[The Faery Reel: Tales from the Twilight Realm, edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, preface by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, introduction by Terri Windling, illustrations by Charles Vess. New York: Viking Books, 2004. ISBN 0-670-05914-5.]
Theme anthologies offer standard dangers and standard possibilities. The dangers are a bit more obvious, in large part because they are visible in collections too numerous and painful to mention. An entire anthology on _____ (fill in the embarrassing blank here)?! Even when the vein mined is not so shallow as to produce overt eye rolling, there exists the possibility of two more mundane weaknesses. First, the collection can simply be repetitious; even good writers returning to the same well will likely move through the same story arcs. Second and more subtly, clustering an entire collection around certain themes can remove some of the suspense and much of the edge, and force readers to read from a different place if they wish to read on with pleasure. This last is the most obvious weakness of the recent collection edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, The Faery Reel. Windling’s extended introduction (nearly 30 pages long) discusses the global prevalence of the fey, and provides a conceptual frame for anticipating their national and historical variations. That variety also means that few of this impressive list of authors repeats one another in any particularly damning fashion. However, a key element in reading literature of the fantastic is the reader’s need to first note that some detail differs from mundane reality, then to tune one’s ear to better catch nuances, so that one can determine if a line was misunderstood, if it indicates a shift in character consciousness, or if it really marks the intrusion of some other realm. The authors in The Faery Reel lose that advantage. The stories all contain fairies, and so there’s never a question of “Is that . . . weird?” or “Is that magic?” but only, “Hmm. I wonder when and where he/she will introduce the fairies, and how they’ll be used?” Since the collection in question is over 500 pages long, removing that questioning edge is no small loss.
Fortunately, that shift in focus allows the reader interested in the subject, or simply in good writing, to read within a pleasantly confined arena, and to appreciate just how well some of the writers work their changes on these very old story elements (the changeling, the impossible love, youth that lasts impossibly) and the equally old emotional themes (loneliness, love, wonder) that accompany them. This heightened level of inquiry is aided by the brief but focused authorial notes that follow each piece, which sketch its origins and the authors’ relationships to the fairy tradition.
Though fairies have long been welcome in verse—indeed, have been one major element of the fantastic that’s long been welcome in canonical literature—most of the poems included in this volume seem obligatory, rather than moving or artistically striking. Fans of Charles de Lint or Neil Gaiman might enjoy seeing their favorites working in this less-familiar genre, but I, frankly, found myself forgetting if I’d read the verses or not. The one exception to this was Nan Fry’s poem that closes the book, “How to Find Faery.” The imagery here was familiar but nicely focused, and the pacing gave the poem a smooth, regular cadence. But however good the poetry, it was the fiction that provided the main draw for me, and which should draw other readers.
It was the fiction that held my attention, and the fiction is the reason you’d want to read this book. There are no weak stories, and, while there are a few stories that don’t particularly work, much of this can be attributed to authors trying something new, or treating a particular fairy trope with logical respect. Bill Congreve’s “The Shooter at the Heartrock Waterhole” falls into this category. The setting (rural Australia) was striking, and the scenario (the viewpoint character is hired to kill non-native species) was both intriguing in itself and a useful metaphor, but the entire story felt a bit incomplete, only partially formed, much like the fairy-thing in the story.
Though often very different in tone or style, stories did fall into clusters. The simplest of these mined cultural differences. For example, Gregory Frost’s “Tengu Mountain” and Hiromi Goto’s “Foxwife” both reworked Japanese lore involving shape-shifting creatures found in wild settings. Both used Japanese detail nicely, but both stayed so true to the sort of plots found in these tales that they were a touch predictable.
Though geographically distinct, Katherine Vaz’s “Your Garnet Eyes” and Holly Black’s “The Night Market” felt similarly related. Both used regional detail—Brazilian in Vaz’s story, Philippine in Black’s—to craft stories of fairy intersections with love, family structures, and natural forces. In both cases there were deals with forces of wild magic, and in both cases the fairies seemed more like embodiments or spirits of those forces than fully realized characters.
