In his debut novel, The Last Days of Magic, Mark Tompkins imbues European history with Irish mythology, allowing real-life characters to rub shoulders with figures of legend. Thus Queen Isabella is raised as a witch in a French high coven, while Irish lords keep court with the Sidhe and make treaties with fairies. By interweaving history with magic, Tompkins puts a clever spin on the past. How did Richard II land ships on Irish soil? With help from a power-hungry Fomorian king!
Yet the novel begins in 2016, when a panicked grandmother calls her granddaughter to tell her about the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Book of Jubilees, and their connection to European mythology. And then the book plunges back in time to medieval Ireland, a land ruled by a triune goddess whose future—along with the future of magic itself—is in jeopardy.
However, Tompkins often tells more than he shows. Many key character moments are rendered broadly, without interiority, flattening characters and their motivations. The point of view jumps around from head to head within a single scene. Omniscience is often employed in traditional myth, but in The Last Days of Magic, it weakens our bond with the characters.
Tompkins’ time-jumping breeds further disconnection. One late chapter begins with a fabulous betrayal, as a beautiful witch approaches Richard II… but in the very next paragraph, the betrayal is already years in the past. Richard II is already an emaciated prisoner, and we’re robbed of immediacy and drama.
Tompkins does a few things very well, particularly when it comes to the Sidhe. The character of Jordan, too—one of the Vatican’s exorcists—is compelling enough to be a troubled hero in a Guy Ritchie movie, though he shows up too late in the narrative. If only Tompkins had stuck with Jordan from the start and explored Ireland’s magic and mystery through Jordan’s eyes, instead of in voluminous info-dumps.
Most surprisingly, for a book called The Last Days of Magic, magic itself is often glossed over without an accompanying sense of wonder and enchantment. The magic of the Sidhe reads stilted and wooden, and the brutal magic of witches and demons—all those delicious blood sacrifices and baby-fat candles!—comes off equally mundane. When the novel ends flatly and abruptly, back in the modern age, your hunger for more may stem from this novel’s shortcomings instead of a desire for a sequel.
The Last Days of Magic by Mark Tompkins
Published March 1, 2016