Except the Queen by Jane Yolen and Midori SnyderThe first thing I noticed about this book when I opened it up was Jane Yolen’s dedication, which I will reproduce here in it entirety. This, my friends, is a recommendation list from one of the grande dames of fantasy. I find that I have read many of them, but there’s a good handful that I plan on hunting down:
For Terri Windling, Ellen Datlow, Isak Dinesen, Angela Carter, Alice Hoffman, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, Pamela Dean, Patricia Wrede, Holly Black, Emma Bull, Patricia McKillip, Ellen Klages, Kelly Link, Diana Wynne Jones, Robin McKinley, Shannon Hale, and all the other sisters of fantasy.
But the actual book. Two fairy sister, Meteora and Serana, witness the Queen engaged in a certain act with a human man. The Queen! With a human! They try to stifle their giggles quickly, as they know that revenge will be swift and terrible if word ever gets out. Of course, inevitably, it does and it is. The Queen finds them both and turns them into ugly, fat and magic-less old ladies (how ugly or fat? It’s hard to say coming from people accustomed to eternal youth) and sends them to far cities in the human world. Serana is taken to the hospital as a homeless woman, and eventually set up with an apartment and a small allowance by a social worker. Meteora is found by the Great Witch herself, Baba Yaga, and assigned to watching over her house, the lower stories of which she rents out to college students. The story follows these two as they try to establish communication with each other and to survive among the bewildering ways and proliferating cold iron of the human world. We also meet two young people, both with magic but living in the human world. The Dog Boy, Robin, tries to escape from his cruel father, while Sparrow, who does not know her own name or history herself, finds herself being sucked into a black spell: A friend of a friend guides her to the tattoo parlor of one Hawk, who promises her the most beautiful tattoo she has ever seen, just for her. But the tattoo bleeds at night for weeks, though Sparrow heals even from knife wounds overnight, and Sparrow’s dreams grow increasingly dark. (Meteora’s musings on tattoos are interesting, as she sees bad spells in almost every tattoo she sees – butterflies for a short and meaningless life, or barbed wire for pain and suffering.) The old sisters, too, sense darkness attempting to rise and use what frail powers they have left to help the young people, trying to find a purpose in the human world. The characters are compelling and the plot nicely not obvious. This fey are authentic, the Unseelie Court terrifying, the Seelie Court maybe good but still not necessarily trustworthy or friendly to humans, both sides deeply respectful and fearful of Baba Yaga, who aligns herself with neither court. This is fantasy done well, and, I’ll note, a good stand-alone for those who want a solid fantasy fix without committing to a trilogy or more.