I’m half-Irish and spent my formative years in Ireland. Why is that relevant here? Because everyone in Ireland knows someone who’s had a run-in with Forces Best Not Fucked With; and even the people who swear blind that they don’t believe will not mess with that one particular tree, or let their dog dig on that one specific hill, or go down that one curve of road after dark – whatever the local fae landmark might be, no amount of money or Guinness will convince anyone to risk it.
That doesn’t make me a stickler for how the Fae are presented in fiction – it’s fiction – but it does, perhaps, give me a…slightly unconventional perspective on it.
And now you have my bona fides, allow me to present my absolute favourite examples of faeries in fantasy!
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy
Acclaimed by critics and readers on its first publication in 1987, winner of the Locus Award for Best First Novel, Emma Bull's War for the Oaks is one of the novels that has defined modern urban fantasy.
Eddi McCandry sings rock and roll. But she's breaking up with her boyfriend, her band just broke up, and life could hardly be worse. Then, walking home through downtown Minneapolis on a dark night, she finds herself drafted into an invisible war between the faerie folk. Now, more than her own survival is at risk—and her own preferences, musical and personal, are very much beside the point.
By turns tough and lyrical, fabulous and down-to-earth, War for the Oaks is a fantasy novel that's as much about this world as about the other one. It's about real love and loyalty, about real music and musicians, about false glamour and true art. It will change the way you hear and see your own daily life.
You are, in fact, doing Faerie Fiction simply wrong if you skip War For the Oaks – arguably the book that kicked-off Urban Fantasy as a genre and very definitely a classic. Bull seamlessly brings the old-school Seelie and Unseelie courts to (semi-)modern Minneapolis, tying mythic and mundane together with one of the best reasons-the-Fae-need-a-human I’ve ever seen. The whole book bucks convention, with twists and turns that make the plot genuinely unpredictable – which seems only appropriate, in any book about the Fae!
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy
October "Toby" Daye, a changeling who is half human and half fae, has been an outsider from birth. After getting burned by both sides of her heritage, Toby has denied the Faerie world, retreating to a "normal" life. Unfortunately for her, the Faerie world has other ideas...
The murder of Countess Evening Winterrose pulls Toby back into the fae world. Unable to resist Evening's dying curse, which binds her to investigate, Toby must resume her former position as knight errant and renew old alliances. As she steps back into fae society, dealing with a cast of characters not entirely good or evil, she realizes that more than her own life will be forfeited if she cannot find Evening's killer.
If you prefer your Urban Fantasy a little more action-y, then the October Daye series is more than ready to sweep you away. At 16 books and counting (not counting the various novellas and short stories) it might look a little intimidating, but it’s more than worth your time. McGuire’s knowledge of traditional folklore, and the original worldbuilding she’s spun out of it, is phenomenal, and like all the best UF series, although each book has its own self-contained plot, they all fit together to tell a much bigger story. McGuire plays a long game, and even the smallest of details have been laid with precise care that has you shrieking four or five books later when you realise how the tiniest, throw-away line was actually Extremely Important And Also a Clue. The series starts great and only gets better, and each book is quick-paced and easy to read, without skimping on the sneaky cleverness, to-die-for found family dynamics, and faerie politics. And I guarantee you will never predict where it ends up going!Dark Breakers by C.S.E. Cooney, Brett Massé, Sharon Shinn
NEW FROM WORLD FANTASY AWARD WINNER C. S. E. COONEY
A young human painter and an ageless gentry queen fall in love over spilled wine—at the risk of his life and her immortality. Pulled into the Veil Between Worlds, two feuding neighbors (and a living statue) get swept up in a brutal war of succession. An investigative reporter infiltrates the Seafall City Laundries to write the exposé of a lifetime, and uncovers secrets she never believed possible. Returning to an oak grove to scatter her husband’s ashes, an elderly widow meets an otherworldly friend, who offers her a momentous choice. Two gentry queens of the Valwode plot to hijack a human rocketship and steal the moon out of the sky.
DARK BREAKERS gathers three new and two previously uncollected tales from World Fantasy Award-winning writer C. S. E. Cooney that expand on the thrice-enfolded worlds first introduced in her Locus and World Fantasy award-nominated novella DESDEMONA AND THE DEEP. In her introduction to DARK BREAKERS, Crawford Award-winning author Sharon Shinn advises those who pick up this book to “settle in for a fantastical read” full of “vivid world-building, with layer upon layer of detail; prose so dense and gorgeous you can scoop up the words like handfuls of jewels; a mischievous sense of humor; and a warm and hopeful heart.”
Cooney’s Valwode-verse (not, as far as I know, it’s official name, but I’m going to keep calling it that) sees 1920s-esque humans interacting with exquisitely eldritch Fae. You can read the two books – Dark Breakers and Desdemona and the Deep – in any order, although chronologically, Desdemona takes place between the “Two Paupers” and “Salissay’s Laundries” novellas within Dark Breakers. There’s no wrong way to read them, though; they’re all completely breathtaking, with wonderfully otherworldly and alien Fae who are enraptured by mortal artists, whatever their preferred art-form. Cooney’s decadent prose is one of the best at really making you feel (right down your spine and into the goosebumps on your arms) the sheer wild otherness of all beings Fae – unspeakably alluring and inescapably awe-full.
