The Apocalypso that we Deserve: Janni Lee Simner’s Bones of Faerie

Bones of Faerie is a post-apocalyptic near-future fantasy novel. It’s the oddest mix of The Chrysalids and Thomas the Rhymer. So, there was a war between humanity and Faerie, and everybody lost. Faerie has been nuked, and on Earth plants have become malicious, dandelions have thorns, trees have a taste for blood, and children are being born with magic. And, exactly like Wyndham’s mutants, we have some adolescents who have magic, and are under sentence of death if the wrong people find out about it. We have a community that hates and fears magic, and a community that welcomes and embraces it.

But the apocalypse was a war with Faerie, and what destroyed civilization was the revenge of the trees. Maybe every age gets the apocalypse they deserve. Wells’s colonising Victorians got colonising Martians. Wyndham’s Cold War contemporaries got bathed in mutating radiation. Now the Green generation gets a Green apocalypse, where neglected nature comes back and bites—literally. (There are also the Cosy Catastrophes, where something terribly silly destroys civilization and leaves nice people to carry on. This isn’t that. This is Bordertown or The Last Hot Time gone terribly wrong.)

What lifts it above all this is that Janni Lee Simner is a terrific writer. She’s excellent at voice and atmosphere. The woods here are convincingly terrifying. But what really makes it is Liza’s first person voice and matter-of-fact acceptance of the world she lives in. She’s heard her parents talk about “Before,” but in the world she lives in you expose babies that look as if they might have magic and you flinch away from trees and you learn to hunt plants and animals because you do, that’s all, because you have to be strong. Liza’s voice holds the book together. You accept it because she accepts it, and because she’s so real it all has to be real, too.

Janni’s a friend, and I’d been reading about this book on her livejournal and wanting to read it. I mention this because I definitely wouldn’t have picked this book up if not for that. It has a very striking black cover with a silver leaf on it, and it’s generally marketed as a “dark YA.” The marketing of books is there to help them find their friends, but the marketing of this one might as well have pasted “Not for Jo” on the cover. Popular as “dark fantasies” have become, they’re really not my thing. But Bones of Faerie is “dark” like “fantasy,” not “dark” like “horror” or “paranormal romance/urban fantasy.” It also has a tone, because of the post-apocalyptic nature of the world, and because of the level of worldbuilding generally, that’s a lot more like SF than it is like fantasy. I was expecting that, because I’d read the excerpt.  I was more surprised to find that it wasn’t really what I think of as YA either. YA tends to have a certain shape, a certain relationship focus. This is something I like much more, a juvenile. Farah Mendlesohn defines the difference as:

The passage from juvenile science fiction to YA was not seamless: YA was not simply a fashionable new category, it described a different ideology of teenagehood and the teenage reader. In the new YA novels, adulthood as defined by the world of work was replaced by adulthood defined by the world of relationships.

This is a story about growing up and taking responsibility. It isn’t a story with a romance, or a story where the emotional arc is the real plot, or a story with a Problem. It’s a story which has a lot of darkness, but where healing is real and everything may yet come out all right in the end.

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