Saturday, January 28, 2012

Except the Queen, by Jane Yolen and Midori Snyder

Now and again I hope to offer a few comments on books I’ve read that seem to me connected to the concept of “sideways-in” fantasy. Today’s post does that. (Warning: This post contains spoilers.)

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Except the Queen, a recent (2010) novel by Jane Yolen and Midori Snyder, takes the folktale tradition—with some non-traditional influences—in an interesting direction. First, the lead characters are two low-ranking sister fairies who are banished from the fairy world to the human one, where they appear as old women. However, unbeknown to them, a power struggle is brewing between the fairy Queen and the unseelie host, personified in this tale by a figure called “Redcap.” Second, the setting is today’s urban U.S., where college-aged kids are getting violated in various ways by evil fairies. Third, the real heroine of the story is a girl alienated from her roots, who turns out to be the Queen’s daughter. True to many fantasy novels, the low-ranking lead characters play a vital role in saving the world (at least the fairy one) from some catastrophe.

If you think about this novel in terms of how it handles the folktale tradition, some interesting points emerge. One, the writers have worked hard to bring forward a consistent vision of the fey realm, its workings and (in the part of the tradition from which they draw) its dual nature (good and evil fairy courts, in particular). Their portrayal of the fey realm succeeds insofar as it evokes an almost pagan sensibility. It’s not the only way to think of fairies, but it is potent, frightening, and thoroughly magicked. (Compare, for instance, “Tamlane,” among the darker fairy tales.)

Another point seems obvious: The writers have given serious thought to how this fey realm could be thought to interact with ours. Like many fantasies set in today’s world, things happen in the story that would seriously restructure the world as we know it. This leads to what amounts to an alternate “modern world,” much like fantasy set in the vaguely “Middle Ages” amounts to an alternate “medieval world.” More, the tale takes on an almost apocalyptic feel toward its end. If you don’t care for that sort of thing, then you don’t. But it’s part of the modern fantasy tradition.

In other words, Except the Queen makes innovations within a recognizable tradition—as it should. Its plot—I mean, the story itself and how it unfolds and how it gets resolved—owes more to the fantasy genre (and the novel tradition more generally) than it does to the folktales from which it draws. But, as we might expect from Yolen and Snyder, the novel seems unusually conscious of (and respectful toward) folk traditions about fairies and their magic, frivolity, and potency. It brings these traditions forward and makes something meaningful of them within the narration of the story. That’s the vibrancy, I would argue, at the heart of this fantasy novel.

(Without it, by the way, you would have a fairly customary plot, however interesting: Strayed girl and abused boy meet up with the help of two old meddling eccentric women, and find their roots (for the girl) and end the cycle of abuse (for the boy). That’s what people who classify these things would call a “literary novel.”)

There were times that the novel didn’t work that well for me, places where too many perspectives were present and some themes weren’t as developed as I’d have liked. (Jane Yolen mentions, on her blog, that they cut 10-15,000 words for an editor.) Even so, it was worth reading.

Dealing with fey subjects is never easy, I think, however riotous it seems at first glance. Kudos to Yolen and Snyder for their respectful handling of the tradition in an urban fantasy.

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