So, commenter Robert pointed me to Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries not all that long ago, saying that he was pretty sure it’d be just my kind of novel. Robert said: The entire time I was reading this, I was thinking that it would be right up your alley. It’s charming without being cutesy which appears to be a difficult thing to achieve. He was absolutely right. I loved just about everything about this book.
This is an epistolary novel, told as diary entries. Here’s how it opens:
20th October, 1909, Hrafnsvik, Ljosland
Shadow is not at all happy with me. He lies by the fire while the chill wind rattles the door, tail inert, staring out from beneath that shaggy forelock of his with the sort of accusatory resignation peculiar to dogs, as if to say: Of all the stupid adventures you’ve dragged me on, this will surely be the death of us. I fear I have to agree, though this makes me no less eager to begin my research.
Herein I intend to provide an honest account of my day-to-day activities in the field as I document an enigmatic species of faerie called “Hidden Ones.” This journal serves two purposes, to aid my recollection when it comes time to formally compile my field notes, and to provide a record for those scholars who come after me should I be captured by the Folk.
So, that pretty much tells you about the setting, doesn’t it. And quite a bit about Emily too. Not very much about Shadow, yet, but he’s now among my favorite fictional dogs.
The writing is absolutely top notch. Just wonderful. Robert mentioned that some reviewers find this novel slow-paced. He didn’t, and I sure didn’t. I found the pacing absolutely perfect for the story being told. There’s lovely description of a setting that sometimes becomes thoroughly surreal, and Emily’s voice comes through very clearly. So does Wendell’s voice, partly through Emily, but Wendell also writes a couple diary entries. More about Wendell in a moment.
The characterization is extreme, but very well done. Emily is about the most socially withdrawn protagonist you can imagine, neither good at nor interested in interacting with people … or she sure thinks she’s not interested in ordinary social relationships … let’s say she’s very difficult to come to know, and very easy to misinterpret. She’s another protagonist who fits the category “unlikeable in story terms, but the reader is going to love her.” Not every reader, I expect. Emily is indeed cold-hearted at times. I found her much more appealing than Miryem from Spinning Silver because Emily is not mean, but I have to say, she can be indifferent.
Spinning Silver actually provides a fantastic comparison in multiple ways with Encyclopaedia of Faeries.
In Spinning Silver, the Staryk are Fey who are (a) incomprehensible and terrifying, and (b) winter elementals.
In Encyclopaedia of Faeries, the faeries are (a) incomprehensible and terrifying, and (b) the ones here in Ljosland are winter elementals.
How about that? I would never have expected to trip over two different novels that both treat the fey in almost exactly the same way in just a matter of a couple of weeks, but here we are! Also, though there are (of course) many differences, both novels have difficult protagonists, each with a romance arc that unfolds slowly.
From the description: But as Emily gets closer and closer to uncovering the secrets of the Hidden Ones—the most elusive of all faeries—lurking in the shadowy forest outside the town, she also finds herself on the trail of another mystery: Who is Wendell Bambleby, and what does he really want? To find the answer, she’ll have to unlock the greatest mystery of all—her own heart.
The implied romance is understated. No, whatever you just thought of, it’s even more understated than that. Emily doesn’t have a romantic bone in her body. I enjoyed this tremendously.
Wendell is a fantastic character. Just fantastic. Socially smooth, much more of a dilettante — Emily is a great and committed scholar, a serious expert who is excellent at every part of fieldwork other than dealing with people. Wendell is great with people, but vain, lazy, and comfort-loving and also by the way really into clothes — he reminds me a bit in that way of Mirnatius in Spinning Silver. (In other ways, not so much.)
To sum up:
Writing — top notch; really lovely. Also, I learned a new-to-me word: solivagant. Did any of you know that word?
Characters — top notch; so much fun
Worldbuilding — top notch in a fairy tale kind of way
Plotting — Okay, now, it’s hard to compare anything to Spinning Silver in terms of plotting. That one is so precise and elegant that it’s really not a fair comparison. But the plotting in Encyclopaedia is just fine. This one doesn’t echo with familiar fairy tales, but it does draw on an understanding of fairy tales, of how stories like that should go. This is quite explicit. Emily writes: The truth is, for the Folk, stories are everything. Stories are part of them and their world in a fundamental way that mortals have difficulty grasping; a story may be a singular event from the past, but — crucially — it is also a pattern that shapes their behavior and predicts future events. This is both literally true in the novel and also crucial for the climax of the plot.
Who would love this book:
If you loved Spinning Silver, I do think you ought to try this one. I’d be really curious how you thought it compared.
If you loved Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons, then Encyclopaedia is a no-brainer.
If you enjoy fairy tale retellings and might enjoy a fantasy novel that is not a retelling but draws heavily on fairy tales, then certainly try this one.
I don’t much care for the fey as a rule, but if you do, here you go.