fairies

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.18.2016
Book from: Personal collection

The King of Elfland's Daughter - cover

In their ruddy jackets of leather that reached to their knees the men of Erl appeared before their lord, the stately white-haired man in his long red room. He leaned in his carven chair and heard their spokesman.

And thus their spokesman said.

‘For seven hundred years the chiefs of your race have ruled us well; and their deeds are remembered by the minor minstrels, living on yet in their little tinkling songs. And yet the generations stream away, and there is no new thing.’

‘What would you?’ said the lord.

‘We would be ruled by a magic lord,’ they said.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter is a dreamy, colorful, exceedingly British literary fairy-story for adults; it’s a crucial antecedent to the Lord of the Rings, Lovecraft, and other early purveyors of rich prose and high fantasy. I’d been meaning to read this ever since I started delving into Tolkieniana in high school, and saw it discussed in one of Tom Shippey’s essay collections, and finally invested in a personal copy when Seek Books liquidated a few years ago (alaaaas).

Previously, I’d only read one other bit of Dunsany – one of his short stories, likewise in a Shippey anthology that I picked out in high school. I remember the story as being pleasantly swampy, and involving big swords, at least one lizard-monster, and monolithic architecture. Great; carry on.

Elfland unfortunately I found a slog to get through, which is one of those things that makes one feel jaded. About once a chapter there’d be a human insight or a wondrous image that made me smile; the rest of the time, I found it terrifically cloying, and poorly paced and motivated. It seems to stagger back and forth in the territory between overexplained high fantasy and mystifying fairy story, such that it’s neither quite weird enough to fly free of expectations of logic, nor quite grounded enough in recognizable motivations to feel like much more than a succession of elaborate tableaux. I’d also argue there’s something rhythmically off about the delivery of the fairy-story elements, where the repetition and flow fail to build the kind of irrefutable dream-logic that pulls good mythos onward, but this could be a secondary symptom of my dislike for Dunsany’s writing on the sentence level.

The allover layer of pastoral treacle is what did me in from the beginning. (e.g., “little tinkling songs” above.) I have a tolerance for British plumminess that easily tips over into an embarrassingly active enjoyment (see: my ability to repeatedly reread Richard Adams’ epic fantasies), but Dunsany overleaps plumminess and stands firmly in the Land of Preciousness. So many buttercups.

Returning to the idea of generic contributions: it was interesting to recognize the eventual moral bent of the narrative – where magic/sense of wonder is a good in and of itself, and its restoration to a land is a triumph – as one that I had previously thought of as typical of later fantasy. (McKillip does this a lot, for example.) That is, I see that story structure as deeply indicative of a genre that is both conscious and defensive of itself of as a genre. It makes sense, then, that Dunsany would stand as a precedent to Tolkien et al. not only in style, but in literary ethos.

Related reading:
“The Golden Key,” by George MacDonald (1867) E

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Korgi, by Christian Slade (2007): The woodland escapades and scrapes of a fairy-like young girl and her magical corgi companion – corgis were traditionally said to be fairy steeds. There are three volumes so far; I’ve read the first two.

Korgibook korgi3

This would be a great gift for folks, children or otherwise, who are keen on fairies and/or dogs. Korgi is so cute and so peaceful – nearly as cute as Mouse Guard, and whimsical, dreamy, and celebratory of motion in a way that’s reminiscent of a lot of the first volume of Flight. Slade is not a very good draftsman (wandering facial features + an overall look that is slightly squishy and uncertain), but every panel is well-composed, again and again hitting that evocative sense of marveling at a woodland expanse. Also, his linework is notably enjoyable – scratchy, nervy, woodsy. His treetrunks are so nice.

Something that Slade does really right is letting loose when drawing the villainous critters – their gleeful bloat and gnarl works well to counterbalance the wide-eyed sweetness of the rest of the comic.

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ApocalyptiGirl, by Andrew MacLean (2015): A beautiful, energetic, but morally questionable post-apocalyptic yarn of a young warrior woman and her cat surviving amid tribal warfare.

ApocalyptiGirl

Read it for the crisp action sequences, expressive characters, and scruffy, nubbly, involving environments (rusting, grass-overgrown mechs; a home built in an abandoned subway train). The story’s mysteriousness is dampened by exposition that manages to be both heavy-handed and slightly garbled, and by the pat ending, which seems to lazily undercut all of heroine Aria’s past moral quandaries over the bloodshed she’s seen and enacted.

ApocalyptiGirl

Still, the ambience and visuals are striking and memorable; I’m very happy to own the comic to keep revisiting the art.

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Date read: 12.19.10
Book from: Public library
Reviewer: Emera

book folkkeeper

“Here in the cellar, I control the Folk. Here, I’m queen of the world.”

The Folk Keeper is much darker and stranger than I expected based on the title and cover art alone – which is awesome, since that’s the way I prefer it. Corinna Stonewall is a proud, vengeful orphan girl who by wit and trickery earned the position of Folk Keeper. In subterranean dark, she appeases the anger of the vicious, cave-dwelling Folk – described as “mostly wet mouth and teeth.” Summoned by a dying lord to be Folk Keeper of his island estate, where the Folk are particularly voracious and mysteries abound, Corinna sets about uncovering any secrets that might give her more power, whether over the Folk or the estate’s various inhabitants. At the same time, it comes clear that she must begin to come to terms with her own secrets: her unknown parentage, her odd powers and desires.

Billingsley’s angular, vivid prose is an absolute pleasure, full of sharp dialogue, intriguing detail, and unsettling, obliquely beautiful imagery; she’s one of the most successful stylists I’ve encountered in recent years. If you have any familiarity with Celtic folklore, the key to Corinna’s secrets is pretty obvious, but Billingsley puts a number of creative spins on this and other traditional elements within the novel. Some are more convincingly organic than others, but all are beautifully described. And Corinna’s friendship with Finian, the estate’s eccentric, ship-loving heir, is genuinely endearing, with his good heart and gentle quips countering and eventually thawing her chilly Machiavellian pragmatism. I would gladly welcome a sequel just to read more of their [ADORABLE] exchanges. (<— ill-concealed fangirling, exhibit A.)

The only point on which I was less happy: the last few pages seemed overburdened by their obvious instructive agenda and labored symbolism, which cost the narrative some of its earlier leanness and fluidity.

Nonetheless, The Folk Keeper is destined to become part of my permanent collection, and likely the subject of numerous re-reads. Fans of traditional fairy lore, Patricia McKillip, Holly Black, or Elizabeth Marie Pope’s The Perilous Gard, go forth and read! In the meantime, I’ll be eagerly anticipating Billingsley’s next YA novel, which is apparently slated for spring 2011…

Go to:
Franny Billingsley: bio and works reviewed
Author’s Note for The Folk Keeper

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Date read: 3.23.08
Read from: Public library
Reviewer: Emera

The Faery Reel is a collection of “tales from the twilight realm” by 25 notable authors of fantasy, including Neil Gaiman, Charles de Lint, Holly Black, Tanith Lee, Gregory Maguire, and Patricia McKillip.

I picked this out not actually expecting to be all that impressed, since Datlow/Windling collections aren’t always uniformly strong, despite their typically high-powered author selection. But here, at least, my expectations were far surpassed; this is a remarkably beautiful, moving, and varied collection. I found only two or three stories less than strongly written, and they still had concepts that were fun or clever or fresh – which is saying a lot when you’re going for a topic as well-worn as fairy stories. (As a note, authors in the collection keep to the spelling convention of faerie = race, Faery = place, so I’ll follow that convention below.)

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