Grania is Grainne Ni Mhaille, a 16th-century Irish chieftain, known as Grace O'Malley to the English, who had enough trouble with her that her name appears in a record or two from the reign of Elizabeth I.
This mostly fictional story is presented by Morgan Llywelyn in six sections, five of which are named for her sexual partners. It begins strikingly as a "tall and lean, taut-muscled" commander of an Irish merchant convoy heroically fights to save the burning flagship and its men -- and turns out to be a woman.
Grania is not your garden-variety heroine. With her "weathered face" and "splayed toes," her "large honesty and few pretensions," she came by her warrior ways trying to be the son she thought her father wanted. By the time she realized he would rather have had her "a female woman" with "the six womanly gifts: beauty of form, beauty of voice, sweet speech, skill with a needle, chastity, and female wisdom," she's too set in her habits to change. Still, Grace attracts lovers with the unique beauty of her "long stride and easy slouch and proud way . . . the deep voice yelling orders . . . the way she stalked into a room."
Her first marriage, to an insensitive he-man, ends with his death in battle; her second sounds less like happily-ever-after than a pursuit of harpiness. Later, Grania helps herself to this second mate's ancestral castle and lands. True love comes, temporarily, in the form of a poetic Welsh seaman washed up on her shore and finally, in a more permanent arrangement, with "fierce, funny" Tigernan, faithful liegeman since her childhood.
Meanwhile, Grania's charisma ("I just went in the direction I chose, and when I looked back they were following me") makes enemies for her among the English. Tigernan must kill for her, and later she is imprisoned twice. One of the more interesting episodes concerns her release in response to the threat of an army of women dressed as warriors to frighten her captors. There are no historical notes to inform the reader whether this, or any other scene, is based on fact.
Grania has trouble finding other women who share her approach or her profession (honest trade with a little piracy on the side). So she begins to identify with another, more famous feminist of the time, Elizabeth I. The story builds toward a quite effective, fictional (as far as I can discover) encounter with that other powerful "she-king." The two wordlessly seal their sisterhood against the world, although Grania can't help but reflect that she has endcol children to carry on her blood, and the Virgin Queen, one assumes, has none.
Historically a fair accounting of the roots of the centuries-old English-Irish disaster, Llywelyn's book makes clear Grania's love for her land. But it has little of the magic that occasionally emerged in her previous novel "The Lion of Ireland." The writing is only capable, and too often the scenes are fragmented.
Grania's sturdy character grows throughout the story, but there is little probing beneath the surface. The contradiction between her proclaimed sense of honor and her self-serving high-handedness and piracy is perhaps understandable but insufficiently explored. Her faint attraction to a vaguely druidic neo-pantheism appears to be more of a romantic-novel convention than a serious questioning of Christianity. In fact, Grania, for all her feminist appeal, is ultimately no more than a romantic heroine of the 1980s.