Randy Lee Eickhoff,
The Feast
(Forge, 1999)

Sometimes, a dinner party is doomed to disaster from the onset. This one, at Bricriu's new and opulent hall, never had a chance.

Bricriu, the Bitter-Tongued, is a mean-spirited member of Conchobar Mac Nessa's Ulster court. Randy Lee Eickhoff's The Feast is set in the age of heroes, when the likes of Cuchulainn, Fergus Mac Roich and others roam the Irish countryside fighting and loving as much as humanly -- or perhaps inhumanly -- possible. And words hold a great deal of power, so the Ulstermen have little choice but to accept Bricriu's invitation, lest he shame them with satirical poetry. But they impose a condition -- he can't attend his own feast.

No matter for Bricriu, who is able to sow seeds of dissent in advance. The story hinges on the Champion's portion, the best part of the meal, which goes to the most heroic warrior in the group. Bricriu convinces three of the men that they deserve the best cut, and all three contend viciously for the honor.

It's obvious to the reader, if not the characters, that Cuchulainn, ill-fated hero of The Raid, is the deserving hero. But two warriors, Loegaire Buadbach and Conall Cernach, won't yield their claims, and they're willing to risk danger and death in that cause.

So it falls to the king to decide. Conchobar, unwilling to risk losing the loyalty of either man, devises various means to let others decide for him, including imposing on Ailill and Maeve, rulers of neighboring Connacht, to make the choice. And so the testing begins.

These men and women of Eickhoff's Ireland are certainly an earthy lot. When it itches, they scratch. The men all have heroic sex drives (and anatomies to match), the women are all large-breasted, slim-waisted and have equally insatiable appetites. No one seems to mind too much if their spouses stray or their daughters dally, and everyone has endless reserves of stamina. They're all very proud, arrogant and willing to fight in the slightest cause.

In short, it's an entertaining story. Not nearly as dramatic as the great Cattle Raid or as heartbreaking as Deirdre of the Sorrows, this tale is more of a character study filled with minor adventures and small challenges. And Eickhoff certainly knows how to pen a description, as evidenced by this initial sketch of Bricriu:

They watched as he paused in front of them, his mouth pursed tightly in distaste, his black eyes hard and suspicious above his nose, smashed and tilted to the side, a wart hanging from one nostril like a drop of snot. A purple boil dotted the middle of his forehead; it would grow to the size of a man's fist if he kept his thoughts to himself. His black hair, streaked with gray, hung in dank ringlets to the collar of his food-spotted tunic. His head stood on his scrawny neck, tendons like strings with a large Adam's apple bobbing between them.

You just know this is a character you're not going to like.

The Feast is probably my least favorite when compared to Eickhoff's The Raid and The Sorrows, but it still is an enjoyable tale which rounds out the characters and gives more insight into their heroic lifestyles. Read the others first, but don't pass this one by.

[ by Tom Knapp ]



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