A rich, allusive love letter to the magic of fairy bargains
In 1859, Christina Rosetti wrote an astonishingly thirsty poem called Goblin Market. It’s worth reading, but in brief, it goes like this: Two sisters walking at dusk hear goblins calling for people to come buy their fruit. Beautiful, luscious, succulent fruit, tempting and sensual, otherworldly, uncanny and tempting. Come buy our orchard fruits, cry the goblins, come buy, come buy! One sister holds firm, virtuously resisting temptation; the other falls, and with a lock of her golden hair buys the fruit, sucks the juice from it, enjoys wild delights of ecstasy1. But after that night of indulgence, she can get no rest or relief from worldly pursuits, and craves only the fairy fruit, withering away, health and beauty gone. Her sister, at great personal cost,2 fetches her more fruit from the market, and although it no longer gives her pleasure, nevertheless after a night of suffering it relieves her cravings. Both sisters go on to live a virtuous, happy lives as wives and mothers, warning her own children to beware the goblins and their temptations.
There’s a lot I’ve left out of this summary (really, read the poem, it’s banging), but its key contribution is the marvelously evocative description of the goblins and the market and their wares. If you ignore how it’s all a morality tale on why women should guard their virtue, if you forget the descriptions of the goblins as instantiations of the dangers of male sexual promiscuity,3 what you’re left with is a terrific setting for a story.
It is that setting that Trip Galey has made his own in A Market of Dreams and Destiny. The Untermarket —the gobin market— sits beneath the City of London, and everything is for sale there: not just fruit, but the luster of hair, three minutes of life, the strength of ten men, prosthetics of living silver, a golden voice, the vigor of youth and childhood—anything can be bought, bargained, negotiated, intangible abstractions exchanged for abstract intangibles. Fairy bargains, binding contracts, full of loopholes and exceptions and exacting, uncanny accountancy take center stage in this book that is the only story that has ever managed to satisfy my incessant craving for Fairy Bargains™.4
Deri, an indentured human servant to a powerful merchant in the Untermarket, is ambitious and energetic, and has amassed a tiny hoard of favors and trinkets, baubles he has bargained for in the spare minutes he can shave off the errands he runs for his mystrer. In the course of one of those errands, he helps an inexperienced youth navigate the market in return for three nights out on the town, and then in another bargain manages to lay his hands on the bottled destiny of the heir to the empire. The former bargain he intends to redeem merely as a frivolous entertainment; the latter he hopes to use to negotiate his way out of his indentures early and set himself up as a merchant of the Untermarket in his own right. But, in the way that inciting incidents do, both bargains twine together and grow and expand, and Deri will need all his experience and knowledge of the Untermarket and its relations with human London to come out on top.
Deri himself is the perfect example of a genre-savvy protagonist. He knows the dangers of the Untermarket, the deepest mechanics of Fairy Bargains, and he is a master at riding them and using them to his advantage. The very best parts of this book follow Deri’s perambulations through the market, his observations of the bargains and negotiations being struck, the descriptions of the sellers and buyers, the loopholes and tactics that he so skillfully sees through, making notes so he can employ them to his own ends later on. Even geography itself requries skill to navigate: the Untermarket twists and turns dynamically to tempt people ever deeper, appealing to their deepest temptations, and so, to find your way to a desired destination, you can’t simply walk there. You must curate your temptations, choose which ones to give in to, which ones to ignore, so that the Market eventually brings you to your ultimate goal. Simply going for a walk requires strategy, and Deri does it as naturally as breathing.
Deri’s young man, Owain, is indentured like Deri, but in a human factory, rather than to a goblin merchant. Structurally, then, he anchors the other half of a set of pairwise contrasts with fuzzy boundaries. People and settings and contracts are affiliated either with humans and the mundane (like Owain and the factory), or with goblins and the fae (like Deri and his mystrer’s market stall). But the boundaries are not perfectly straightfoward: humans like Deri have to fight for status in the Untermarket, while the Untermarket does not have the best reputation in the human world. The boundaries are semi-permeable, and the magic and mundane bleed through, each spreading its fingers into the other.
As skillful as this structure is, Owain’s half of the story is just not as much fun as Deri’s. Part of that is the setting: for all of the magic bleeding through into the mundane London above, it’s pretty hard for any setting to compete with the wild chaos of the goblin market. But part of it is Owain: he has less knowledge and agency than Deri, and feels younger somehow, less able to bend events to his will. This has the inevitable result of making his chapters less engaging, but it also means that scenes where he’s redeeming his bargain with Deri by showing him London nightlife feel at odds with his vulnerability and ignorance about everything else. It’s hard to believe that someone as downtrodden as Owain could have had the opportunity to amass this wealth of insider knowledge. But in the other scenes, when Owain is being downtrodden, he’s not much fun either. In truth, I found myself wondering whatever it was that Deri saw in him.
But hey, if Deri’s happy, I’m happy. And I’m very happy. I really can’t emphasize enough how much I enjoyed this book’s inventive whimsy. Although the most obvious influence is Goblin Market —the refrain of ‘Come buy, come buy’ is unmistakable— there are cameos and references to other Victorian works of literature that do a lovely job enriching the setting. David Copperfield and Miss Havisham and Fagin make appearances of varying degrees of subtlety, each coming to the Untermarket for their own reasons. The nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons is woven throughout beautifully: Bells speak to Deri, helping him and warning him of dangers and opportunities, and their conversations are always in rhyme.
In sum, then, this book is a wonderful ride, full of true love and friendship and nascent labor unions, betrayals and intrigue and villainous skullduggery, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
1 Do I need to spell out the allegory here, or are we all on the same page?↩
2 If you look past the repeated use of ‘sister’ there’s an extremely persuasive queer reading to this poem too.↩
3 There’s quite a good bit where Rosetti remarks on how, when women do virtuously say no to
men asking for sex goblins selling fruit, the men goblins get pretty salty about it.↩
4 Although I would be remiss in neglecting to name C. L. Polk’s delightful, charming The Midnight Bargain here, which also comes pretty close.↩
Nerd coefficient: 8/10, well worth your time and attention
CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on Mastodon at wandering.shop/@ergative.
Galey, Trip. A Market of Dreams and Destiny [Titan Books, 2023].
Polk, C. L. The Midnight Bargain [Erewhon Books, 2020].
Rosetti, Christina. "Goblin Market." Goblin Market and Other Poems: [Macmillan 1859]. Online at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44996/goblin-market