The atmospheres and intended audiences of these books are completely disparate. However, the two are linked by the fact that I read them recently and thought that a review would be in order.
Curse of the Thirteenth Fey: The True Tale of Sleeping Beauty
Jane Yolen, 2012
I have a weakness for stories about the fey folk. This particular tale centers around Gorse, the thirteenth and youngest child in a fey family that possesses wings and magical ability. Gorse enjoys frolicking through the fields and studying her elven father’s enormous library of books (some of which are from the future and talk about strange mysteries like “computer science”). Unfortunately, her family is bound to the land of their king and must obey his every summons. Forced to work magic as requested, they reluctantly prepare to attend the christening of the new royal princess and to bring the requisite magical gifts. Gorse has the misfortune to fall into a magical trap that prevents her from obeying the summons. Not only does this put her entire family at risk, but it also lands her in the clutches of an unsavory, Unseelie prince who wants to use her to escape his own enchantment.
This story plays with folk and fairy tale conventions in a pleasant, light-hearted way. The fey folk (Seelie, Unseelie, and Family) are traditional enough to contrast well with the modern structure of the story. The Sleeping Beauty element is turned on its head in a manner that is not particularly unpredictable but is humorous. Although the tale is light and fluffy, it provides a positive take on family love and loyalty, the importance of learning, and the unpredictability of prophesies. This is a harmless, enjoyable book that young teen girls would enjoy.
by Neil Gaiman, 1996
Richard Mayhew is an ordinary young man with an ordinary career in finance who lives in the real, above-ground London. Yet one evening, while escorting his domineering fiancé to an important dinner, he finds a severely injured girl. The girl begs to be taken somewhere safe. No police, and no ambulances, she says. The ordinary-seeming Richard is not quite ordinary enough to refuse her plea, and he takes the girl to his own apartment. She asks him to summon her friend. By doing so Richard sees just enough of London Below, a shadowy world that is both a mythical lair and a confused reflection of real-life London, to lose his ordinary life.
Richard wants his life back. The girl whom he rescued wants to avenge her family’s murder. Other people want other things, and together they begin a loose sort of quest that might help save them from the dangers that haunt London Below. This is an absorbing book that might best be described as, “A very ordinary man finds himself trapped in a combination of dream and twisted fairy tale.” Richard does not fit the heroic mold. Distinguished mainly by his ultimate inability to refuse help to others, he is completely out of his depth in London Below. Yet he is engaging and not without a desperate kind of courage. The story does not allow the reader to become too sure about anyone or anything—as it alternates between various characters’ perspectives, it plays just as freely with the reader’s expectations. Neil Gaiman originally wrote this story as a television show and then expanded it into a novel. Thus, the format of the story provides a feeling of disorientation that suits the book’s atmosphere. The overarching plot itself is rather generic, but it is developed with such tremendous atmosphere that the reader does not initially notice its limitations. The villains are terrifying. Wrong. Different. Macabrely alive. In addition, they are psychotic monsters whose deeds are extremely disturbing to read about.
The weakest part of the story is the ending, which left me with the feeling, “Well, yes, this was the only way the author could have dealt with issues X and Y because of the way he constructed them.” I had been hoping (probably unrealistically) for more surprises and a deeper message. When I read truly excellent books I feel that the ending is right, rather than simply being the easiest way to end without going over the word limit. Neverwhere is a fairly compelling read and a somewhat disturbing one, but not a profound one. Take it on a trip with you, unless you have to stay in a hotel by yourself and might get too creeped-out by murderous villains.