On her death bed Eileen McBride anoints her son Michael’s left eye with a curious chrism. His father says nothing but lays down an iron railroad spike that Michael puts in his pocket. Afterwards he finds himself attacked and pursued by a mysterious figure in a red cap and other figures like nothing he has ever seen before. Only the abrupt inspiration of the Irish faerie stories his mother told him reminds Michael that iron will repulse these attackers and he flees to the rail station and ultimately out west. The year is 1876.
A seemingly chance encounter with a woman called Poker Alice on the train leads Michael to a cattle ranch in Texas where he immediately demonstrates skills in taming a wild stallion using his mother’s old Irish lore and is employed on a cattle drive.
Both SF and Fantasy have frequently overlapped with Crime, Thriller and Romance genres but the true Fantasy Western is scarce. The Flight Of Michael McBride takes Michael out onto theTexas plains on a round-up and Midori Snyder sets the scene with detail. The cowboy banter, jokes at city boy Michael’s expense, and the dirt and tiredness of trail riding draw the story along until the camp is attacked.
Although Michael can see the fantastical creatures attacking his new friends, to them it is a panther, then a water snake. Nevertheless they begin to fear whatever it is that haunts him, and fuelled further by tales of Coyote and the mysterious Night Hatchet, they banish him from their party and he goes off on his own into the Texan wilderness.
Up to this point, two-thirds of the way in, The Flight Of Michael McBride has been an above average fantasy of faerie intrusion, made interesting by an uncommon setting and evocative writing. Michael’s transition from soft-handed, rich city boy to horse charmer and ‘one of the boys’ is too easily facilitated as in many similar fantasies but Snyder tells her story deftly and at a confident pace. The recognition of the role of place in faerie adds focus and by linking Mexican and Native American myths in Snyder goes new places.
Then there is a significant, abrupt dislocation as Michel’s viewpoint is left aside with the human world and we are thrust into the ongoing feud between the Morrigu and Red Cap Finnvarr, with the vicious Night Hatchet a further threat. Michael, fleeing and aided by coyote, is transformed into a crow and must battle. Disorienting scenes of flight, fall, shifting awareness increase the dramatic tension and then he is rescued by tough, bow-wielding, fast-talking frontierswoman Annie Mae.
The inevitable climax pits Michael against Red Cap to rescue Annie, reveals his true ancestry, and of course, ties things up neatly.
Michael’s flight is literal and metaphorical, motivated by multiple emotions, fear, love, guilt, hate, and resentment and although much of the plot is standard, Snyder’s unique touches and balance of myth and reality raise her novel well above the routine. It’s not without faults, of course. The role of Poker Alice is not explained sufficiently, and I’d have liked more of Annie Mae’s robust and earthy character. The crow scene is striking and evocative, but tonally at odds with the rest, and a crow’s cry of alarm transliterated as ‘Kwak!’ was a wrong note. Nevertheless Midori Snyder is an intelligent, original, and confident fantasist and The Flight Of Michael McBride a very worthy and memorable fantasy novel.