Once upon a time fairy stories were things told to children and had very little to do with fairies. Oh, there were spells and other enchantments would make appearances, but by the twentieth century most of the ones my generation grew up on owned more to a late nineteenth century romantic version of cute little winged creatures than anything else. This, in spite of the fact these depictions ran contrary to every precedent established by centuries of English language literature. Even changing the name and spelling from Faerie, or the Fae, to fairy, thus eliminating the allusions to madness that fae implied, seems to have been part of the attempt to make them cute and precious instead of the wild and untamed creatures they had been previously.
While the cutesy “Tinkerbell” image of the Fae persists, recent years have seen the pendulum beginning to swing in the other direction again. In fact it might even have swung too far with depictions of the Fae as a mixture of succubi and deadly killers out to rule the world. While it’s true they have always taken delight in causing mischief and consider mortals as toys for their amusement, the dark image created by some, with the heavy sexual overtones, has more to do with the imaginations of those who depict them than anything else. Thankfully, there are writers who are doing their best to write stories that find a balance between both misconceptions.
One of the best of those is the recently published Except The Queen from the team of Midori Snyder and Jane Yolen published by Penguin Canada. Both women have a history of writing exceptional fantasy novels, with Yolen best known for her prolific output of children’s books and Snyder for her young adult New Moon trilogy. Together they have penned something special — a Faerie tale for the modern era.
Meteora and Serena were typical Fae. Sisters, they loved nothing better than to beguile mortals with their looks and charms. They lived lives of indolent pleasure among the forests and glades of The Greenwood. However one day they chanced upon a scene which would change their lives forever. While out hunting for mortals to play with they heard the unmistakeable sounds of lovemaking taking place among some trees. Upon further investigation they first found a baby sleeping gently upon a blanket and then her parents under the cover of some bushes. Only then do they discover that its the Queen of the Fae who is the woman of the pair. While all the other Fae never hesitate to take human lovers, the Queen would lose face in the eyes of the nobility if it was ever discovered she had surrendered to such base appetites.
While the sisters escape discovery initially, Meteora indadvertedly lets the secret out. Needles to say the Queen is irate and punishes them in the worst way imaginable. Not only does she banish them to the mortal world, but she changes them so they are stripped of the glamour which gives them the illusion of beauty and endless youth and they are turned into dumpy middle aged women. On top of that they are sent to separate places in the mortal world and have to figure out how to get by on their own. Meteora receives some guidance on how to survive from the witch Baba Yaga and is allowed to stay in her house in the mortal world. Serena, on the other hand, ends up in the hands of social services. While she doesn’t receive instructions on how to get by like Meteora, she is given some money and a place to live.
In their separate cities the two sisters begin to find their way among the mortals. Using what little magic is left to them they are each able to communicate with birds. Eventually a dove manages to pass messages between the two sisters. So even though they don’t know where each other are, they know they are three days by dove flight apart and they are able to communicate. It’s a good thing, too, because they soon discover the Queen had banished them not only as punishment. For while our main focus is on the activities of the two sisters, we are also given occasional glimpses of events in the world of the Fae. Dissension among the nobility of her court is causing the Queen serious problems, but that’s the least of her troubles. The Unseelie court, home to the truly evil denizens of Faerie, have begun plotting against her, and somehow their plans are tied up with two young people in the mortal world.
It’s no coincidence that Meteora and Serena have ended up placed in positions where they can help two young people: the young man, Robin, and the young woman, Sparrow. It becomes obvious to both sisters that each of their young charges have been touched by Faerie in some manner. In her previous form Serena had the gift of foresight, and even in the mortal world she retains some small talent for predicting the future. This is how she knows she must send Robin to stay with her sister and Sparrow. In some way the two young people’s fates are entwined. Unfortunately, bringing the two of them together also seems to focus the attention of the Unseelie court’s hunters. It will take all of Meteora’s and Serena’s skill and bravery to keep themselves, the two young ones and those they’ve befriended alive and solve the mystery of why the Unseelie want them so desperately.
What makes this story different from many other modern urban fairy stories is the fact it manages to retain the love of nature and growing things that’s at the heart of Faerie instead of dwelling only on the dark elements of the magic realm. Even though their magic has been weakened by the transition to the mortal realm the two sisters carry within them the heart and soul of carefree children of the Greenwood, and those they meet can’t help but be effected. The occasional glimpses we have of the sisters, through the eyes of the mortals they befriend and meet, gives us a good idea of the impact they have on people.
On top of that Yolen and Snyder have written an exciting story filled with surprises and an eclectic mix of characters. Wait ’till you meet the crones! While the bad guys are enough to unsettle even the bravest, we never dwell too long amongst them. Just long enough to make our skin crawl, but never long enough for their darkness to take over the story. There aren’t many authors out there who have the ability to depict the world of the Fae in as balanced and non sensationalistic manner as these two have. Like their two lead characters the authors bring a little magic into the lives of all they encounter, and we can all use a little more magic.