Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Review: Elfland, by Freda Warrington

Elfland by Freda Warrington
Published: Tor, 2009

Awards: Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice Award
1st Book in the ‘Books of the Silver Wheels’ Series
Sub-Genres: Contemporary Fantasy, Romantic Fantasy

The Book:

Aetherials, the elemental creatures some call the faerie folk, live in two worlds.  Some stay in their homeland of the Spiral, while some choose to spend their lives on Earth, blending in with the humans around them. Between these two worlds is a series of Gates, governed by an ordained Gatekeeper.

Elfland tells the story of two Aetherial families, the Fox family and the Wilder family, who live on the Earth.  The Wilders are seen as cold, haughty, and distant, while the Fox family seems full of love and laughter.  While these two families might look very different at first glance, they are hopelessly intertwined, past and future. 

The patriarch of the Wilder family, Lawrence, is the Gatekeeper.  He has angered the entire Earth-based Aetherial community by refusing to open the Gates.  He claims he is protecting them all from some terrible danger, but he is unable or unwilling to explain the situation more clearly.  The Wilder and Fox children now face their life on Earth, without the possibility of ever even visiting their ancestral home.  Some of them are obsessed with penetrating the closed gates, while others desperately want to turn their back entirely on their heritage in order to live a ‘normal’ life.

I have never read a book by Freda Warrington before, and I picked this one up to participate in the Women of Fantasy Book Club discussion. I had no idea what to expect going into this book.  While it is the first of a series, Elfland also works as a stand-alone novel.
My Thoughts:

Elfland seemed to be primarily a romance and a family drama, rather than a fantasy.  The characters and their personal relationships are really the driving force of the story.  The Fox and Wilder families seem rather isolated, as they are almost never seen interacting in a significant way with anyone outside of their small, closed community.  The story follows the Fox and Wilder children from their childhood through their growth into young adults, with all the mistakes and false starts they make in their lives along the way. 

The style of writing was very meticulous about physical detail, particularly visual detail.  I felt like every character was always completely described, down to every strand of hair and facial expression.  All of the characters and important locations were brought to vivid life.  I still have a clear image of each person burnt into my mind, and I finished this book weeks ago.   The prose kept me interested in the book, even at the low points of my interest in the characters and the plot.

The viewpoint jumps a lot throughout the book, but Rosie Fox could be considered the main character.  Rosie is flighty and overdramatic, and she has a very hard time trying to figure out what shape her personal life should take.  Her mistakes along the way tend to be incredibly emotionally destructive to both herself and the people around her.  Her older brother Matthew wants to turn his back on his Aetherial nature, and live fully as human, while her little brother, Lucas, just wants to make the people he loves happy.  The Wilder children, bad-boy Sam and charismatic, druggie Jon, each have their own troubled character arcs that interweave with the Fox children’s.  The older generation has its share of drama as well, and there’s a small group of human friends who find their place in the tapestry of the story.  Overall, it seemed like something of a soap opera, and this feeling was intensified by the absence of anything outside their small community. 

The fantasy elements were the Aetherial nature of the characters and the world of the Spiral.  For much of the book, one could just think of the Aetherials as an isolated ethnic group, since they did not seem much different from humans psychologically. Some of their physical abilities do set them apart, however. Aetherials can travel into the ‘Dusklands’, which is kind of an Aetherial perception overlaying the human world, and transform into more elemental shapes there.  They can also magically will their body not to become pregnant or contract STDs—a useful way to eliminate some of the consequences of sex in the narrative.  Aetherials also live for longer than humans, and are reincarnated in the Spiral after death.  

The humanity of the characters certainly made them feel more real and relatable, but it did result in one small drawback.  It irritated me every time a character blamed their behavior on their ‘wild Aetherial spirit’. They also tried to claim that Aetherials are ‘not bound by human vows’ a few times. I found this a little strange, since no one is literally bound by a promise.  You don’t have to be a fairy to break your promises; anyone can do that.  It was annoying to hear the characters glorify a lack of integrity as a noble trait.

My Rating: 3/5

Since I am usually not a reader of romance, this was not really my type of book.  However, the prose was lovely, and the Foxes, Wilders, and their few friends really sprang to life within the story.  Even so, outside of Lucas and Faith (Rosie's childhood friend), I rarely had positive feelings towards the characters.  Since, in this case, the characters really make the book, I think this affected my ability to get into the story.  I will probably not read the rest of the series anytime soon, but I may come back to it someday, when I'm in the right mood.

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