Recent Reading: Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries

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 Emily is about the most socially withdrawn protagonist you can imagine, neither good at nor interested in interacting with people … or she sure thinks she’s not interested in ordinary social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.

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12 thoughts on “Recent Reading: Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries”

  1. I just read the sample for this book. It was wonderful! Thank you Robert and Rachel for the recommendation. Unfortunately the ebook is too expensive for my taste ($17!) and there is a 14 week wait for it at my library. I’ve added myself to the list. Hopefully they will pick up another copy if it continues to be this popular.

  2. It was on the edge of too expensive for me too, Melanie, but luckily not $17!

    I’m sure you’ll enjoy it just as much in … wow, three and a half months does seem a little extreme … I hadn’t realized there was enough buzz about it to generate that kind of wait list!

  3. Melanie, now I’m wondering if we share a library, because when I said “picking this up immediately” apparently I meant “adding myself to the 14-week hold list at the Toronto Public Library.”

    Or maybe it’s just popular in two places!

  4. Ha! Close but not quite Mary Beth. I put my hold in at the Hamilton Public Library. (I don’t live there, it is a linked card.)

  5. First, thank you for the recommendation, because one reason I hang around here is to get ideas for things to read! Fae + footnotes is always a draw for me (Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is possibly my favorite fantasy novel because of that combination and its excellently nineteenth-century tone).

    Second, I’m glad I was able to get it from the library because . . . okay, there is probably a vanishingly small set of readers for whom this would be a problem, but here I am . . . Emily is an adjunct professor? at Cambridge? in 1909? And tenure is a thing? as is giving graduate students credit for co-authorship?

    I realize this is a fantasy world and Fawcett can organize its academia any way she wants, but since in various ways her world is not too far off ours, I find this intersection of present-day academic titles and problems with pre-WWI academia jarring enough to throw me out of the story world. The easiest fix would be a completely different set of dating conventions—8 Edward VII, for example (or change the king or regnal year for a stronger signal that this is Not Our World + fay). It would be more complicated to do a bit of research into the way Oxbridge organized its teaching hierarchies in our 1909, but the information is readily available if you realize you need to check on it.

    It’s not only academic stuff that sets me off. I had to stop reading an otherwise charming series of mystery novels set in San Francisco just after the 1906 earthquake because the sleuth noticed gardens blooming with impatiens, and I happen to know that impatiens wasn’t a garden plant in the US until the 1960s. It might have been noticed as “jewelweed” in SF in 1908, but it doesn’t seem likely that the sleuth would call it “impatiens.” Anyway, serious gardeners keep detailed notes on what they plant, so why not go to the Bancroft Library and look at some SF society lady’s garden journal from the right year and reproduce her plantings?

    Yes, it is absolutely true that I am too picky for my own good.

  6. Labyrinth Gate by Alis Rasmussen aka Kate Elliott has a faint echo of this. The plot and structure are entirely different. Yet: quest for love? Check. Quest for knowledge? Check. Quest to overthrow the evil queen? Check. And perilous fairies? Oh yes.

  7. Eleanor: the anachronistic Cambridge I explained away as an alternate world, where magic gives a critical few women more power. But the modern-ish US academic system threw me for a loop. Fortunately it’s a tiny part of the book.

  8. I’m only fourth in line at my library! But they have a number of her earlier works which also look good. I can’t decide which to try first: middle-grade The School Between Winter and Fairyland, about a servant at a school for magicians, or YA Even the Darkest Stars, about a girl who dreams of becoming one of the emperor’s royal … wait for it … explorers! A fantasy novel about mountain climbing? Yes please!

    But I’m most excited about the one being published next week, The Grace of Wild Things. Besides having a wonderful title, it’s a fantasy reimagining of Anne of Green Gables—I am so there for that!

    Fawcett seems to have a knack for picking really interesting characters; I can’t wait to dive in and meet them. Thanks for the recommendation!

  9. Thanks, Kim, I hadn’t gotten around to looking at her other books, but now I will.

    Dame Eleanor, I rolled my eyes at the adjunct thing, but then I forgot about it because, as Pete says, I just said alternate world and moved on.

  10. So… recommendations. I’ve been thinking about this since Rachel invited our recommendations last week. I’ve really appreciated other people’s recommendations on this site, and now I thought I’d share some of my own. (Gives us something to read while we all wait for our holds to come available on the Encyclopedia. )

    In YA fantasy, I’d recommend Hilari Bell. I don’t much care for her latest series (Knight & Rogue) but I like everything else she’s written. My favourite is the Farsala trilogy – After their highly stratified kingdom is overrun by a neighbouring country, which is kinda like Rome, 3 teenagers from 3 different classes end up working to fight back for independence, and to preserve the best parts of their country, each in their own way, also learning to work together. I enjoyed the worldbuilding and magic, the plotting, and the themes of legendary tales being reimagined to meet current needs. Also excellent is A Matter of Profit, a standalone novel about interstellar conquest with a pacifist twist. All her work is fun to read and also thought provoking.

    In YA SF, I’d recommend Maria V. Snyders trilogy Sentinels of the Galaxy. I love the main character here, her relationship with her archaeologist parents, and her growth throughout the story. I think the plotting is very well done, though it is not fast paced. This feels like older YA to me than Bell’s trilogy above. (Even more than above, I do NOT recommend Snyders’ latest series, Archives of the Invisible Sword. I tried the first book, and it was so persistently gruesome it felt more like grimdark to me. The series may end hopefully, but I wouldn’t know. I couldn’t stand it.)

    In romance, I’d recommend Jo Beverley. And here I can happily say I like everything by Jo Beverley. She wrote many historical romances set in England: some in the Medieval period, more in Georgian times, and even more in the Regency. All of them are well researched and give you a good sense of the mood and atmosphere of their settings. Most are not low tension, they have quite a bit of high stakes adventure built in. The writing quality seems really good to me, though I am not an expert in that like some people here. I can say that they are intelligent and entertaining. My favourite would be the Malloren series, set in Georgian times, starting with My Lady Notorious. The series gets better as it goes on, so I’m not exactly sure how to suggest you read it. The individual novels do benefit from being read in order, but don’t need to be. My favourite 2 are Secrets of the Night, and Winter Fire.

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