I’ve just finished reading two very different fairy stories. They are both novels, written for adults, with plots that involve the interaction of humans and fairy folk. They are both good. Apart from that, however, they are almost exact opposites.
The Good Fairies of New York,by Martin Millar, had been sitting on my shelf untouched for years before I finally started it a couple of weeks ago. I’m not quite sure why I waited so long, because I very much enjoyed his earlier novel, Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation, and I’m usually happy to read anything about fairies.
The Spider's Brideis the first novel by Debbie Gallagher, who I know and respect highly. Her book came out last year but I only recently managed to track down a shop that had it in stock. As soon as I got a copy, I started reading it.
I said the two books were opposites and I meant that in the manner of summer and winter, or day and night; which is quite appropriate for fairies, really.
The Good Fairies of New York is set in modern-day America. It starts when Morag and Heather, two young 18-inch high Scottish fairies with hangovers and a liking for punk music fly through the window of the worst violinist in New York and vomit on his carpet. Lost and with no way of returning home, they decide to stay and help out the violinist, his neighbour and other people in the city. They mean well, but have an unerring gift for causing havoc wherever they go.
What I like about this book is that as well as being a delightful tale about fairies it is also social comment. The cast of human characters are drunks, the unemployed, the insane and the chronically ill. The book shows their daily struggle against poverty, unemployment, homelessness and death – but it is also about their dreams, loves, hopes and ambitions. The Good Fairies of New York sounds like it should be grim, but instead it is a joyful midsummer romp with a feel-good happy ending.
The Spider’s Bride, on the other hand, is a midwinter tale of treachery, cruelty and sacrifice. When a woman picks up a severed finger that has been left on her doorstep, she has no idea that it is a fairy gift, which binds her to the Prince of Spiders as Bride and blood offering to the land. The story follows the machinations of the unseelie court as its courtiers vie for power, with the Bride a helpless pawn until she can learn enough of fairy magic and politics to make her own destiny.
What I particularly enjoyed about The Spider’s Bride is the way it brings to life the fairy world depicted in the paintings by Richard Dadd. “They stared at me, the beaked and cat-eyed, feathered and scaled, the winged and the webbed and the hooved: and some were people and some were flowers and some were insects or beasts or toys…”
Richard Dadd – artist, madman and patricide – is one of the protagonists of the tale as well as being a genuine historical person. In The Spider's Bride he is another human servant in the unseelie court, prized for his artistic genius and his iron axe, whose fate is intertwined with that of the Bride. I won’t tell you if this story has a happy ending or otherwise.
The Good Fairies of New York and The Spider’s Bride are both brilliant novels. If you haven’t read them already, put them on your wish list now.
The Good Fairies of New York: With an introduction by Neil Gaiman
The Spider's Bride