The Door on Half-Bald Hill by Helena Sorensen: A haunting reworking of Irish folklore
Updated: Jan 4
Overall rating: 9/10
Quality of writing: 9/10
Concerning content (language, violence, etc.): moderate
Age level: 14 and up
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In the little village of Blackthorn, located in a quasi-mythical, fantastical version of ancient Ireland, there is a curse on the land—crops fail, animals die, and the water has become bitter and poisonous. Although Corann, the wise druid of the village, has failed to solve this problem that threatens the villagers with starvation, Idris, the young bard and the protagonist of the story, takes it upon himself to lift the curse and return the land to its once-flourishing state. Opposing him is Zinerva, a sinister and mysterious figure aided by the Crone, the malevolent force or deity (never directly seen in the story) who originally caused the curse.
Along the way, Idris is forced to unravel the tangled strands of myth and legend that brought his village and its people to the state they currently are in, leading to frequent flashbacks and pieces of story inset into the larger narrative. The story is best described as “haunting” or “dark fantasy”—strange creatures and figures from folklore lurk around its edges, and extra details are far more often implied than outright described—but its intriguing tone and suspense (not to mention Sorensen’s excellent use of Irish and Celtic legends) make it difficult to put down.
The Door on Half-Bald Hill is absolutely an excellent book and well worth a read (or two), but at the same time, plot is perhaps not its strongest quality. That’s not to say that there are plot holes of any kind—Sorensen is an extremely talented writer, and the structure hangs together well—but rather that the story simply unfolds rather slowly, which could lose some readers’ interest. This is partially due to the style of the story, since its suspense is an integral part of the “figuring out how to undo the curse” aspect of the plot, and a slow unfolding through flashbacks and inset stories accomplishes this nicely. Still, it can be difficult at times to identify key turning points of the narrative, and overall I would say that this book’s strength is not so much in an engaging plot, as in the tone and sense of brooding mystery that it conveys. (7/10)
Sorensen does a very nice job of bringing in a diversity of unique names for her characters (Deirdre, Corann, Idris, Zinerva, Barra) while simultaneously making them fit together into a seamless impression of the fictional world she describes. However, beyond the few main characters (Idris, Corann, and Zinerva to a degree), the other figures can seem a bit flat at times. We know most of the other villagers primarily by name and what they do for a living, and while Idris does have a love interest (Muriel), they don’t interact as much as you might expect, beyond her encouraging him a few times towards the end of the book. The plot unfolds mostly through Idris’s inner struggles and dialogues with Corann, and while this suits the style of the book, it also leaves somewhat to be desired as far as fleshing out other characters. (7/10)
While The Door on Half-Bald Hill is relatively short (289 pages in my edition), Sorensen does pack in some heavy material (see Concerning content below). More than that, the plot can be a little difficult to follow at times, and much of the book is devoted to Idris’s introspection and emotions over his efforts to undo the curse, which is perhaps not the most straightforward type of writing. However, the book is still very much readable, albeit with just a bit more effort than some works. (5.5/10)
Quality of writing
One of the aspects of this book I most enjoyed was simply the way Sorensen writes—not only does she expertly blend in folklore and mythological figures/creatures, but the world she has created for this story has a sense of depth rarely found in other authors. Her writing is almost Tolkienesque: the reader is constantly getting the impression that more events are happening “off-screen,” that there are also other stories going on at the same time in this world, and that there is a massive body of history (of which we only get fragments) that has led up to the story itself, as the reader experiences it. Sorensen’s work is also Tolkienesque in the sense that even though it is not explicitly Christian (indeed, practices that could rightly be described as “pagan” appear at several points), it nevertheless has a sense of Christianity latent within it. Especially towards the end, themes of sacrifice and virtue come through in a way that allows readers to come away having more deeply understood certain qualities of Christianity while also not feeling that they’ve been “preached at.” This last attribute in particular is a rare one for authors to successfully achieve in their work, and for this reason, this book merits a 9/10 in this category.
The Door on Half-Bald Hill has some content worthy of concern, but not what I would consider beyond reason for a book of its tone and age range. Possibly the worst instance is one scene where another village’s druid, driven mad by Zinerva, commits suicide by burning himself to death during a religious ceremony—the action of it is described, but not in graphic detail. Other than that, references to violence are generally within stories told by characters, and are therefore minimally graphic. Also within a flashback, we hear one character tell another that a woman in the past seduced a certain warrior, but we get no more detail than the statement “he could not withstand her beauty” and a reference to “the wood where the lovers made their bed.” Finally, a partially-nude woman (a member of the Fir Bolg, a semi-supernatural race) is described briefly in one scene, but again, fairly minimal detail is given. This, coupled with the fact that the book contains no concerning language, means that while The Door on Half-Bald Hill certainly does have content that potential readers should be aware of, I don’t think that this content should be cause to avoid this book (at least for most readers in its recommended age range).
Between its plot and certain elements of its content, this book has several factors that mean it would be better for a slightly older age range than many other books I’ve reviewed. My suggestion would be ages 14 and up, but this is, as always, a generalization—parents and readers should determine what works best for them and adjust the age range up or down using their best judgement.