Book Reviews

Review: Fearsome Fairies, ed. Elizabeth Dearnley

This stunning collection of tales about the Fair Folk is a must-have for any fan of fairies in all their weird, scary glory.

Book: Fearsome Fairies edited by Elizabeth Dearnley

Publication date: 11th November 2021

Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by British Library Publishing. All opinions my own.

Content warnings:

It would be impossible to talk about this book without first mentioning what a beautiful object it is. My picture above does not do justice to how pretty it is, with buttercup yellow canvas printed with emerald green foil, and that lovely illustration by Mag Ruhig (plus beautiful green endpapers). It’s a heavy book, and feels very luxurious – it’s under 350 pages long, but the paper is so thick, it weighs a ton! This feels like something very special.

The introduction is fairly light, aiming more for a readable overview of fairy lore than deep scholarship, but it provides an interesting look at some different aspects of fairy lore, such as changelings, associations with the dead, and the peculiar kind of seductive power that the fae hold. The Cottingley Fairies are used as an anchor to discuss the powerful human desire to believe in fairies – why do we keep coming back to them? – and I thought the inclusion of the photographs themselves in an appendix was a nice touch. There’s also a great further reading list, which includes a lot of titles I have read and can confirm are fascinating!

On to the stories themselves, then. There’s a good selection here, arranged in order of publication date from 1867 to 2014. This offers an intriguing overview of how the way we tell fairy stories has changed over the last 150 years, but it does have the effect of putting my least favourite story right upfront! The style of each story is different to the last, so if you’re not clicking with one, there’s bound to be something else coming up you’ll enjoy more. I particularly liked “Laura Silver Bell” by J Sheridan Le Fanu, which is a tricky read thanks to the heavily dialectical speech, but which has a dark take on the ‘seduced by a fairy’ and ‘fairy midwife’ tropes. The Peter Pan story, excerpted from The Little White Bird and offering a kind of origin story, is both charmingly whimsical and horribly sad. MR James’s “After Dark in the Playing Fields” is a fantastic piece – very short, but full of voice and magic – while Margery Lawrence’s “The Case of the Leannan Sidhe”, the longest story in the book and practically a novella, was so good (an overtly supernatural Sherlock Holmes style mystery) that I’m going to be tracking down more of her stories about Pennoyer, the occult detective.

Overall, this is a fantastic collection of stories that really explores how rich and dark fairy literature can be. It would make a great introduction if you’re new to the darker side of fairies, but also has plenty to offer those with a lot of knowledge – all of these stories were new to me despite a long time reading in the genre! A must have for fans of the fae – five out of five cats.

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