Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Microreview: Emily Wilde's Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett

An attempt at a cosy fantasy historical romance whose lack of attention to detail manages to undercut any charm it pulls together.

We’ll get to the more substantive critique in a minute, but I want to start off with something that will be entirely irrelevant to most readers, but intensely annoying for a few. The protagonist is a female scholar – a professor, in fact – in Cambridge in 1909. Cambridge did not begin to award women degrees until 1948. When they did try to change the rules, for instance in 1921, there were riots. It was not an uncontroversial situation.

Based on some other choices in the book (for instance, it is set in a queernorm universe), I am reasonably sure Fawcett has intended this as a deliberate choice, making the world of 1909 just… a better place than it really was, to give herself the space to write the story she wants to write, without having to put in a load of homophobia and misogyny. And while this is certainly an approach one might take, it's not one that sits entirely well with me, not only here, but in many other historical works, as well as steampunk and adjacent genres. There’s an episode of Star Trek: DS9 (S7E15) in which Sisko, asked as a black man to play dress-up in a sanitised version of 1960s Las Vegas, sums it up nicely: "We cannot ignore the truth about the past.". While he changes his mind by the end of the episode, I think the validity of his initial concerns remains - by writing this nicer, cleaner, happier version of the past, are we erasing the truth of it? I think by writing that version of the past in which everyone gets to be happy, as they could not in truth, you erase the very real problems, and the struggles of the people who lived them, just to enjoy an aesthetic. And here, where the struggles are something we can pinpoint easily to dates and specifics, it's hard to ignore that discrepency.

I know other people have a different take on this, and the argument that the people who were excluded at the time can enjoy reclaiming what they ought to have had access to in the first place is a perfectly reasonable one… just not one that works for me. It niggles, in the process of reading.

It doesn't help, then, that Fawcett has managed to make some factual errors about her protagonist's university alongside all of this:

- I’m reasonably sure the author uses “professor” in the American sense, not the British one, despite the academics in the book being English and Irish
- The references to the geography of Cambridge and Cambridgeshire never evoke anything real in them, and at times, mention things which, while technically possible, are rather implausible (forests and hills and other things when the Cambridge area is almost entirely fenland)
- The protagonist has a BSc, when everyone who graduates from Cambridge gets a BA (if it's a B-anything)
- The university seems to have a modern US tenure track system, rather than anything resembling a historical English setting, or even modern Cambridge
- Several characters mention "quads" and "quadrangles". These aren't a thing in Cambridge at all.
- Despite mentioning Cambridge approximately one gazillion times (to the point where it does become a little annoying to the reader, in fact) throughout the course of the novel… the author never once mentions a Cambridge college.

That last point may seem trivial, and in fact it took me a while to notice when reading, beyond a vague sense of something being deeply off, but once I did realise, it was impossible to ignore. It is one of the defining features of Cambridge (and Oxford), and anyone there, or who once was there, will have a collegiate affiliation that will, in some ways, be a significant part of how they identify themselves, especially amongst other Cambridge people. It's a default of self-presentation. So to go through a whole novel about a character who has such fond and constant feelings about Cambridge, and for her to never mention her own college, nor her friend/rival/person’s college, or even if they’re at the same one, is deeply bizarre, and really throws off immersion in the story once noticed.

Of course, none of this matters to most readers. It is, for the most part, irrelevant. But once you know, once you notice, it belies a rather deep absence of research on an even basic level which is somewhat offputting for a novel in a historical setting.

There are also some other issues outside of this, if historical accuracy isn't something that bothers you.

The story follows Professor Emily Wilde, a dryadologist, on fieldwork out in Ljosland (which appears to be a fake Scandi island, using the name of a real town in Norway) to uncover details of a particular type of faery for her great work – the first real encyclopaedia of all faeries. While out there, she is, to her disgruntlement, joined by her annoyingly charming and handsome friend and academic rival, Wendell Bambleby.

Yes, you read that right, Wendell Bambleby. No, I never got over it. I’m still not over it. Moreover, Wendell Bambleby, despite having what I can only consider a parodically English name, is actually Irish. There is precisely zero acknowledgement at any point in the text that there might, maybe, just slightly, be some Anglo-Irish tensions in 1909.

Together, they investigate the mysterious local faeries, as well as getting drawn into the faery-related problems experienced by the villagers. In something that may sound like a spoiler but absolutely isn't one - indeed, it is blindingly obvious even from the cover blurb of the book - they also fall in love.

