Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Uncertain Places

Lisa Goldstein
Completed 11/7/2021, Reviewed 11/8/2021
3 stars

Another book about the realm of Faerie.  This one involves generations of a family where daughters are taken to fight in a never-ending war.  This book feels a little more like fluff than Thomas the Rhymer, probably because the prose is not as scrumptious and there’s a lot more action.  It also is a play on the fairy tale trope of the prince saving the princess, in this case, a young college student trying to save his girlfriend and her family from an ancient bargain with the Faeries.  It won the Mythopoeic Award in 2021.  

Will gets setup on a blind date with his roommate Ben’s girlfriend’s sister Livvy.  They hit is off and everything is going well until she falls asleep and can’t be woken.  Her family acts as if this is normal.  Will and Ben piece together that her condition is caused by a bargain made with the Faeries, as told in a lost Brothers Grimm fairy tale.  Will saves Livvy from the bargain and everything goes swimmingly until their son Nick falls asleep years later.  Then Will, Ben, Livvy, her sisters Rose and Maddie, and her mother Sylvie set off to Faerie to try to reclaim him and break the bargain.

I really liked the plot of this story. There’s a lot of action and the pace is quick and exciting.  In fact, I read this short novel in a day.  But as a consequence, the characterization suffered.  The characters feel a little wooden.  I never felt empathy for Will, despite him being the narrator.  There are times he comes across as a buffoon, thinking he can save Livvy when the family doesn’t even want her to be “saved”. And Sylvie and the sisters are all one dimensional.  Whenever Goldstein tries to introduce depth, it feels forced.  This is particularly true of Rose, who complains that she was ignored as a child because everyone thought she would be the one taken by the Faeries, not Livvy.  It feels more like a surprise reveal than a piece of who she is.

The world building is pretty cool though.  When all of them cross into the realm, it’s full of fractured fairy tale tropes.  One fun one is the frog who when thrown against the wall becomes a dashing prince who is supposed to marry the thrower.  Another more obscure but amusing one is the people who are bound to clean houses in the middle of the night for fifty years.  

Despite its flaws, I really enjoyed the book.  I give it three stars out of five, a solid good.  The complexity and pacing of the plot kept me from groaning at Will and his choices.  I really liked when they all went into the Faerie realm, even though there was a lot of info dumping there.  Having read about seven Mythopoeic winners pretty much back-to-back, I’m starting to realize what is meant by “a book written in the spirit of the Inklings”, the criteria of the award.  (The Inklings were the little society Tolkien and C. S. Lewis had with several other writers at Oxford).  It means that the book is a fantasy based on fairy tales, myth, or folklore.  I look forward to continuing my journey through the winners of the award to see if other patterns emerge.

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