Belfast. However, even though I wasn’t expecting Laura Kinsale, I was hoping for something at least entertainingly silly, like the cracktastic fun of Sasha Lord’s books.

Celtic Storms by DelaneyBut no. It was disappointing in just about every way. The characters were flat, the plot was incoherent, and the setting was such a ridiculous historical mishmash it called to mind the trainwreck that was Spoil of War. There were iron age roundhouses next to Italian domed palaces… not to mention an Indian rug merchant named Sanjay… and kudzu! All in 1450s Ireland!

The plot, as far as I could make out, was about some guy named Patrick from Northern Ireland (a country which didn’t exist until Partition in 1921) who is betrothed to a rich chick in an unspecified county in “the west of Ireland” named Darina O’Malley. An evil satanic witch named Odetta has cursed the O’Malley clan with the inability to bear sons, so Darina and her sisters– Dervila, Daenal, Darcy, and Dareca— are taught to fight and work on ships while wearing tunics and trousers. (Actually even Irishmen did not wear trousers or hose in this period, as can be seen in this Durer engraving.) So Patrick leaves Northern Ireland to go to the west coast to meet Darina and get married. Oh, and he finds out one of his younger brothers is actually an O’Malley.

Literally two thirds of the book goes by, and Patrick is still traveling to Darina’s home. There’s a ton of characters here— besides Odetta and her coven and attendant clerics, there’s Kyra, a warrior chick, Lucian, a druid/scribe, and most interestingly, a tortured priest named Father MacArtrey— but there’s surprisingly little that happens. Most books in a romance series also work as standalones. But Storms reads like an extended prologue for the rest of the Celtic Steel series—and it seems that there will be four upcoming books. It’s all buildup and backstory; but worse of all, there is absolutely no resolution in the end. After a lot of blather and milling about, we’re rushed through the wedding and an obligatory sex scene (which is described, incredibly enough, in flashback). Then, with a couple of chapters to go, there’s the Big Misunderstanding, and… the novel just ends in a cliffhanger. There’s no Happily Ever After, no nothing. I was left wondering— what on earth did I just read?

I got the impression that the author doesn’t read a lot of romances, since the relationship between the hero and heroine is practically non-existent. Most romances immediately introduce our romantic leads, and show the readers how their feelings for each other grow and develop— but there’s none of that here. Patrick and Darina are pretty much non-entities with minimal screen time. We are told how independent and brave Darina is: she’s even an atheist who only worships herself! But she doesn’t actually do anything. She goes looking for her pet falcon, dreams about Patrick and later gets married to him, but other than that, she is a blank slate. I can’t even go far to call her unlikable. She’s just… not really there.

The hero, Patrick, also does not make much of an impression either— he stutters, which I initially thought was really cool, because I’d never seen a hero who stuttered before. But this is dealt with in the most cursory way, as during the big love scene, Patrick communicates telepathically with Darina, so his speech impediment isn’t even an issue. And his amazing psychic powers come from out of the blue as well, to add to the whole WTF of it all. Lame.

The conflict, such as it is, comes from Odetta scheming, slutting around and sacrificing children to Gallic deities, but… even this character was banal. Here is an example of some of the ineptly written (and ungrammatical) dialogue in the book:

“Stop it!” shouted Odetta and threw her fist against the altar. “Hear me now, my brother. You do not wish to cross me. If it were not for me, you would not be Laird of Burke lands. As it stands, I have more respect from the people and more power than you ever will. Do not tempt me to replace you too,” she smiled as she gestured a glance towards Easal.

“Easal would make a fine husband and if I marry, my husband would no doubt be Laird in your absence. That is – if you should meet some unfortunate occurrence. Lest you forget what happened to our sister,” said Odetta.

“Odetta! Enough already!” shouted Cynbel. “What is it you want from me?”

“Laird O’Malley has passed and his wife as well.” stated Odetta.

“How do you know this?” asked Easal.

“I have my ways Easal. I know of all of the goings on in the O’Malley clan. What we need to concentrate on now. is how to overtake the clan and make O’Malley port a part of the Burke lands.”

“And just why would I want to do that?” asked Cynbel. “Because you are just as opportunistic as I am; because you want to expand your reach and because it will bring us great wealth. Combining what’s left of the O’Malley clan with the Burkes would make us the most significant power in all of Ireland.”

“Because – we would be unstoppable,” chimed in Easal.

“Tell me what you are thinking. What is going on in the beautiful head of yours Odetta?” asked Easal as he approached Odetta and laid a hand on either side of her cheeks.

