The Fairies of Sadieville is the sixth volume in Alex Bledsoe’s much-praised Tufa series; as far as I know, it’s intended to be the final volume, too. Set in the mountains of East Tennessee, the Tufa novels revolve around the community of people known as the Tufa—people who were in the mountains before the first European settlers arrived, and around whom there are many legends. Including the legend that they’re related to the Fair Folk of Irish and British folklore.
That legend, as readers of the series thus far will have gathered, is more true than not.
When Justin, a graduate student at a local university, finds an old film reel locked away in the office of his recently-deceased advisor and labelled “this is real,” he and his girlfriend Veronica decide to watch it to find out what it shows. The film shows a young woman with wings—suddenly, impossibly, real wings—and the reel appears to have been shot in the days of silent film in a mountain coal-mining town called Sadieville, a town which essentially disappeared from the maps after a disaster destroyed it. Justin, needing a new topic for his thesis, decides he’s going to focus on musical anthropology and songs about Sadieville—but really, this is an excuse for him and for Veronica to go up into Tufa country and find out more about the winged girl and Sadieville itself. There, they discover secrets hidden even from the Tufa themselves.
There are three main strands to The Fairies of Sadieville. Justin and Veronica’s story is one strand, as they investigate the story of Sadieville and find themselves on the rim of faerieland. Another is the story of how the film came to be shot in the first place, as cameraman Ben Hubbard and independent motion picture director Sean Lee arrive in Sadieville, and Sean falls head over heels in love with a Tufa girl, Sophronie. Sophronie’s family are the keepers of a secret, and she tells him the story (which forms a whole section of the book) of how the Tufa came to dwell in the Smoky Mountains—and shows him the location of the cave through which the Tufa were exiled from their faerieland homeland thousands of years before—before her lynching leads to the destruction of Sadieville. For the Tufa are exiles from faerieland and their descendants, and some of them have power of their own.
The third main strand of The Fairies of Sadieville is the reaction of the Tufa themselves as a community to the idea that outsiders may have discovered some of their secrets, and that outsiders may have discovered the way back to faerieland—the idea that they may not be exiled from their original homeland any longer. It’s a complex prospect for people with thousands of years of ties to their new land, but with—for some of them, at least—memories of their original homeland, kept down through the centuries.
Bledsoe’s prose, as always, is carefully precise and elegantly measured, a delight to read. But The Fairies of Sadieville feels more scattered and less unified than his previous Tufa novels, without—it seems to me—a compelling through-line to draw the whole work together. Thematically and in terms of characterisation, the book feels slight, lacking the depth of its predecessors. Its strands are woven together without the deftness of connection that I hope for in a Bledsoe book, failing to support each other for the maximum tension or strength of feeling. It’s not quite all that one desires in the capstone volume of a series with the Tufa series’ strengths.
Possibly I’m judging it harshly because a small thing early on in the narrative primed me to view it without charity, and left me off-balance with a bad taste in my mouth for the rest of the book. I really don’t like the “two girls kissing for the entertainment/to catch the attention of a straight guy” thing, and for fairness’s sake I should admit that my dislike of this may have tainted the entire remainder of my reaction to the novel. Such are the small and petty incidents that leave a mark.
But if you’ve read the previous books and enjoyed them, I suspect you’ll enjoy this one, too.
The Fairies of Sadieville is available from Tor Books.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.