A curmudgeonly professor journeys to a small town in the far north to study faerie folklore and discovers dark fae magic, friendship, and love, in this heartwarming and enchanting fantasy.Cambridge professor Emily Wilde is good at many things: She is the foremost expert on the study of faeries. She is a genius scholar and a meticulous researcher who is writing the world's first encyclopaedia of faerie lore. But Emily Wilde is not good at people. She could never make small talk at a party--or even get invited to one. And she prefers the company of her books, her dog, Shadow, and the Fair Folk to other people.
So when she arrives in the hardscrabble village of Hrafnsvik, Emily has no intention of befriending the gruff townsfolk. Nor does she care to spend time with another new arrival: her dashing and insufferably handsome academic rival Wendell Bambleby, who manages to charm the townsfolk, get in the middle of Emily's research, and utterly confound and frustrate her.
But as Emily gets closer and closer to uncovering the secrets of the Hidden Ones--the most elusive of all faeries--lurking in the shadowy forest outside the town, she also finds herself on the trail of another mystery: Who is Wendell Bambleby, and what does he really want? To find the answer, she'll have to unlock the greatest mystery of all--her own heart.
Emily Wild’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries made a very deserved splash earlier this year, but if you missed it, well – you’re in for a serious treat! The book is presented as the journal of an antisocial, somewhat grumpy anthropologist who studies faeries, and literally everything about it rocks. Fawcett is one of the few writers I’ve seen who manages to put into words why we’re so fascinated by Faerie, and approaches it from a few unexpected angles. For example, most fantasy featuring the Fae gives you the ‘facts’ of that story’s Fae – whether they can handle iron, is it dangerous to tell them ‘thank you’, what their powers are, etc. But a quiet but very important aspect of Emily Wild’s Encyclopaedia is the knowledge, not just of the facts, but of the specific legends where the Fae appear – the difference between knowing what goblins are versus memorising the story Rumpelstiltskin. It’s heavy on the ‘stories are power’ vibes, and I’ve not seen that particular take on it before!
Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.
With exquisite illustrations by acclaimed artist Ana Juan, Fairyland lives up to the sensation it created when the author first posted it online. For readers of all ages who love the charm of Alice in Wonderland and the soul of The Golden Compass, here is a reading experience unto itself: unforgettable, and so very beautiful.
It’s actually some time before we encounter actual fairies in Valente’s Fairyland series, as the fairies are mysteriously missing – but there are all kinds of other Fae creatures, drawn from and inspired by a variety of different cultures, and so transformed by Valente’s imagination that, no matter how familiar you are with Faerie lore, it all feels beautifully unique and new. Ostensibly for younger readers, I can assure you that this series is deep and layered, perfect for Grown Ups to enjoy too. I’m not sure any other books I know capture the incredible, magical wonder of all things Fae as well as this series does!
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Deaf MCs, queer rep
You might get stolen too.
In these wide-ranging stories told from the perspectives of a Thai ghost, an Irish fairy trapped in a dog’s body, a crow fae, an Icelandic birch tree elf, a dream thief, and other shapeshifting creatures, Kristen Ringman examines whether these fae would love a human or kill them after a close look into their hearts.
“Ringman achieves a haunting, sexy, and visually stirring collection that explores the tension of identity, longing, and the intricacies of connection and obsession in this series of beautiful, complicated settings populated by a both magical and deeply frail, human cast. She effortlessly severs the line between mythology, the supernatural and practicality, and the reader recognizes that desperation to be known, to be understood, to be considered unique to an otherworldly presence, and to ourselves.” —Hilaree Robinson, co-author of The Distance
“The true wondrousness of Fae is as sly as it is innocent; it is magical and grounded, brutal and graceful, edgy and tender. Through a blend of fantasy, horror, and magical realism, Ringman digs around in the human condition, unearthing truths of the psyche, the body, and the spirit.” —Kate Evans, author of Call It Wonder: an odyssey of love, sex, spirit, and travel
“Dark and haunting, yet beautiful and hypnotic. Ringman brings poetry and beauty even to the monstrous.” —Christopher Jon Heuer, author of Bug: Deaf Identity and Internal Revolution
This one is a collection of short stories, wherein different Fae creatures from around the world make off with humans who’ve captured their interest, in a variety of ways in sometimes wildly different scenarios. The stories are all written from the perspective of the Fae, which is marvellous – and a significant number of the humans are Deaf, which, I loved how much that didn’t matter to the Fae! They don’t all have happy endings, but this is a genuinely beautiful collection that I love dearly, and deserves to be much better well-known!
Seven is a very magical number, so it seems the perfect place to wrap up! Feel free to share YOUR favourite faerie reads in the comments!