Book Reviews

Review: Kingdoms of Elfin

This book is like nothing I have ever read before. It’s scholarly, lush, poetic, and full of magic. Handheld Press were kind enough to send me an advance copy of this beautiful reprint of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories, Kingdoms of Elfin, and it turned out to be one of the most breathtaking and magical reads of the year.

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Book: Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Read before: No

Owenrship: Paperback copy send by Handheld Press for fair review. All views my own.

This book is a collection of 16 short stories which take peeks into the different fairy courts around the world. But to call them ‘stories’ almost feels like short-changing them – they could almost be history books, given their dedication to explaining the little details of everyday fairy life. A selection of anecdotes from a narrative history might be more apt. It might sound terribly pretentious, but I was actually reminded of Herodotus’ histories, which veer away from direct fact to report the strange and unusual in long story-like passages.

While each story follows a different character (often some sort of outsider in the court, whether a changeling or an exile or a researcher of fairies), there is a sense of timelessness to each of the stories, almost as if they were dreams. You definitely have to pay attention while you’re reading to keep up with the events, as seemingly insignificant happenings will turn out to explain enormous concepts, and powerful occurrences will start and finish in one short sentence. The stories play with the concept of time – we know that time flows differently in the fairy realms, and stolen mortals may well return hundreds of years later. The very act of reading this made time seem to stretch and shorten as you become immersed in each story.

The language is almost alive, in the way it rolls from sentence to paragraph to page without ever letting up – tiny details are crammed into the beautiful prose to the point where you feel like you yourself are standing in a fairy court, marvelling at everything around. Everything is so vividly described, especially the food, which made me hungry on several occasions. You really get the sense of a whole variety of cultures within the fairy world, though there are of course similarities as well as differences – I particularly liked the fact that fairies favour Persian cats! If you have read any of Katharine Briggs’s books, or done any research on the British fairy traditions, then you’ll have some idea of what you’re letting yourself in for. This is a book to savour, not to gallop through, and will be wonderful to re-read over and over again. It’s challenging, but rewarding for those who persevere.

Kingdoms of Elfin publishes today, and is the perfect Halloween treat for anyone who is as fascinated by the Fair Folk as I am. Four out of five (Persian) cats.

4 star

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