Hello and welcome to the first Close Reading Romance* post of the new year: a snapshot look at Heather Fawcett’s Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries. Why the asterisk? Well, the book I’m looking at today isn’t exactly a genre romance. It’s a fantasy novel with a lovely little romance plot running through it, but I’ve been seeing it discussed and enjoyed in a lot of my online romance spaces. So that little disclaimer is how I’m going to justify writing about it here, because it’s either that or rename the blog “Close Reading Genre Fiction with Strong Romantic Elements” and while the blog periodically heads off in that direction, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
My strongest impression from reading this book was the vividness of its sense of place: it’s set on the fictional nordic island of Ljosland, where Emily Wilde has come to research local faeries for the encyclopedia she’s compiling. The setting is deeply evocative, and the book remains compulsively readable despite long scenic descriptions in relatively dense prose. That’s what I’ll be looking at in this “snapshot” post: how Emily Wilde uses thickly descriptive prose to create a feeling of estrangement- one that’s suspenseful and eerie and invigorating for the reader, rather than distancing or alienating.
A quick note before I begin: these “snapshot” posts are meant for folks who haven’t yet read a book, so you can get a sense if the prose style is likely to appeal to you. The spoiler level on this post is thus rather mild, though I do allude to something important we learn about one of the protagonists by around the 25% mark. Proceed, or don’t, accordingly!
Here’s the cover and blurb:
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.
Let’s start with a look at two of my favorite wintry-nature descriptions of the book. These give a sense for the prose, and a chance to talk about why I think “estrangement” is an unlikely but useful word to describe the work Emily’s nature descriptions do.
The mountains themselves were lightly ensnowed, though there was no threat of a sequel in that cerulean canopy. Within the hinterlands of the prospect heaved the great beast of the sea with its patchy pelt of ice floes.
The afternoon held the sort of borrowed, ephemeral warmth that interrupts the advance of winter sometimes, and I found myself wondering what summer was like in this place.
So, why estrangement? Well, to begin, one thing I love about the prose in the book is how much it tells us about Emily Wilde as a character. She’s a scholar, she’s very prickly (I love her), and in particular, she doesn’t enjoy having out-loud, public feelings. You can see in these passages, which putatively belong to her academic journal, how she hides both her feelings and herself behind flowery and overly-ornate prose. Saying “there was no threat of a sequel in that cerulean canopy” instead of “the sky was blue, so it probably wouldn’t snow again” arguably tells you more about the character writing than it does the sky. In this case, it mostly tells us about how Emily wields estrangement – from her listener, from her own feelings – like a literary weapon.
But I also think that “estrangement” applies to how the prose makes the reader feel about the setting. Ljosland is meant to be a strange and somewhat forbidding place, and the use of complex terms like “cerulean canopy” or “ephemeral warmth” alongside the full-cloth invention of words like “ensnowed,” give the reader a sense of the harshness, and the strangeness of the environment.
Another thing that makes the landscapes seem strange – and maybe even a little unsettling- is how the prose imbues them with movement. In the first passage, the use of the word “prospect,” which can mean both “the possibility of a future event occurring” as well as “an extensive view of a landscape” makes the sentence feel like it’s moving with shifting meanings, even before we’re told the water moves like an animal with “its patchy pelt of ice floes.” In the second passage, we can see how the life within the landscape – its surprising moments of warmth – prompts feelings-averse Emily to muse wistfully about other seasons. There’s movement in the prose, and glimpses of how the settings move Emily emotionally.
Part of what I think prose work like this can do is “train” readers, even unconsciously, to have heightened emotional reactions to certain metaphors and techniques when they’re deployed at important moments of the text. Below is just one such moment, where the experience of estrangement – both around natural settings and around Emily’s emotions – comes to the forefront of the text. It’s a moment where Emily describes Wendell, her colleague, her rival, and (as it turns out) a part-faerie prince who has been deposed from his realm. He’s using mirrors to show himself images of the landscape that he’s been exiled from for most of his life:
After we ate, I watched him play with the mirrors. When he touched them, strange things appeared- for an instant, I saw a green forest reflected back at me, boughs swaying. I blinked and it was gone, but some of its greenness lingered around the edges of the glass, as if a forest still lurked somewhere beyond the frame.
“Are those the trees you would see in your kingdom?” I asked.
He let out his breath and drew his hand away. “No,” he said quietly. “That was merely a shadow of my world.”
I gazed at him a moment longer. His mourning was a tangible thing that hung in the air. I have never loved a place like he has, and felt its absence as I would a friend’s. But for a moment, I wished I had, and felt this as its own loss.
Having established how alive the landscapes of Ljosland can be, the text is better able to underline the poignancy of Wendell only being able to see his home reflected, as in a mirror. I also love how we see Emily’s estranged forms of speech crack, just a little bit, under the weight of her emotions towards Wendell. She still makes readers work for her meaning: I can almost feel the spaces around the missing words in the fragment “felt its absence as I would [feel] a friend’s [absence].” “Feel” and “absence” being, well, absent from the sentence allows it to echo with loss, but I find it really beautiful how Emily is able to relate to Wendell’s homesickness by feeling the absence of what she doesn’t understand. It’s a gorgeous passage, and one that gains in depth because of how, as readers, we’ve already been trained to experience the estrangement of Emily’s writing, and the movement of her settings.
If this kind of dense, slightly-enchanted prose appeals to you, I would certainly recommend Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries. Since I finished it, I’ve been missing it not like I miss a book, but like I miss a place. And I think this quick look at the prose has helped me understand a little bit better why that is. If you pick it up, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!