November 26, 2018

Of Fairy Beasts and Fugitive Lovers by Judy DaPolito

I was ten years old when my grandmother came to live with us, adding two books of Japanese fairy tales and an enormous volume of Russian, Magyar and Slav tales to the books of Grimm and Anderson already calling to me from behind the glass doors of our living room bookcase. Since that time, I’ve delighted in everything from Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber to Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles. And I’m still discovering new and wonderful tales. Recently, I fell in love with Margaret Rogerson’s An Enchantment of Ravens.

The world of Rogerson’s story captured me immediately. The town of Whimsy, where it is always summer, sits between two contrasting regions. In the World Beyond, humans go about their lives unaffected by the fair folk, and the seasons go through their usual changes. In the treacherous forest humans who trespass risk death, and the areas are divided into seasons according to each one’s prince or king. But the fair folk travel from the forest to Whimsy to buy objects made by human Craft. The fair folk can create enchantments, but if they try to cook or sew or make furniture or write poetry the attempt itself can destroy them. Isobel, the seventeen-year-old human protagonist, is a skilled portrait painter.

Isobel has painted many of the fair folk since her main patron, Gadfly, first came to her when she was twelve. She gives her whole self to the acts of drawing and painting. Only her peculiar family is as important to her as her Craft. A fairy beast killed Isobel’s parents when she was small, and her Aunt Emma has raised her and her young twin sisters. March and May illustrate the dangers and the carelessness of the fair folk. They started life as goats, but became human when a fair one who’d had too much to drink transformed them. They still tend to leap from high places and eat small lizards and broken dishes, but Emma and Isobel love them anyway. In addition, they’re a reminder to Isobel of the dangers of the enchantments the fair folks offer as payment for Craft. If the wording of the enchantment is not tightly controlled, what sounds beneficial can prove to be devastating. Isobel has learned to request precise enchantments, such as causing each of her family’s hens to lay half a dozen edible eggs every week. She knows better than to trust the fair folk.

But her practicality begins to slip when Rook, the autumn prince, comes to sit for his portrait. Isobel hears a raven beyond the kitchen door and shoos it away, but it ignores her and croaks again. A moment after she goes into the house, there’s a knock at the door and the prince enters. He’s handsome and unreserved, asking questions about household tools and furnishings. He doesn’t stand on ceremony, and she loses herself in the process of sketching him until she has trouble drawing his eyes. When he leaves that day she asks if she can see him turn back into a raven, and he obliges her.

They grow closer as the sessions continue, and Isobel realizes how much she will miss him when the portrait is done, but love between humans and fair folk is forbidden and the penalty is death for both. She and Rook say goodbye reluctantly, and two weeks later she gives the finished portrait to his messenger. A few nights later he returns, furious, and forces her through enchantment to follow him into the woods. She has painted human sorrow in his eyes, and that weakness can cause him to be overthrown. Since his subjects have already seen the portrait, he intends to put her on trial to prove that one of his rivals paid her to do it.

In the course of their travels through the different principalities of the forest, Isobel and Rook are chased by the Wild Hunt and attacked by enormous fairy creatures made of human corpses and rotting vegetation. At first, Rook insists he’s protecting Isobel in order to bring her to trial, but it soon becomes clear that his feelings for her break the Good Law. And instead of running away she protects him as well, even after injuries have temporarily destroyed his glamour and she sees his physically frightening reality. Each of them comes to believe that interior worth matters far more than exterior beauty.

When they finally confess their love for each other, Isobel finds the courage and wisdom to attack the rules of the fair folk and turn an early crushing defeat into a great and surprising victory. An Enchantment of Ravens is a valuable addition to the tales that lived behind the glass doors of my parents’ bookcase.
Because Judy DaPolito is enchanted by fairy tales and medieval adventures, she writes about both subjects. Right now, she's immersed in a novel-length retelling of Bluebeard.

EC would like to thank Judy for her generous support in EC's 2017 FundRazr campaign!

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