Still working on catching up on the “Women of…” challenges! I can’t do my Fantasy and Science Fiction reads together in one post again for February, because the library has yet to actually send me my reserved copy of The Dispossessed. It’s by Ursula K. LeGuin! How can there be only one copy in the whole system?
Anyway, this (last) month’s “Women of Fantasy” book was Elfland by Freda Warrington. Take a moment to consider the cover of the book, if you will. More dedicated readers of fantasy will recognize this as the artwork of Kinyuko Y. Craft, whose work is perhaps most easily recognized on the covers of many of the novels of Patricia McKillip, and now the Wildwood books of Juliet Marillier as well.
The reason I feel the need to explain this to you, dear reader, (beyond using it as an excuse to link to a site of awesome artwork and mention two other authors I love,) is because it goes to explain why I came into this book with such particular expectations. I am, I admit, a very visual person, and I love a book with a pretty cover, but usually the pretty cover just gets me to pick the book up and then I proceed to read the book for the book it is. In this case, though, I started reading Elfland with all the expectations I normally have when I pick up a McKillip book, ie otherworldly, lyrical, high fantasy faerie tale prose.
Which is why I was a bit disconcerted to get 100 pages in and suddenly realize that I was reading something more along the lines of “Days of Our Faerie Lives.” I’m pretty sure I had read a description of the book before, back when I was trying to decide how many challenge books I wanted to try to read, and I did actually know, somewhere in the back of my mind, that this book actually took place at least partly in the modern world. And that’s fine! I like urban fantasy too! It’s actually what I’ve been reading the most of lately. But I was so trained to respond to that cover art in a certain way that I kept expecting the story to switch over the the fae realm any minute now… and it kept not doing that.
So here’s what the story is actually about. There is this race of beings, the Aetherials, who decided they actually liked living on Earth most of the time, so they crossed over out of Faerie (or Elfland, or any of a number of other things they call it) and blended in with humans. Mostly, they stayed on Earth in human society, but there was still a small door left open that they could cross back through if they wanted once in a while. Plus, every seven years, they have a big ceremony where they all cross back over through the big gates en masse and there’s a big party with all their Aetherial cousins who stay in Faerie all the time. Fun!
But then, just as all the people were gathering for the big crossover one year, the Gatekeeper suddenly closes all the gates, large and small, completely. He says there is a big danger on the other side, and in order to keep everyone safe on both sides of the gates, he can’t open them. Possibly ever. This is unheard of! But the Gatekeeper is a very important person, and surely he wouldn’t do such a thing if it wasn’t warranted. So everyone goes home and waits another seven years to see if it will be safe enough then. But it’s not.
By the time the main part of the story starts, the gates have been closed for something close to 14 years. The story focuses on the children of two neighboring families: the Gatekeeper’s sons, Sam and Jon Wilder; and their next-door neighbors, Matt, Rosie, and Lucas Wilder. They, like all the Aetherial children who came of age (16) during the time the gates have been closed, have never journeyed to the other side and in many ways have no real understanding of their own natures. They know they’re different, and have a few extra abilities, but for the most part, their concerns are very much like the concerns of strictly human teenagers and young adults.
My overwhelming impression of the story as a whole was that I was reading a soap opera (though nicely minus the soft-focus lens and ridiculous melodramatic acting) that had some aside references to faerie. We get wild-child sons from a broken home acting out; an evil stepmother; unrequited love; explorations of drugs (from the faerie realm, though, so they’re totally not illegal, he swears); marriages between inappropriate partners; torrid affairs; and elite group political machinations! And, as flip as that description may sound, none of these are bad things to have in this book. It all works. The reader cares about all the characters, even if they do end up being sort of evil. They’re all very fully formed, and it’s really hard to look away from their lives, even when it’s clear everything is about to collapse. You have to know what happens next. I stayed up way too late one night just because I could tell I was close to the end and I couldn’t stop reading.
So. Take this review for what you will. I did enjoy the book. It just wasn’t at all what I was expecting.