Cross Elizabeth Hand with Fire and Hemlock, and you might end up with something like Freda Warrington’s Elfland. This is the kind of big, sweeping modern faerie tale that you don’t see often on the adult shelves anymore. There’s been some beautiful work done in YA recently, but in the adult realm, the trend has been away from novels like this. And that’s a shame. Elfland is complex, rich, sensual, beautifully written, and sometimes heartbreaking.
I devoured Elfland. I carried it with me everywhere for four days, because I never knew when I might have a spare five minutes to steal a page or two. When I was at work, I looked forward to going home so I could read more. I read late into the night, every night. I was hooked. That, to me, is the surest sign of a five-star book: the complete inability to put it down unless I absolutely have to!
Our heroine, Rosie Fox, is of Aetherial (fae) descent, living with her family just this side of the Great Gates that divide our world from the Otherworld. Rosie’s haughty neighbor, Lawrence Wilder, is the Gatekeeper, and as such, is supposed to open the Gates every seven years to allow travel, and a flow of energy, between the realms. As the story opens, however, he has shut the Gates, claiming a great danger lurks on the other side. Elfland follows Rosie, her family and friends, and Lawrence’s family over the course of the next fourteen years. Fourteen years: long enough for a girl to grow into a woman, for loves to be lost and found, and for family secrets to explode. Long enough for some Aetherials to decide it’s better to deny their fae nature, and for others to resort to desperate measures to reopen the Gates.
At its heart, Elfland is about how denying one’s true self is a sure path to disaster. It’s also a love story. I usually don’t go for romances in which the hero and heroine bicker, but Warrington makes the trope sing. Rosie and her eventual love interest get off on the wrong foot as kids, and the way their relationship develops seems painfully realistic to me, with the characters slipping back into snarky retorts because they’re familiar, and because the retorts serve as an outlet for emotions more disturbing than anger. Both characters have a lot of growing to do before they’re a good match for each other. Elfland is, in part, the story of that growth, and of the sometimes wrenching mistakes made along the way.
When the plot moves into the Otherworld, Warrington handles the journey perfectly. It would have been easy to let the story get bogged down in travelogue here, to slow the pace down by showing the reader every single strange thing that populates the Aetherial realms. Warrington doesn’t fall into this trap. She gives us a glimpse of how beautiful and how terrifying Elfland can be, but leaves some things to the imagination, and keeps the focus firmly on the characters’ quest. This has a dual effect: it keeps the plot moving, and it allows the Otherworld to retain some of its mystery.
If I have any quibble at all, it’s that I don’t think the slang needed to be “Americanized” for the US audience. It’s not necessary, and it’s not done consistently. Characters sometimes obtain higher education at “uni,” but sometimes they go to “college” instead, and one character calls another “gay as a nine-dollar note.” I wouldn’t have minded British slang. The book does take place in Britain, after all.
That’s a tiny gripe, though, and overall I loved Elfland. It’s a sumptuous feast of a novel, filled with vivid characters, magical locales both earthly and Aetherial, and a complicated plot in which nearly every detail turns out to be significant in the end. I’ll definitely be looking up Freda Warrington’s backlist.
“What a great book!” That was my first thought on completing Freda Warrington’s Elfland. It was one of those books that I would read far into the night, telling myself: “just one more chapter, just one more chapter…” until I couldn’t even keep my eyes open. In a nutshell: it’s unique, it’s clever, it’s funny and it’s definitely not what you’d expect from this particular genre.
Probably best described as urban fantasy, Elfland concerns a community of people known as Aetherials. The Aetherials are physically indistinguishable from humans, and move between this earthly plain and their true home called the Spiral in another dimension. A Gatekeeper controls the way in and out, but at the start of this novel, the current keeper — Lawrence Wilder — has flatly refused to open it, claiming that there is something deadly on the other side. Some Aetherials believe him, others don’t, and yet there’s nothing that any of them can do considering that only Lawrence has the power to open it.
As year follows year, the Aetherials feel the inevitable entropy without access to the rejuvenating powers of their home, and the latest generation grows up with no experience of their powers or heritage. Some are quite happy with this arrangement, wanting to embrace normality and the human world. But obviously, others are more interested in finding a way in…
Despite all the fantasy trappings, Elfland is predominantly a family drama, as most of the action involves the members of two specific families: the cold and wealthy Wilders, and the warm and loving Foxes. Between the two families exists a strange bond, not a “feud” as such, but rather an inability to keep out of each other’s lives for reasons that only become clear when the dark family secrets are brought to life. There is a large range of interconnected characters based around the Fox and Wilder families: brothers, sisters, parents, children, stepmothers, friends, lovers — there’s a veritable gold mine here of characters and their tumultuous relationships with one another.