Odetta smiled. She smiled because she knew she could make Easal do whatever she wanted; because she knew her brother didn’t stand a chance at denying her what she wanted. It hadn’t worked for her sister and it wouldn’t work for Cynbel.

Soon it would all be hers.

(Delaney Rhodes, Celtic Storms [Kindle Locations 862-865]. DR Publishing. Kindle Edition.)

If Odetta had been given more to do, and given some evil sex scenes a la an old Bertrice Small bodice-ripper, Storms might have been more entertaining, but her scenes are constantly intercut with people traveling or discussing the upcoming wedding. It doesn’t help that she’s really not very threatening. She threatens, she cackles, she shakes her booty, but she feels like a reject from a Hammer horror film.

The most interesting character by far is the conflicted priest, Father MacArtrey. He helps the sick and the poor, but is hated by the pagan O’Malleys; he is also the unwilling servant of the evil Odetta who destroyed the monastery where he formerly lived; yet he does his best to thwart her evil schemes, and is in the end thrown into a dungeon for his efforts. Even though he is the most dynamic character, we’re not supposed to like him. Instead, we’re told repeatedly how awful and interfering he is, because he’s involved with the lives of his parishioners, and he’s tried to put a stop to the “Lunar Bacchanals” on the so-called “Island of Women.” We’re also told how horrid Catholicism is, because Catholicism was brought from England to enslave the Irish. Wait, what?

Patrick’s last experience with a priest had been a bitter reminder that England’s influence on Ireland had brought with it a type of bondage unfamiliar to most. The infiltration of the Catholic Church had nearly driven out all but a few who worshiped the old gods and practiced the old ways. Even then, of the ones left who worshiped the old gods; many were terrified of being found out or being persecuted by the others.

(Delaney Rhodes, Celtic Storms [Kindle Locations 1913-1916]. DR Publishing. Kindle Edition.)

I don’t know if Ms. Rhodes is aware of this, but Ireland was Christianized quite early, in late Roman times. In fact, after the invasion of Britain by the Angles and the Saxons, missionaries from Ireland helped Christianize the pagan Saxon population. The Irish monk St. Aidan established the monastery of Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumbria, which quickly became a training center for Irish and English missionaries who went on evangelize among the Mercians, Angles and Saxons. And further north, Irish monks from Iona off the coast of Scotland played a crucial role in converting the Scots, and were in fact so wildly successful that churches were established all up and down the west coast of Scotland and England. This is not obscure history— it’s all covered in such well-known books as Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization. It could be argued that England wouldn’t be the same today, if it weren’t for the colonizing and civilizing efforts of the Irish in late antiquity and the early middle ages.

But in Celtic Storms, there are no saints, scholars or poets— there’s even no reference to the famous epics and legends, like the Táin, or the Fenian Cycle, or Deirdre of the Sorrows, or anything. Ireland is instead a lawless pit of orgies and child sacrifice. No doubt the author means this book to be a love letter to the Emerald Isle, but honestly the depiction of Ireland in this story is— I’m sure unintentionally— more in line with the virulently anti-Irish propaganda coming out of England in the 1640s.

And thus we come to the most inexplicable part about this book. I’m used to many American-authored books about historical Ireland depicting a sentimental love for “the old ways” (aka druidism or Celtic polytheism) but Storms takes the cake for pure absurdity. In 1450s Ireland— a thousand years after St. Patrick— apparently almost everyone in Ireland is still a pagan, even our hero Patrick. (Yes, a pagan- the son of a “druid priestess” even– whose name is Patrick.) Everyone, and I mean everyone, swears “by the stars” or “by the gods” or “by the goddess!” Yet you also occasionally get an occasional “Jaysus” and “Mary Mother of God.” But then you have off-screen “Lunar Bacchanals” (aka orgies) in honor of the goddess Morrigan, and public sacrifices to the Gallic god Teutates (aka Toutatis from the Asterix comic). We’re told Father MacArtrey was taken in by the O’Malleys because they felt sorry for him, even though they’re not Catholic; but then they have a spare chapel for him, and he presides over “weddings and baptisms.” What? Huh? How does this make any sense?

This book might have been passable as a fantasy, but as a historical, it’s a complete failure. The O’Malleys live in a domed, palatial Italian Renaissance style castle with stained glass windows, “settee lounge chairs” and rugs imported from India— courtesy of Darina’s friend Sanjay— but the Island of Women across the bay has a village of iron age roundhouses. Odetta uses the Japanese vine kudzu— which even today does not grow in Ireland, or most anywhere in Europe— as a hangover cure. Almost eight hundred years after the great illuminated manuscript the Book of Kells was created, Lucian the druidic scribe only reads from scrolls. Most of the names are not remotely Irish: we have Victorian names like Mavis, contemporary names like Gemma, Darcy, and Payton, and World of Warcraft-type fantasy names like Naelyn, Monae and Vynae.

