The first thing the prospective reader notices when opening this novel is the beautiful edition itself. It is full of black and white illustrations and each page number contains a decorative motif of a leaf or flower. Leafing through the pages one finds dark, oneiric illustrations depicting some theme of the book, while others contain pagan symbols or references to ancient cults, such as the ancient Celtic writing system, ogham.
These illustrations form a potent dialogue with the text and serve the story faithfully for, as the cover proclaims, this is a tale of love, magic, mystery and death. The sensation is of having in one’s hand a magical, ancient volume which leads to the secret world of Leonís.
The tale takes place in Lotar, a valley in the interior of Umbría, a mythical province of northern Spain, in 1998. The main character is Pablo Galván, the son of Arturo Galván, the most widely known intellectual and writer from the valley, a character of some celebrity who died twelve years earlier in a mountain accident in Lotar. The narrative begins in Madrid when Pablo receives an envelope sent to his home from a lawyer’s office. It’s a letter written by his father twelve years earlier, just before his death, asking Pablo to go back to Lotar to investigate a legend from the High-Middle Ages related to Tristan and Isolde and the kingdom, also legendary, of Leonís (or Lyonesse). Pablo hesitates to follow his father’s directive, but finally he decides to do it, mostly because it gives him the opportunity to meet again with Raquel Orellana, the great love of his youth. So Pablo travels to Lotar but when he arrives there he discovers that everything he knew about the death of his father was untrue or, at best, partly true. In fact, Arturo Galvan’s disappearance is still an unsolved mystery, one more unsolved mystery among many others that the Valley has been keeping for centuries. From that moment, Pablo begins to investigate his father’s past trying to discover the causes of his disappearance.
He visits villages and sites in the valley gathering clues about his father’s supposed legacy, yet everything he finds out becomes stranger at every turn and apparently leads nowhere. At the same time, someone is determined to expel Pablo from the valley and does not shy from using violence to accomplish that end. Pablo begins to suspect that behind the story lies an occult mystery. He learns about a theory his father had called the Leonís Hypothesis, which situates Lyonesse in Umbría, and about the latter’s discovery of the Drisdan Codex, a version of the Tristan and Isolde legend that is four hundred years older than all other previously known versions. The investigations lead Pablo to the discovery that his father was not the supposed agnostic materialist he had supposed, but a believer in the supernatural, in the magic that constitutes one more natural force in the order of things in Umbría.
In the meanwhile, Pablo meets Raquel again and rekindles their lost love, but it is a love that also hides terrible secrets. Raquel is a painter but is also working on a book about nature in the Valley of Lotar, called “Cycles” which describes the complexity and topical harmony of nature being repeated, like history, time and time again, indefinitely. Finally, Pablo convinces Raquel to complete the circle that he supposes is his father’s wish, and in doing so becomes involved in an ancient ritual that will lead him to an inexorable and impossible fate. They take a dangerous combination of hallucinogens and go to various sacred sites and finally to the barrows, where they start to have visions of another self-contained world, perhaps the mythic Leonís. In the midst of their hallucination, someone attacks Raquel and Pablo attempts to defend her, and at that moment he is felled by a blow. From that moment on, he remembers nothing, except that person who hit him looks very much like his own father.
Pablo then discovers his own and Raquel’s true family origins, which tie them beyond desire and blood, and that they are simply repeating the Tristan and Isolde legend as foreordained by pagan forces since the beginning of time. Leonís is a dark and melancholy fairy tale written for adults, where a curse takes on the appearance of love.
In the end, as in many such stories, curiosity ends up punishing the protagonist. Nothing is what it looks like on the surface in this novel, everything has a dubious side, all characters hide secrets. Leonís is about the impossibility of recovering past life experiences and the consequences of trying to regain them.
The author has masterfully woven a web that incorporates both realistic and fantastical elements, drawing on sources as disparate as Celtic traditions, Druidic lore and Arthurian legend, the Nietzschean theory of eternal recurrence, and nature studies. The names given to places and characters are echoes of those elements. The narrative structure is also very interesting, as the story is framed as a tale remembered and written down by a priest, perhaps the last, of the “old religion”. Each chapter is preceded by a quotation from imaginary works written by the characters themselves, “Ancient Lotar” by Arturo Galvan and “Cycles” by Raquel Orellana, which help define the selfcontained and insular world of the Valley of Lotar. No one then is left on the “outside” of the story, except the story’s “inside.” Like a circle of persons around a fire, the frames enclose not only the story’s content, but also its readers. Within this world, the narrative is propelled along by realistic and plausible dialogues, creating a great deal of suspense for readers to delve further into the story’s “thickness”. It could be the story of a real family, in a normal place, but full of magic and mysteries which are revealed in the end when the reader finally learns who is who in this puzzle.
It would be a shame, and a great loss to English reading public, if this expertly crafted novel were not translated into English, as it enchants the reader at every turn.