The world of the faerie courts, and tales surrounding the unseen world in general, have been popular subjects for storytellers for hundreds of years, long before Shakespeare codified much of the material in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The drawback to this longevity, however, is that it is ever more difficult to find an original approach to the material. There are still grand stories to be told, but for every Little, Big, there are a dozen slavish, self-conscious fairy tale novels quickly forgotten after reading.
Wondrous Strange, the debut novel (and first book in a planned trilogy) from Toronto writer Lesley Livingston, manages to stand as a powerful and largely original work in its own right. Rooted not only in faerie traditions but also in previous treatments of those traditions, Wondrous Strange will serve as a perfect introduction to the unseen world for younger readers.
Livingston draws on her lengthy experience in the theatre and her formal education in English (with specialization in Arthurian literature and Shakespeare) to create the story of Kelley Winslow, a 17-year-old girl who has moved to New York City to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. Kelley gets an understudy job with a ramshackle repertory company, but in true theatrical-fairy-tale fashion, the lead actress breaks her ankle and Kelley is called upon to play Titania in the upcoming production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Practising her lines in Central Park, Kelley meets Sonny, an elite warrior assigned by Auberon, the faerie king, to guard the Samhain Gate. The Gate is one of the only remaining doorways into Faerie, which was sealed off by Auberon in a fit of pique a century ago. As it does every year, the gate will fully open on Samhain (Halloween), nine days away. Sonny must keep the faeries confined to their own lands, and, by extension, protect this world from possible harm at their hands (and claws, hooves, etc.).
It is probably no surprise that Sonny and Kelley are drawn to one another. As Samhain approaches, however, it becomes clear that there are no coincidences at play, either. Kelley’s increasingly frequent encounters with characters from Faerie and her connection to a mysterious horse that takes up residence in her tiny apartment’s bathtub all point to a deeper connection between the girl and Faerie, a connection that may, on Samhain night, have terrifying implications for the mortal world.
Wondrous Strange shifts effortlessly between Kelley and Sonny’s perspectives, allowing the characters to emerge with realistic and often startling depths and complexities. Neither Kelley nor Sonny are what they seem to be on the surface (nor what weaker novels of the genre would have them be): Kelley, for example, is far from a helpless naïf, and Sonny’s attempts to protect her are met with a surprisingly ferocious response. It gradually emerges that their lives have been interwoven since their respective births, and their individual reckonings with their pasts and lineage further enrich the characterization.
Written as it is for younger readers who likely have limited exposure to faerie lore, Wondrous Strange sticks fairly close to traditional storylines and relationships for its background. As a result, the novel will form a good introduction to the frayed relations between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, to characters like Auberon, Robin Goodfellow, and Queen Mabh, and to the Wild Hunt. As well, the novel’s prose has a breezy, almost breathless quality that will appeal to readers considerably older than its target audience. The narrative is rich with incident and mounting tension, but allows for imaginative set pieces, such as a tavern that forms a bridge between worlds.
That being said, readers well versed in faerie lore and conventions will inevitably find some of the plot developments predictable. When Sonny accepts a bargain with an envoy from Queen Mabh, for example, it’s fairly clear that he should know better than to make such an agreement without specifying every term. Livingston, however, makes this familiarity work in her favour in most instances. Certain developments late in the book, particularly concerning Kelley and her parents, succeed because they are twists on the familiar, while still operating comfortably within recognizable parameters and traditions.
That it builds on the familiar without sacrificing originality is the greatest strength of Wondrous Strange. Here’s hoping that the two remaining books in the trilogy succeed as well.