Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Review of Aurelie: A Faerie Tale by Heather Tomlinson

There’s an old tale about a midwife who is taken to help with a fairy birth and accidentally gets fairy sight in one eye. When the woman gives herself away at a later point, the fairies blind her in that eye. And you all know the story of the twelve dancing princesses. The idea of dancing in the fairy realm with untrustworthy yet romantic figures further evokes warnings such as those in the ballad of Tam Lin or Christina Rossetti’s poem, “The Goblin Market.”

Although these fairy tales influence Heather Tomlinson's Aurelie, it is not specifically a fairy tale retelling. Instead it is the story of Aurelie, Garin, Netta, and Loic, childhood friends in the land of Jocondagne. Aurelie is the princess and her father’s heir, Garin is a fosterling from the ocean-faring realm of Skoe, Netta is Aurelie’s companion, and Loic is a young river dragon. Loic isn’t actually supposed to be friends with human children, let alone give them the ability to see fairies. Unfortunately, Netta reveals her fairy sight to Loic’s father and is blinded as a result.

All of this happens in the first chapter as a kind of prologue. The rest of the book picks up two years later, when the four friends are unhappily separated and feeling various degrees of abandonment and betrayal. Most of the story concerns itself with political intrigue and a threat of war from the too-lucky Captain Inglis of Skoe. On a diplomatic mission to Skoe, Aurelie encounters Garin again, but he is in disguise, and he’s not very happy about Aurelie’s escort, Captain Inglis’s arrogant son.

When Aurelie flees Skoe for her home, she encounters Loic again, and she begins dancing with him in the world of Faerie to forget her troubles. He seems to woo her, but everyone knows his heart lies with Netta—although no one has dared tell him what happened to the girl’s eyes. Then Garin comes after Aurelie, with Captain Inglis’s army at his heels. Having resolved their old hurts, the four teens work together to undo the warleader’s luck and save the kingdom.

Along the way, the author has a little fun with her world building. The realm of Skoe is especially clever, with its fishy cuisine, its ice boat races, and its stair-stepped city built on a cliff. I laughed when Aurelie observed that everyone in Skoe is in really good physical condition from running up and down all those stairs!

At 184 pages, this book is more of a novella than a novel. Partly an adventure story, Aurelie moves at a brisk pace despite pausing for some teen-type angst along the way. Aurelie is told in the first person, and different chapters are presented by the four main characters, though the princess is most often the narrator. This POV choice gives the book a more contemporary, Young Adult feel. Aurelie is being marketed as YA, in fact.

And speaking of contemporary: In my review of Thornspell I mentioned that fairy tale-influenced fantasy may stop for scientific explanations of plot points; here I’ll add that they sometimes contain pop psychology. For example, “detachment” just isn’t a medieval concept! Still, Loic’s an interesting character in that regard. His motives are more sinister than Aurelie suspects, rather more alien, reptilian, and fey, to be precise.

I did notice a couple of too-handy coincidences in Aurelie. Bruce Coville has said that the later in the book you place a coincidence, the more it strains credulity. Keep an eye on Captain Inglis in that regard.

However, like Thornspell, Aurelie is ultimately good story telling. Aurelie and her friends are an appealing bunch, and watching them solve the mystery of Captain Inglis’s devious plans is just as entertaining as seeing them work out the troubles that led them to lose their once-prized friendship. Don’t forget that the subtitle is “A Faerie Tale”: Tomlinson ends with a pair of satisfying happily-ever-after romances as the foursome comes together again.

Note for Worried Parents: Although Aurelie is very wholesome compared to many YA novels, it does have a few brief, oblique sexual references, the most memorable of which is one character asking another if she plans to take a lover. And there's some kissing. That's about it!

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