The story encompasses several years, with the younger generation growing from children to adults over the course of the story; changing, maturing and altering their opinions of life as they go. Although Rosie Fox is our main protagonist, the third-person narration moves from character to character, utilizing their different points of view. This means that we can get differing opinions on various issues and characters; for example when Rosie first sets eyes on Jon, we idolize him as much as she does — until we see him through someone else’s pair of eyes who can give us a more rounded view of him. This ensures that no one is wholly good or completely bad — as with almost everything in life, it all depends on your point of view.
I’m finding it quite hard to summarize the plot at this stage, simply because the story itself is so sprawling and filled with so many characters. Although it hinges firmly on the character relationships, there’s always the sense of the fantastical element lurking at the periphery of your vision, and there are plenty of far-reaching plot details, all of which are recalled at the right place and time. In a book this long, you’d expect some of these plot-points to be lost or forgotten, but Freda Warrington remembers everything, from an angelic painting to a crystal necklace. My favourite would have to be the appearances of the tree dryad: it pays to heed her warnings!
Usually I dislike loathing-into-love romances, (simply because they’re never handled particularly realistically) but in Elfland this storyline works wonderfully. Neither one of the participants is perfect, and although they don’t have a particularly good first impression of each other, and though they spend the majority of the time divided by social obligations and problematic situations, you breathe a sigh of relief when they finally reach an appropriate time and place for each other (only to start holding your breath again as yet another problem threatens them!)
However, I am compelled to point out that there is adultery in this novel, something that always gets my goat when it isn’t handled properly (glorified adultery being one of the reasons why I didn’t really enjoy The Horse Whisperer; personally, I’d rather read about star-crossed lovers who do the right thing, than about a couple who give into desire and try to justify their actions afterwards). Warrington’s treatment of the subject matter certainly isn’t irresponsible enough for me to oppose Elfland, since the direct consequences for the adultery are dire. Likewise, the participants feel guilty about what they’ve done, and take steps to fix the damage that they caused. But on the other hand, the third (wronged) member of the party is needlessly vilified and conveniently disposed of afterwards. I felt bad for him, more so than any of the other characters seemed to.
When it comes to this sort of thing, it pays to bring your own moral compass. Some readers will find the fact that the lovers pretty much get away with their crime somewhat problematic and loose respect for them in the process, whilst others will shrug and think: “what’s the big deal? It’s only a book.”
Furthermore, the concept of the Aetherials themselves is a bit vague. I got the impression that they were a superior race from another dimension, having powers of shape-shifting, a tendency toward lucid dreaming, and the ability to move between different plains of existence. But I was never entirely sure what they were, and at one stage, when they are held up as the source for humanity’s stories of the Fair Folk, I wondered why they couldn’t simply BE the Fair Folk, albeit in a contemporary setting.
However, both these issues are in no way detrimental to the plot (in fact, the adultery is essential to it), and more down to personal preferences and expectations (as opposed to an actual flaw in the storytelling). Ultimately this is a brilliant conceived and written novel that explores the many faces of love: whether it is platonic or lustful, passionate or peaceful, an infatuation or a deep and abiding commitment to another person. Likewise, there is an emphasis on self-discovery: the longing for a normal life by denying one’s heritage… or is it longing for one’s heritage when trapped in a normal life?
In short, the best compliment I could give Elfland is that by the time I finally reached its end, all I could do was wish that there was more of it.
The Aetherial Tales — (2009-2013) Publisher: Elfland is an intimate, sensual novel of people — both human and Aetherial — caught between duty and desire. It is a story of families, and of Rose Fox, a woman born to magic but tormented by her place in her adopted world. Led by Auberon Fox, a group of Aetherials — call them the Fair Folk, if you will — live among us, indistinguishable from humans. Every seven years, on the Night of the Summer Stars, Lawrence Wilder, the Gatekeeper, throws open all gates to the Other World. But this time, something has gone wrong. Wilder has sealed the gates, warning of a great danger lurking in the realm beyond them. The Aetherial community is outraged. What will become of them, deprived of the home realm from which their essential life force flows? Rose Fox and Sam Wilder are drawn to the lands beyond the gates, even as their families feud over Lawrence’s refusal to do his duty. Struggling with their own too-human urges, they discover hidden truths that draw them together in a forbidden alliance. Only by breaching the dreaded gates and daring the danger beyond can they confront that which they fear most – their otherness — and claim their birthright.