"Grace Notes" by Megan Lindholm
"The Gypsies in the Wood" by Kim Newman
"The Kelpie" by Patricia McKillip
"An Embarrassment of Elves" by Craig Gardner
"Except the Queen" by Jane Yolen and Midori Snyder
Marvin Kaye regularly gathers the top sci-fi and/or fantasy writers for contributions to his many anthologies. Having grown up regularly reading Kaye-edited work [I still love The Penguin Book of Witches and Warlocks], I looked forward to reviewing one of his latest: The Fair Folk. In this anthology, all the stories contain an elf, brownie, fairy, or some other member of such supernatural tribes.
In "UOUS," a resentful stepdaughter thinks that she is lucky when a glamorously dangerous fairy prince grants her three wishes. In a table-turning that neatly illustrates the traditionally slippery nature of fairy morality, our protagonist ends up as the fairies' slave. As usual with everything author Tanith Lee touches, "UOUS" perverts tradition—this time, it's Cinderella—with its relish for the thorny roughness of human relations, combined with low-key mordant humor and prose that occasionally hits hallucinogenic beauty. Unfortunately, the nasty stepfamily remains too sketchily developed in my mind for the story's final events to seem properly appropriate/horrifying/pathetic. "UOUS" is a slender, tantalizing tale that left me wanting more.
Next comes "Grace Notes" by Megan Lindholm, in which messy Jeff freaks out when a brownie imposes her cleanliness and tastes on Jeff's bachelor pad. Trying to get rid of the brownie, Jeff draws closer to brusque-but-appealing neighbor, Maisy. From the first pages, I enjoyed Jeff's interpretation of the brownie as an almost criminal intruder, contrasted against his mom's guess that it was just a nice girl lending her feminine touches to the place. I even began to suspect an affinity between Maisy and the brownie. When "Grace Notes" turned away from relationship themes into an evict-the-pest story, the suggestive thematic tensions diminished. I'm not a fairy-hating romance lover, but I have to say that the story would have been stronger if the brownie had been used more ambiguously or metaphorically, not as such a literal presence.
In the most original and intriguing tale of the anthology, Kim Newman writes about what happens after a late Edwardian brother and sister's brush with fairy land. "The Gypsies in the Wood" follows the boy Davey as he turns instantly into an old man, a reclusive artistic savant, and the girl Maeve as she never grows up at all. Several years later, an entertainment industry grows up around a highly popular "fairy theme park." A reporter and a paranormal investigator discover that real magic—and Davey and Maeve—are at the bottom of it all. Newman nails the rhythms of speech and life in early 20th century London, as well as the creepy, gritty tang of his particularly malevolent type of fairy land. He also muses on the strength of the brother-sister bond while sending up Holmesian detective novels and leveling some criticism at sugarcoated, commercialized concepts of fantasy. Of all the stories in The Fair Folk, "The Gypsies in the Wood" brings together technology and magic, our world and the fairies', most skillfully.
Patricia McKillip then contributes "The Kelpie," a stylized romance set in a Pre-Raphaelite artists' klatsch. McKillip uses sprightly, painterly strokes to flesh out the characters and their relationships ["Ned met Emma Slade at her brother Adrian's new lodgings, the night Bram Wilding brought the monkey and it set fire to the veils in which Euphemia Bruce was posing for Adrian's painting"]. She handles the affection between Ned and Emma in a tongue-in-cheek manner that nevertheless respects their emotions.
"The Kelpie's" realistically portrayed setting and complex personalities kept me reading happily…until the arrival of the kelpie. The titular supernatural does not succeed as a plot point because it appears suddenly, unheralded. The kelpie could have some symbolic meaning, but its link to one of the human characters seems forced, tenuous at best. "The Kelpie" reads like a charming historical fiction romance derailed by an obligatory fairy.
Craig Gardner next provides us with "An Embarrassment of Elves," a new installment in the continuing comic adventures of Wuntvor, eternal second fiddle to a magic-allergic wizard, and their motley crew of companions. When Wuntvor and company are invited to an elven party [thrown by fairies with names like Lalala and Dowahdiddy], dark riders appear. Comic misadventures ensue. Occasionally Gardner drives a joke into the ground, but overall he provides a balanced antidote to Really Serious High Fantasy that will keep you chuckling.
"Except the Queen" by Jane Yolen and Midori Snyder closes the book. It features two sisters, Meteora and Serana, exiled from fairy land into the dirty city, where they find themselves embroiled in the destiny of two needy, teenaged humans. The sisters try to shield their charges from malevolent forces that will reach out from the fairy realm and engulf them all. Yolen and Snyder merge their writing seamlessly together into a gentle, flowery style that suits the underlying wonder of our protagonists—they marvel that, despite the grime of the metropolis, good and magic and beauty still exist.
But Meteora and Serana's beauty, truth, and goodness can be hard to reach. Their story is told in the form of letters; couched in formal, graceful terms, the correspondence doesn't distinguish Meteora and Serana's separate voices. Nor does it adequately evoke the raw, vivid power of the city. Finally, the sisters' uncomprehending perspectives show their human wards as merely mewling and damaged. When the human girl writes a letter elucidating her past, her words come across as a weak counterpoint. Meteora and Serana's distant gentility makes lukewarm a story that should be bubbling hot, what with its evil tattoo artists, homeless witches, and orphaned changelings.
The Fair Folk confounds my expectations of anthologies, which, to my mind, usually include thematically linked stories and a bell curve of quality. Though all its stories are supposedly united in featuring fairies, "Grace Notes" and "The Kelpie" strain at the introduction of supernatural elements. As far as quality, Tanith Lee and Jane Yolen, who usually wreck the curve with prolific and consistently stellar work, finished their assignments for this volume, but did not infuse their stories with much heart. That leaves the dark, confused steampunk of "Gypsies in the Wood" and the silly humor of "An Embarrassment of Elves" to carry the book, which they cannot because they are good but not great. After reading The Fair Folk, I felt sad, as if I were holding in my hand a physical testament to the current played-out state of the fantasy genre. I really wanted to like it, but it was not enchanting enough for me.
Publisher: Guild America Books, SFBC edition
Hardcover: 336 pages
Item Number: 325189
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