Other writers contributed three strong period pieces that were set in somewhat familiar locations. Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “Immersed in Matter” used the forest beyond a village, and then the village itself, to create a fine tale about longing and identity. Along the way, Hoffman convincingly articulates some of what it might feel like to be a human-fairie half-breed. Steve Berman’s “The Price of Glamour” is set in Dickensian London, meaning 1844, but also a London of a lively riffraff that barely needs fairy intervention to seem both alien and magical. Finally, in “The Oakthing,” Gregory Maguire explores one of my favorite elements of the fairy tradition: the little creature. Set on a farm in France, at a time when the Huns are invading, the oakthing that gives the story its title does a fine quiet job of being something the humans can save when they can barely save themselves, and its presence reshapes their relationships into something new. An odd tale, but well-told.
All of those three stories also include themes of desire that erupt beyond rational constraints; this theme is explored in more detail in “Elvenbrood” by Tanith Lee and “Screaming for Fairies” by Ellen Steiber. Both of these stories do an especially strong job of evoking the caprice that traditionally accompanies fairy desire—the whimsy that can lead to punishment. Both also feature young protagonists who are struggling against the constraints placed upon them by family and society (though Lee’s story is by far the darker and more powerful of the two). (Patricia A. McKillip’s “Undine” tells a similar story from the fairy perspective, though it is lighter still, almost a fairy sitcom sketch.)
Both stories also have settings that are clearly modern and either urban or suburban, but those elements are accented more fully in Delia Sherman’s charming “Catnyp,” a story set in New York, especially the public library. Sherman’s narrator is a changeling, but very much a modern one, and that position between cultures works as a multiplying metaphor; the story is about the magic of love, of reading, of youth, of NYC, and of the library, and it manages to combine them all smoothly.
Sherman’s story also accents a bet in which the changeling bets a year of service for a magical answer. There has long been a curious economic element to fairy stories. There is the idea of the deal, or the bargain, but there’s also the idea of having to pay for what one gets from fairy—and the idea that one must always beware fairy gold, which shines and feels like the real thing, but which melts away with the dawn. Sherman’s story updates the setting, but leaves much of that older economic structure in place. By contrast, “The Dream Eaters” by A. M. Dellamonica and “De La Tierra” by Emma Bull use fairies to explore much darker aspects of capitalism. Neither story is particularly nuanced as far as economics, but each does a fine job providing very vivid metaphors for their chosen emotional element of capitalism. Dellamonica’s story is an intense plea for people to not have to surrender their dreams as they grow up; Bull’s is an equally intense reminder of the cost of severing our connection with the land.
That leaves but three stories to complete the collection, and these are the three that were the most daring. These were Bruce Glassco’s “Never Never,” Jeffrey Ford’s “The Annals of Eelin-Ok,” and Kelly Link’s “The Faery Handbag.” Though I enjoyed a number of the stories mentioned above, and will carry images from McGuire’s, Lee’s, and Sherman’s for some time, it is these three stories that really made the collection for me. However, aside from quality, the only thing these stories have in common is their focus on ideas that don’t sound like they should work. Glassco’s story tells Captain Hook’s side of things, Ford’s starts with a faux scholarly introduction to a journal kept by a fairy who lives in a sandcastle, and Link’s is about a magic handbag.
The first? Been there, done that to death. The second? Too cute by a mile. And the third? Done that, and wasn’t too impressed the first time.
What makes these stories work in each case is the clear emotional tones sounded by the authors. To be fair, these aren’t any purer than the notes of anguish in the Tanith Lee story, but they are more unexpected. Glassco’s Hook cycles through genuine despair before coming to accept both maturity and evil as roles he must play. Ford captures the pain of the ephemeral, which is to say, what it means to be human, making a short-lived fairy one of the truer mirrors to humanity in this collection. And Kelly Link? Well, hmm. How to explain what she does? Let’s just say that her handbag is the most genuinely strange thing in the collection—bags by Baba Yaga, anyone?—her dialogue is smooth, and her family interactions are quirky but convincing.
The Faery Reel is a rich and complex collection. Not every piece succeeds fully, and some gaps are left (I wanted to see what variations were worked on fairies in African or Native American traditions, for example). But there are no bad stories, a lot of good ones, and some surprising, daring ones. This collection is a worthy addition to the fairy tradition, and it contains images that should haunt you long after its covers are closed.