23500493Recently, I gave you all a review of Shanna Swendson’s Enchanted series, an urban fantasy romance set in a version of New York where wizards, fairies, gnomes, and elves live among unsuspecting humans, hidden by magical illusions, with lives both astonishingly similar and predictably different from reality. My future co-author Elizabeth Hajek has given her own enthusiastic verdict on the series, and I should note she hadn’t even finished the sixth book before deciding to endorse it.

Well, while I waited for Swendson to publish the next book in the series, I decided to take a look at what is currently the only book in a separate series written by her, titled simply A Fairy Tale. This is similar to Enchanted because it takes place in New York, it’s a fantasy, it’s women’s fiction with significant cross-gender appeal, and it’s very good. It’s different because it’s adventure rather than romance; it’s urban fantasy only in that some of it takes place in New York; and it’s not as light and humorous as Katie’s adventures with Magic, Spells, and Illusions, Inc.

It’s also one of the best examples I’ve found so far of adapting British fairy folk tales to the modern fantasy genre that is their direct descendant. If you like your fairies to be less like Walt Disney’s Tinkerbell and more like Jim Butcher’s Queen Mab, you’ll be right at home. 

I found the title of Swendson’s book to be intriguing all on its own. “A Fairy Tale,” it says. Today, fairy tales are seen as frivolous things, entirely for children, completely lacking in any substance for adults. And yet the tales we draw on for that particular category were rarely the sort to make children feel comfortable falling asleep in their beds at night. The original source material contains elements we might consider more suited for adult horror rather than the children’s section of the bookstore. They weren’t without their joys; but there was a reason why Tolkien referred to Fairyland by another and even more descriptive name: the Perilous Realm.

76 years ago, J. R. R. Tolkien gave his most important lecture, titled simply “Fairy Stories.” This was two years after he had published The Hobbit, and fifteen years before The Lord of the Rings. It was later expanded slightly and published, with extensive notes, as his most famous and influential essay, “On Fairy Stories,” in 1947. To give you some idea of just what I mean by “influential,” his second-most influential essay was “The Monsters and the Critics,” which, if it wasn’t single-handed, was still probably 90% of the driving force behind getting the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf to be something other than just a quaint document linguists used to study Old English.

(Yes, kids. That’s right. The reason you had to read Beowulf in school was because of the same guy who gave us what amounts to the entire underpinning of the fantasy genre itself. And here’s a guy showing why Beowulf sounds awesome. Mind you, I’m still partial to my own professor from Christendom College, Dr. Robert Rice, now retired but still guest-lecturing on Old and Middle English literature. Without Tolkien, you might never have experienced this stuff. And that was only his second-most influential essay.)

“On Fairy Stories” shaped not only the fantasy genre, but how academics approached it. Tolkien gave an incredibly persuasive argument that not only is fantasy not a newfangled genre, but it’s also important to the human character. His essay summed up the differences between the mortal world and the Perilous Realm, why those differences were important, and why stories bridging the two were vital to human society as a whole. “On Fairy Stories” is required reading for any fantasy writer.

The key point here, and the reason I kept thinking of Tolkien while reading Swendson’s A Fairy Tale, lies in this paragraph from the essay:

Stories that are actually concerned primarily with “fairies,” that is with creatures that might
also in modern English be called “elves,” are relatively rare, and as a rule not very interesting.
Most good “fairy-stories” are about the adventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its
shadowy marches. Naturally so; for if elves are true, and really exist independently of our
tales about them, then this also is certainly true: elves are not primarily concerned with us,
nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the
borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways.

This is Swendson’s novel. It’s an adventure tale set not so much in New York, and not in Fairyland, but straddling the border between. It’s a novel about the shadowy marches, as Tolkien called them; about the interactions between these different worlds, about the human world colliding with the Realm, the world of fairies.

The Perilous Realm, as Tolkien reminds us, and Swendson lives up to that. This isn’t the world of elves popularized by modern fantasy tropes and RPG settings. This isn’t a world of sparkling fairies looking to bring laughter to human children. This isn’t urban fantasy, where the setting hinges on fantasy elements in modern human civilization; this is the dark and delightful and strange core of Old World folklore slamming mercilessly into New World modernity. This is the world of fairies as 15th century Scottish peasants might describe, updated for the 21st century. The beautiful, elegant, sophisticated, overpowering, ruthless, utterly dangerous fairies, from whom you are lucky to escape if you ever cross their paths.

It’s a world that Sophie Drake knows very well, as she innocently crossed into it as a young girl, taught to dance by a fairy without knowing there is always a price to fairy gifts. It’s a world that Emily Drake knows, too, as her older sister had to rescue her from those same fairies. Sophie turned her back on the Realm long ago, carefully guarding her sister. Sophie gave up her ballet career as a result; her sister was a price too high to pay. Instead, she stays at home in Louisiana, always watching for the fairies who might come to kidnap Emily again; and when Emily wants to leave for New York to be on Broadway, Sophie is relieved.

But it turns out that New York isn’t far away at all — not for fairies. Emily Drake has disappeared, and only Sophie knows why. Only Sophie can get her back. And her only allies are an injured police detective who shouldn’t be out of bed, two old ladies who are probably a little crazy, and the world’s least intimidating dog.

Fortunately for Emily, merely being hopelessly outnumbered isn’t going to stop Sophie Drake.

This is a delightful novel, but not in the light and romantic way Enchanted, Inc. was. This is the delight of exploring the alien; the delight of the shiver down your spine as you encounter the inspiration for modern fantasy elves; the delight of modern storytelling perfectly melded with ancient tales not yet ancient enough to be completely foreign, yet still shrouded in the mists of time and song.

It’s a primal world, which is not the same as being primitive; a dangerous and savage land, but with its own rules that you must learn or die trying. It’s the world of Beowulf, of Tam Lin, of Thomas Rhymer and Robert Kirk. It’s the world of stories that J. R. R. Tolkien himself singled out as possessing things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people. Swendson clearly did her homework, and brought elements of these stories back to our modern age to enjoy in a new, fresh, and very old tale: a fairy tale indeed.

Faerie is a perilous land, Tolkien tells us, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. If that’s your kind of story, then Shanna Swendson’s A Fairy Tale should be next on your list.