All of this is... fine. It’s not stunningly original or anything, but it could still be some fun fluff done well.

Alas, it was not.

The story is written as, for the most part, diary entries by Emily… which is fair enough at the start, but as events go a bit pear-shaped, it begins to strain credulity somewhat that she/whoever would be writing them when the entries claim to be from. The prose style also strays very quickly away from even vaguely plausibly her writing a diary to something that feels much closer to a more normal 1st person narration voice. I would, quite frequently, forget it was a diary format until I hit a new chapter heading, which has the date at the top of it to remind you. This feels something of a shame. Interesting formats or framing devices can be really great, but it feels like if you’re doing one, you should actually embrace it in order to get it to that greatness. Halfway houses tend to feel a little haphazard.

This then highlights how shallowly the characters feel drawn. If the diary format had been fully realised, this could quite easily be handwaved away as being stuck inside Emily's head and only getting her view. But it isn’t, and quite frankly, even she, our first person narrator telling us her actual thoughts, feels distant and hard to grasp. She just lacks substance. Of course the side characters never stood a chance.

The plot, too, is a bit thin on the ground. Events hang together by tenuous threads, often of motivation that we simply do not see spelled out in how people act. They behave unexpectedly, and things just sort of happen.

And then… well there’s the whole premise really. Emily is a scholar in 1909 doing fieldwork. One of the few bits of genuine historical accuracy that remains in the book is the entitlement obvious in Emily’s attitude towards the people who form the basis of her study. I am not certain if this is deliberate, on the author’s part. Emily Wilde goes in, despite claiming to have done extensive fieldwork before, and proceeds to just assume the world always follows the rules she knows at home, and being utterly baffled that other people in other cultures… have different mores. And even when she notices that she’s offended someone, someone she needs on her side to get her work done, she doesn’t ask what it is she’s done, not even the friendly young boy who seems to think she’s great for reasons unclear to me. It is only when Wendell turns up to be charming at everyone/thing and points out to her that people are people that she manages to make friends. Which is not to say Wendell is perfect – he’s just as bad as her, except that he notices it, and is willing to try to get his way by being charming and manipulative, rather than obtuse. That might actually be worse. And while, yes, this feels like absolutely the sort of attitude an English scholar in 1909 would have, why, when you’re doing queernorm, gender equalitarian past, did you have to leave that in? Why am I meant to be sympathetic to someone who is trampling all over other cultures like that? Because it feels a difficult thing, especially at the start, to sympathise with her while watching her behaviour. And it’s a book that really does need that sympathy to get you through.

The world-building is also a little odd. We’re in an imagined Scandi island, but the protagonist has come from a real place. But she’s also done research in a made-up southern European country. It feels like the world-building has been done very much on the fly, and, to be blunt, just to get around having to do any research for points where the author didn’t feel confident flying blind. To take a book doing something quite similar, if Fawcett had followed the same approach as Marie Brennan in writing the Lady Trent books, making up a fake country (that we all know is totally England), giving it a made up name and a made up university, however obvious the analogy to real world places, it would have given everything just that bit of plausible deniability necessary to suspend disbelief. It wouldn't have to be accurate then - it's made-up. But once you make choices that encompass real world places and events, you have to at least get it a little bit right. Make it so people don’t notice right from the off. But this half-in, half-out approach doesn’t manage to give you the wins of either side, and leaves it all feeling an unplanned mess, rather than a coherent, cohesive, thought-out whole.

That being said, there are some good points. For all its lack of commitment to the framing device, the writing is very easy to get into, and it’s a very fast, pacy read that would be easy enough to get through in a single day. Despite the characters, and some of the events, the romance part manages to be somewhat compelling. Mostly, this is because Wendell is, at times, very funny. You can see why someone would both like and want to smack him, in those moments where he gets some actual character development. But it is really hard to stack all this up against the litany of various gripes that are evident throughout.

I don’t hate it. It’s not that bad. It’s just also… not very good. And it’s trying to do the sort of cosy, romantic fantasy that is currently enjoying a surge of popularity, so it’s not even as though it deserves points for originality. There are simply plenty of other books out there willing to provide cosy historical fantasy romances, and many of those just do a better job of it.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 for easy, pacy reading

Penalties: -1 constant historical inaccuracy and strange world-building choices that make it hard to ignore the flaws, -1 lack of commitment to framing device

Nerd Coefficient: 4/10

Reference:  Heather Fawcett, Emily Wilde's Encyclopaedia of Faeries [Little Brown Book Group, 2022]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea