If you've been into the children's section of a bookshop recently, chances are you'll have seen fairy books of all sorts there. If your bookshop is at all like the large Dublin city centre one I visited for a spot of field research, there'll have been a real divide—the 5-8 shelves are full of brightly coloured, sweet and sparkly fairies with flower or animal magic, and they're very likely to be girl fairies (I'll come back to that). The YA shelves, in contrast, usually have faeries, both male and female, but very, very rarely sweet. In fact, the teen protagonists who meet those faeries will be downright lucky if they're just cold, beautiful and unmoved by human emotions.
The section between those two, for readers aged 9-12, has fewer books with fey creatures of either type and those that are found are more likely to have attitude than sweetness-and-light. This is where you'll find R.J. Anderson's Knife, with its attractive Brian Froud cover, featuring a decidedly attitudinal young faerie. Or at least, this is the section in which you'll find it when it's not on the bestselling shelves, as it's been extremely popular hereabouts—especially for a first book by a North American author.
Knife (Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter in North America) begins with 6-year-old Bryony pleading her foster-mother, Wink, to allow her to go outside her home in the Oak tree, just for a short time. Despite her somewhat stroppy delivery of every child's "It's not fair" plaint, this short introductory scene conveys a sense of the stifling constriction of a community providing no other children for companionship and no chance ever to leave the Oak. In her brief, rebellious excursion outside, Bryony manages to encounter what she realises is another child, albeit a human and therefore not "real," as she's been taught. The necessary bit of exposition about the situation of this group of faeries is rather neatly given in another universal childhood behaviour—showing off already-gained knowledge that the parent-figure had thought the child too young to know. What Bryony already knows about is the Sundering, a curse that was put on the faeries dwelling in the Oak meaning they could no longer do magic. The present Queen of the Oakenwyld had been away from the Oak at the time, and so retained her magic. As more and more faeries were lost to accidents over the years, Queen Amaryllis eventually prohibited anyone from leaving the Oak, except for her Gatherers who forage for fruits, nuts and the like and the Queen's Hunter, who can take down small game.
What Bryony doesn't know about until after her encounter with the human child is the Silence. Thorn, the Queen's Hunter, takes Bryony to see a faerie who's just succumbed to this mysterious illness, in order to warn her off any further contact with humans. The Silence sounds rather similar to senile dementia, but has recently begun striking down younger faeries, leaving them first angry, then confused, until finally they "just . . . fade . . . away." Bryony is convinced by the flimsy evidence given her that it is contact with humans that causes the Silence, and duly frightened off venturing Outside again.
The reader, on the other hand, need not be frightened that Bryony will spend the rest of her life or the book confined to the Oak. The second chapter opens nearly seven years after the events of the first, and Bryony is assigned what will be her occupation for life by the Queen. All she's hoped for has been to become a Gatherer, for the freedom she still desperately craves, but she is instead appointed to be the apprentice to Thorn, to take over as Queen's Hunter. A good choice—for the Oakenwyld and the reader. Had the book just told the story of Bryony as the adventurous sprite of the cover illustration, exploring the world Outside and battling creatures like Old Wormwood, a wily crow with a taste for faeries, it would have been a good and enjoyable book of its kind. This part of the story is well done and often exciting, and there is much pleasure to be had in watching Bryony grow in both self-reliance and independence and also in understanding and tolerance. When she's driven to go steal a blade of some kind from the humans in the House, her lack of comprehension of the "magic" she thinks humans have (like electric lights) is entertaining, in the way that it can be fun to see humans from a baffled outsider's perspective. It is from the weapon she makes out of this stolen blade that Bryony takes the name 'Knife', and this signifies her fierce courage.
There are several mysteries that Knife becomes determined to solve, from sources within the Oak and even ones Outside. What caused the Sundering and is its agent still a threat? What, if anything, can be done to prevent the Oakenfolk from dwindling further? Is there a connection between the fairies' loss of magic and creative abilities and their fear and avoidance of humans? There's a love-story—no spoilers, I think, in saying the child encountered in the first chapter, Paul, is the human whom Knife comes to love. Their relationship develops from what is almost a "first contact" start, through a tentative and often awkward friendship, to one so important that Knife is willing to disobey her Queen's direct orders that she stay away from the House. There's Paul himself, who has been paralyzed in an accident and has to come to terms with spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair. (At which point there should be a pause for a hearty cheer for a disabled romantic lead!) And there's the emotional growth of Knife, treated with a nifty bit of genre convention reversal. Children's and YA fantasies in which the protagonist grows through the gaining or learning about magical gifts are common (though no less wonderful for that when well done, as for example in many of Diana Wynne Jones's books). Knife, however has almost no magic and learns compassion and affection through her friendship with a human. It's a measure of the author's assured touch that this multiple storyline spinning doesn't cause the whole thing to become unbalanced or lose focus.
Pondering again the relationship between Paul and Knife, I am impressed how well it manages to be both completely individually theirs and also more universally that of a couple of any kind, needing to negotiate their differences—of background, experience or just habit—with flexibility and generosity of spirit. The situation in which they find themselves and the choices they are forced to make for one another at the climax of the book are more complex and intense than one might have expected from the cover and first few chapters. Part of Paul's despair at being paralyzed is that he's forced to go home and be taken care of by his parents, "as though [he'd] never gone away to school, never grown up at all," and when he feels he's lost the 'one good thing' that happened to him since his accident, Knife's friendship, he's driven to attempt suicide. Knife, for her part, having learned to care for the people in the Oak and for Paul, finds herself with conflicting, possibly irreconcilable responsibilities to each.
It may be apparent by now that in many ways this book could be called "old-fashioned," and it is, but not necessarily in the ways that might be expected. Just as many younger children's books have only female faeries, so does Knife. All Knife herself has ever known is females, and it is indeed a truth universally acknowledged, as far as she's concerned, that faeries hatch from eggs which somehow appear when an older faerie dies and no male ever has anything to do with their conception. The matter could easily have been left like this, as these children's stories with only females are so widespread that readers probably don't even notice the absence of males. These aren't the sexual beings of the YA books, or for that matter, of many older fairy stories. But Anderson hasn't left it there. There's a lovely scene in which Paul shows Knife a picture called "The Faeries' Dance," painted by a Victorian artist who used to live nearby and she falls about the place laughing because there are male faeries in it. She thinks Paul's being quite dim not to understand that faeries aren't animals so "don't need to rush about finding mates and having young." When he questions why if that's so she and the others "look so female" she's completely puzzled. It's another mystery, connected with the Sundering and the diminishing of the faeries' creative powers, and one that isn't entirely answered in this book. Readers who have come across Anderson's essay "The Problem of Susan" (in which she argues against the idea that C. S. Lewis "banished" Susan from Narnia because of a fear/disgust of adult sexuality) will likely be less than surprised at the suggestion that a sexual type of procreative ability could be naturally seen as part of all creativity. And the decline of those living in the Oakenwyld includes a notable loss of artistic creativity, along with a general inability to generate new ideas.
On the same note, the theme of magic's dwindling and receding from this world is of course a common one in fantasy books. Sometimes it happens because the world has stopped believing that magic dwells within it, and sometimes because the time of the magical creatures has simply passed. Knife does not go this way, I'm glad to say. Towards the end Knife faces down the Queen with a line that makes that very clear: "'No,' said Knife. 'You're wrong. Do you really think that just because we can't go back to the way we used to be, that proves we can never be any better than we are?'" Being "better than we are" doesn't mean clinging to a supposedly glorious past, any more than it means an unquestioning acceptance of authority and rules that may provide temporary safety but ultimately constrict and prevent growth.
Whether a reader is interested in the ideology which informs this book or simply reading to find out what happens next is in many ways irrelevant, when everything is wrapped in a satisfying story with engaging characters, human and fey. A sequel—Rebel in the UK, and tentatively Faery Rebels: Wayfarer in North America, is due to be published next year. According to the author, it will be a "much bigger adventure" in some ways, and there is promised to be much more about the relationship between humans, faeries and all the possible combinations thereof. The completely satisfying ending of Knife notwithstanding, I'm very much looking forward to its publication. In the meantime there's much of interest to be found on Anderson's blog and website.
Hallie O'Donovan lives in County Dublin with two daughters, two dogs, and a precarious stack of books at the end of the bed which will almost definitely take just one or two more.