The mindset of the characters is also completely modern. Not only does Dallin the O’Malley chieftain scoff at the “guilt of religion,” but here’s our self-worshipping heroine Darina thinking about how she lost her virginity at a “Lunar Bacchanal”:

Tis just as well. At least my betrothed won’t see me as a prudish virgin. After all, times have changed. And the clan’s women had been celebrating the Lunar Bacchanals for years. Just what else is a woman to do? There are no men to be had around here.

(Delaney Rhodes, Celtic Storms [Kindle Locations 954-956]. DR Publishing. Kindle Edition.)

Yet for all this supposed lack of men, we are then told that the Lunar Bacchanals are some of the biggest tourist attractions around:

Tales of the O’Malley lands Lunar Bacchanal had traveled throughout all of Ireland. Many a man had come seeking admittance to the festival only to be turned away. In fact, many of the hired soldiers had arrived in O’Malley territory specifically to seek out the Festival.

But – over the years it had become more than a routine gathering for a sensual escape. Several fine matches had been made between the invited guests and women of the island. Several marriages had resulted and the clan grew bigger. Gemma had maintained the religious origins of the Festival and kept the rites as they had been handed down; much to the chagrin of Father MacArtrey.

Since the day he had become the clan’s priest, Father MacArtrey had made every plausible attempt to stop the monthly festivals. Denouncing it as “evil imbibing’s” and “the devil’s doorway” he had received little support from the local men in changing the tradition. Even Laird O’Malley was hard pressed to change the custom as he had met his beloved Anya at one such festival.

(Delaney Rhodes, Celtic Storms [Kindle Locations 985-993]. DR Publishing. Kindle Edition.)

So, if all these men are coming to town for the orgies— and marriages are often made there— why is it that the lord’s daughters haven’t been married off yet? And why is Darina’s betrothal such a shock to her? This is just one of the many inconsistencies in the story. I was also left wondering why evil Odetta was left to run amuck, taking over monasteries and later stabbing her brother the chieftain without anyone blinking an eye: but that’s life in a heathen backwater, I guess.

In addition to the unpromising plot, the book was so badly edited that I found it hard to read. What’s even more surprising (and dismaying) is that it seems Ms. Rhodes actually did hire an editor to edit her book— an “A. O’Connell”— but there’s no signs in this story that an editor worked on it at all. Not only are there are many misspellings— lightning is often spelled “lightening” and the character name Dervila is also spelled “Dervilla,” to name a few—but multiple lines of dialogue are grouped in one paragraph, and apostrophes, commas and quotation marks are abused on almost every page. The writing is pretty confusing too. Not only are there constant POV shifts, with information constantly repeated over and over, but the pacing is some of the worst I have ever seen. A silly, badly researched story can be made enjoyable if there’s lots of sex and action, but there wasn’t even that. (As I mentioned earlier, the one and only sex scene happened at the end of the book, in a flashback.) There wasn’t even any kind of ending, which is so lazy as to be unforgivable.

This book, unfortunately, in many ways exemplifies the worst excesses of self-published books; I have read many bad books from various publishers, but none (it seems to me) quite up to this level of incompetence. On the other hand, there are many talented, experienced authors self-publishing great stories. Two other self-published books I read recently were Jackie Barbosa’s The Lesson Plan and Christine Pope’s Heart of Gold, and both of them were excellent. They were smart, romantic, and satisfying reads with polished, tightly edited prose. Self-publishing, I strongly believe, is a viable way of publishing: it’s a way of getting fresh, different stories out there. But the author can’t just stop at providing a professional cover for her book—she needs to make sure her story is also up to professional standards. I’m just happy that I got my copy of Celtic Storms for free—I can’t imagine how I’d feel if I’d actually paid for it.

In the end, I think self-publishing is a great outlet for professional authors with proven track records. But if you’re a new author with the bad luck to have hired an incompetent editor— as Ms. Rhodes seems to be— I wouldn’t recommend it.

I wish I could have enjoyed Celtic Storms, but I couldn’t. It is confusing, unsatisfying, ineptly written, poorly researched, and it has one of the worst endings I’ve ever seen in a romance. For all these reasons, I give it an F.

~ Joanne Renaud