Emily Wilde's Encyclopaedia of Faeries, by Heather Fawcett, is a recently published fantasy romance which plays with many fairy and folktale tropes. The main character is a socially awkward Cambridge professor and "dryadologist" - in this world, faeries are real and well-known, with a thriving field of study surrounding them. Written in diary format, it follows Emily's field research in the remote northern village of Hrafnsvik, where she intends to make her name with an groundbreaking study of some little-known fairy folk. Things soon get complicated as she deals with dangerous fae curses, the local humans, and a handsome academic rival.
The book gets off to a slow start, but once it got going, I enjoyed it a lot. The interplay between Emily and Bambleby is hilarious and eventually turns into a compelling romance.
I loved how authentic the rich, dark “fairy tale” mood felt. While original with its own interpretations of folklore creatures, the story feels based in a well-rounded understanding of folklore. For instance, Fawcett infuses a changeling story with more plot significance, elaborating on why the faerie child was left. Emily Wilde's world isn't just a mix of mythical creatures running around, but an element of fairy tale. There are familiar themes and motifs, and this is something acknowledged in the story; Emily holds an unorthodox belief that faeries and the events around them follow the rules and logic of stories in a way that’s alien to humans. There’s also a sense of fairies being inherently local to specific countries and climates. This folkloresque tone is one that I don't always find in modern fantasy; Holly Black's fairy books tend to capture it well.
I was amused by the book's scholars and researchers of Faerie, with Emily’s frequent footnotes giving hints into their academic papers, conferences, and drama. In this world, fairies are all real, so there is a whole branch of science blending naturalists with folklorists. I was reminded strongly of rivalries and controversial theories in the real-world folklore field. The dashing, flamboyant Wendell Bambleby has gotten into trouble for falsifying data in his studies - something not too far off from reality in some cases.
One thing that stands out to me is how the characters classify creatures under specific names, such as “brownie” for helpful house spirits and “kelpie” for water horses. This is a real approach among folklorists and it has flaws, since these words are rooted in specific traditions and were never meant to be used as generic labels. This is not a big deal in fiction and I’ve used words in this way myself, but it bears mentioning.
If you liked Holly Black's Folk of the Air and Spiderwick Chronicles series, or Naomi Novik's Spinning Silver, then this is one to check out.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.