Ah, those cozy fantasies, how I do love them. This one was a particular favorite and one of the few cases where I jumped with joy upon learning that it is only the first in a series. Give me more Emily Wilde, more Wendell, more found families, exploring cultures and their view on faeries. I hope we’ll get at least ten volumes.
EMILY WILDE’S ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF FAERIES
by Heather Fawcett
Published: Orbit, 2023
Hardback: 336 pages
Series: Emily Wilde #1
My rating: 8.5/10
Opening line: Shadow is not at all happy with me.
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 the start of a heartwarming and enchanting new fantasy series.
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.
Written as a journal by the eponymous Emily Wilde, this story begins with her journey to Hrafnsvik, a very northern village that has some interesting tales and locations to offer when it comes to studying faeries. And that’s just what Emily is here to do. She is creating the first Encyclopaedia of Faeries, writing down in a scholarly fashion, all that there is to know about the various kinds of fae, how to interact with them, what tricks they may play on nearby villagers, what gifts the villagers leave for the folk, and so on. Emily is thus working on establishing herself as the brilliant scholar that she is in the minds of her colleagues – who don’t all love her personality. Along this trip that is to last several months she brings her loyal dog, Shadow, and all she needs to do her work.
I immediately adored the writing style of this story because not only is Emily a somewhat unusual woman for the time period, but she is also so clearly enamoured with her work that she forgets all social niceties. Or, indeed, how one interacts with humans at all, rather than fae and/or books. It felt a bit like an inversion of a trope, having the female character be a little gruff and not caring about her hair, while the male counterpart is all about proper attire and charming the people around him. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So… Emily arrives, manages to do some studying and stake out the area, looking for faerie activity, but she has trouble getting along with the locals. Something or other she has done or said must have made her into a pariah of sorts, but she cannot for the life of her figure out what is wrong or how to fix it.
Wendell Bambleby to the rescue! Her colleague and suspected fae (although she has never told him of this suspicion) is her exact opposite in many ways. Charming, quick with the banter, sensitive to others’ feelings, he complements Emily perfectly. When it comes to their scholarly efforts, he happens to be a little less meticulous, not to say lazy… Can you see why I love these two? It may be another trope (the messy roommate and the clean one) but, boy, does it work ever so well. Together, Emily and Wendell navigate life in a very frosty village (both when it comes to the climate and its inhabitants), try to learn about the local faeries, listen to legends, and, almost by accident, solve some ancient problems. To tell you the details of their adventures would be spoiling the fun, so you’ll just have to trust me that there are several kinds of faeries and other mythological folk, encounters with neighbors and mayors and shop keepers, and of course: science!
The plot offers many lovely twists and turns, but although I enjoyed them, it was a variety of other little things that lifted this book above similar cozy fantasies. First, I love the liberties Heather Fawcett has taken with the setting and time period. Women scholars may have it harder than their male colleagues, but they are not unheard of; queer folk are simply there and accepted, and I can not stress enough what a difference that makes. Imagine a Jane Austen novel, but the neighbors are a lesbian couple. It’s so refreshing and makes me want to spend a lot more time in this world.
Then there is the faerie lore, of which we get just enough to keep this book interesting and new, but also to whet my appetite for more. The legends and local stories are intriguing, especially the ones Emily follows up in more detail, and I can’t remember a single dull moment in this book. Plus, all the plot strings come together really nicely at the end.
And lastly, let’s not forget the relationship between Emily and Wendell. It feels kind of romancy early on, but again, the author takes it in unexpected directions. Most remarkable is probably that we learn about Emily’s suspicion about Wendell being a secret Fae in one of the first chapters. The author could have tried to milk this “revelation” and turn it into a cheap twist, but Emily is really rather good at what she does, and spotting Fae is one of those things. Wendell indeed being a Faerie, it wouldn’t have fit to have Emily ignorant of the fact when she spends so much time with him (because she has no other friends and most other people would rather spend time away from her).
No spoilers about any potential romance subplots, but I’ll just say I loved the character development, the pacing, and the conclusion reached – or not reached – at the end of this first book. More than anything it made me want to go back and follow these two scatterbrains on many more trips. What a wonderful, at times thrilling, tale of a woman who just wants to study in peace.
I hear the next book, Emily Wilde’s Map of the Underwolds, takes place in Austria (that’s where I live, yay!), and now I only have to wait for my pre-order to be delivered.
MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Really excellent