Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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A taxonomy of fairies

So, I’m just getting caught up, more or less, with the Women in Fantasy posts at Fantasy Book Cafe, and I want to draw this one to your attention: An Incomplete Taxonomy of Fairies, with examples.

It caught my eye because anything combining “taxonomy” with fantasy tropes is just going to. Also, it sort of goes with the previous post, which tucked fairies into a natural history museum.

Here is how Jeanette Ng starts her post:

Mystical, mysterious and magnificent, everyone thinks they know fairies.

The word itself conjures up vivid images and subtle variations in spelling[1] can mean a world of difference. And so just as many (but not all) readers felt that there was something fundamentally un-vampire about sparkling in sunlight, any new incarnation of fairies needs one foot in the old…

Jeannette Ng covers Fairies as Other, Fairies as Just People, Fairies as Predators, Fairies as Abstractions, and Fairies as Mirrors. This categorization is interesting and perhaps useful and if you have a moment, you should click through and check it out. I particularly liked this footnote: “[1] I hazard to say that the rule of thumb is that the more e’s you have the more malevolent they are. So a “fairy” is a sparkly pixie of childhood whimsy and the more faux archaic spelling of “faerie” and “fey” are the dark adult creatures.”

“Fey” really is a vastly more adult looking word than “fairy,” isn’t it?

Okay, so, in no order:

1. Most horrifying fairies ever: The Call by Peadar Ó Guilín. This is not a book I see referred to often enough. It’s horrifying but quite readable even for me, and I don’t have that high a tolerance for horror. By a startling coincidence, I see the sequel (The Invasion) just came out last month. I had forgotten to look for it. Well, good to be reminded; now it’s very much on my radar.

2. Most delightful moment with a predatory fairy: Remember in The Fall of Ile-Rien, when a Redcap or some other kind of predatory fairy finds Tremaine by herself? He says, “You look tasty, little girl.” And she levels a gun at his face and replies, “So do you.” Such a classic Tremaine moment. I may have laughed out loud.

3. Best fairy folk in an urban fantasy: Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks. Who out there didn’t fall in love with the Pouka?

4. Best fairy folk in a high fantasy: CJC’s Arafel’s Saga. CJ Cherryh defined the Fair Folk for me in this duology.

5. Favorite Tam Lin: Hard to say. I liked Roses and Rot by Kat Howard quite a bit, though I don’t seem to have reviewed it. I should re-read it and then review it.

6. Favorite fairy dogs: I’m going to cheat and go for the not-entirely-fairy-like Wild Hunt in DWJ’s Dogsbody.

7. Favorite fairy curse: So many. I don’t know. Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest? Maybe Merrie Haskell’s The Princess Curse?

8. Most wonderful fairy name: The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrill. Also a contender for most horrifying fairy ever, although in a completely different way. The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair is an example of a perfectly selfish, perfectly sociopathic, perfectly soulless Fairy.

9. Best story that takes place mostly within fairy society, with human people just around the edges: Knife by RJ Anderson. This also counts for “favorite curse,” but it’s the fairies themselves who are cursed, not the humans. Lots of wonderful twists to standard tropes in this one.

10. …..Your Choice Here……….

I just tossed these off the top of my head, so I’m sure I’m forgetting half my own favorites. What’s your favorite fairy/fairie/fey from fantasy?

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12 Comments A taxonomy of fairies

  1. SarahZ

    As I mentioned recently, Holly Black’s modern fairy books are excellent. Tithe draws a bit on Tam Lin, and I love Darkest Part of the Forest too.

    I love Emma Bull, but the Bordertown series is probably my favorite urban fantasy fairies. Or, are those elves, and thus something else entirely? That series has a bit of everything.

    Do the water horses in Scorpio Races count? They’re clearly inspired by fairy folklore…

  2. Rachel

    Yes, you did, and I added Tithe to my must-try pile.

    I wanted a fairy horse and couldn’t think of a good example, so absolutely, the water horses count.

  3. Elaine T

    Tristan from FORTRESS. Although I’m also fond of Knife from the titular book.

    Haven’t read Roses & Rot ; of the Tam Lins I’ve read my favorite is probably The Perilous Gard, although I have a lingering fondness for Ipcar’s Queen of Spells and the fay carnival.

    Garner’s Red Shift seems to be a Tam Lin where Janet fails, in case anyone is interested.

    The Teen’s been reading something where the narrator rides a kelpie, but I don’t know the title or much else. I get read passages such as ‘don’t eat the prisoners’ and the not-clued auditors freaking out over a horse that needs that order.

    There’s the pooka/kelpie in the Arafel books, and a short McKillip with one, but other than that I can’t think of a major fairy horse with enough personality to be considered.

  4. Mary Catelli

    The Treachery of Beautiful Things

    Except the Queen

    No Earthly Sunne

    Prospero Lost, Prospero In Hell, Prospero Regained

    Lud In The Mist

    Midnight Never Come

    Winter Rose

  5. Rachel

    Oh, I forgot The Grey Horse! Love that one. Gosh, now I’m having a hard time choosing my favorite fairy pooka.

    To me, Tristan does not fit enough of the fairy tropes to step into this list.

    I did think of Midnight Never Come, but for whatever reason that was a book I admired on an intellectual level without actually liking. I gave the trilogy away after reading about half of the first book.

    Winter Rose certainly does have excellent evil fairies.

  6. SarahZ

    I just thought of a really good selkie book – The Brides of Rollrock Island, by Margo Lanagan. In a way, it’s kind of like Scorpio Races, because it presents life on an isolated island where life is pretty normal, except for the fact that it’s easier to find selkies there, and there’s a continuing cycle of small scale tragedies that occur when men capture and then eventually lose (as the myth requires) brides for themselves out of the sea. It’s very lovely, and makes it feel like a real place.

    Megan, I really liked Lish McBride’s Necromancer books, but never got around to reading the pyromancer ones. I got the first one from the library, but was having trouble connecting to the new set of characters. Maybe I’ll give it another try soon.

  7. Rachel

    …don’t they learn to leave selkie women alone? Seems like they’re asking for tragedy.

  8. Megan

    I had the same problem initially—Sam was such a great character and I really hope there’s a Necromancer #3 somewhere in the future. But the group dynamics between Ava, Locke, and Ezra won me over. I still like the Necromancer books better but I got a lot of good laughs out of Firebug/Pyromantic.

  9. SarahZ

    Most do, but some people in each generation think they’ll be different, or just don’t think. Some people never learn. It’s narrated from a bunch of different perspectives.

  10. Rachel

    I grant, a lot of people seem unable to learn from anyone’s experience but their own. Well, my sympathy is limited, except for the selkies, who I’m guessing don’t have a lot of choice about whether they’re going to play a role in some fool’s tragedy.

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