If I had a dollar for every person who has told me they hate faerie books, I wouldn’t have to write any more of them. I get it from with people telling me how surprised they were to like one of mine; I get it from people explaining why they will never read one, mine included. I get it from friends, from other writers, from people in publishing. Maybe vampires or spy novels are hated just as much, but for some reason no one seems as eager to talk about it.
With a new faerie book, The Cruel Prince, coming out, I’ve been thinking a lot about this disinclination. I have come to believe there’s a fear of a certain iridescent, unicorn-hugging, patchouli-scented wiftiness in picking up a faerie novel. A concern over too-great sincerity. And a worry that words like “prithee” and “greensward” and people talking in riddles (or worse, doggerel) indicates a swift descent into the mawkish and silly.
What I love about faerie books is much like what I love about faerie folklore. I love the idea of magic being out there, trickster magic, uncertain as the weather, potentially dangerous, but also beautiful. Like storms, the Folk are scary, but majestic enough that even when one is trying to kill you, you might still marvel at it a bit.
Which is why I’ve put together this list. Five faerie books for people who say they hate faeries, in the hopes I can convince you.
Very little patchouli.
For those of you who read historicals, I’d recommend the The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, in which the People of the Hill live underground and steal away humans. Exiled by Queen Mary Tudor to a remote household, Kate Sutton finds herself in their power. The faeries here are grim and remote, with “contempt for ordinary human comfort and delight.” The magic is subtle and strange. And Kate herself is a wonderful character, practical and honest and brave to the end.
For the literary fiction reader, Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce uses Faerie as metaphor yet never shies away from the idea that it might also be entirely real. Missing for twenty years, Tara Martin appears one day on the doorstep of her parents’ house, looking disheveled and not much older than she did when she disappeared. This leaves her family, particularly her brother, Peter, to puzzle through her story of a trip to a fantastical realm that sounds occasionally like an erotic dream. Has she really been there or is she hiding a part of her past she doesn’t want to confront? Is she even his sister?
For anyone who loves a short, brutal tale, Franny Billingsley’s The Folk Keeper is one of my favorites. Corrina Stonewall must sit in the chilly dark, bringing offerings of raw eggs, meat, and milk to draw off the seething anger and endless hunger of the Folk. “They are mostly mouth,” we are told. “Wet mouth and teeth.” Corrina’s unsentimental voice reveals her discipline, her deep sense of responsibility toward the Folk and her willingness to lie to everyone else. Full of perfect, strange little details (she is never cold and her hair grows two inches in the night), this invokes the mythic with great efficacy.
For the high fantasy lover, I would recommend The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. Set in a land of elves, it follows the half-goblin son of the Emperor who inherits the throne after spending his entire childhood in remote exile. Maya is unused to court intrigue and entirely untrained in politics, but must still somehow prevail against the plots that surround him. And as mysterious details in the death of his father and elder brothers become clear, he must discover the assassin before there is an attempt on his life. This is an intricately built world, with fabulous linguistic invention, but at its heart is enormous, revolutionary kindness.
For the mystery reader, Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series kicks off with Rosemary and Rue, in which changeling (here, meaning of mixed faerie and mortal lineage) Toby is yanked out of her life and transformed into a fish. This could be played for laughs, but it’s not—it’s scary and strange and causes her to lose enough time for her mortal child to grow up without her and her mortal husband to move on, believing her to have abandoned them. McGuire is a dab hand at blending magic and mystery, but what elevates the entire series is her ability to allow her characters to experience pain, loss, and love. She also has a keen understanding of when to deploy humor to puncture over-sincerity and when to allow the magic to be numinous, beautiful and terrifying.
There are others that I am sorry not to be able to discuss, particularly Terri Windling’s Bordertown anthologies, which along with Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer, Charles de Lint’s Jack the Giant Killer, and Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks form what I think of as the backbone of the elfish wing of the urban fantasy genre. I couldn’t choose between them and you shouldn’t—read them all. I am also sorry not to be able to recommend more recent works like Elizabeth Bear’s sweeping Promethean Age saga and Melissa Marr’s atmospheric Wicked Lovely series. Five books are not nearly enough to express the breadth of my love for Faerie.
And yet, I think among the five books I’ve described, I believe you will find one to your liking. After all, what’s that saying about hate being closer to love than to indifference?
Holly Black is the author of bestselling contemporary fantasy books for kids and teens. Some of her titles include The Modern Faerie Tale series, the Curse Workers series, Doll Bones, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, and The Darkest Part of the Forest. Her latest novel, The Cruel Prince, is the start of a new fantasy series. She has been a finalist for an Eisner Award, and the recipient of the Andre Norton Award, the Mythopoeic Award and a Newbery Honor. She currently lives in New England with her husband and son in a house with a secret door.