Arts book review

Fussy, delightful prose, and convincing folklore: Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett

Tag along with the titular character for a lighthearted magical adventure in Scandinavia


Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett

Del Rey

January 10, 2023


As a reader, there is no character trope I like to see more than that of the foppish man who cares so much about the line of his coat that he’s functionally useless at anything else. If an author writes this kind of character well, I’m pretty willing to excuse any and all plot defects. In Encyclopaedia of Faeries, Fawcett offers just that personality in Wendell Bambleby, the successful and charming colleague and love interest of our main character, Emily Wilde. Wilde herself is so endearingly awful at and uninterested in basic human interaction that the two clashing personalities more than sustain what is an otherwise unoriginal plotline in the scheme of faerie-inspired modern fiction. On top of a delightful central pair of characters, Fawcett’s prose is sharp, ironic, and completely entertaining, while the world she creates is lush and faithful to the legacy of the fairy tales we all know and love. 

The premise of Encyclopaedia already promises a read chock-full of whimsy: Wilde is a Cambridge professor working on a comprehensive encyclopedia of faerie lore in 1909, in an alternate history where faerie species are alive, known of, and well-documented. In service of her project, Wilde goes off to rural Scandinavia to investigate a mysterious group of faeries known as the Hidden Ones. Unfortunately for her, her annoying fellow professor, Wendell Bambleby, shows up at her far-flung cabin barely two weeks into her trip with a dubious offer of support for her research. As Wilde investigates the activities of the Hidden Ones and their intrusions into the lives of the village community she’s staying in, she realizes that maybe there are some problems with the way she’s been living — as an antisocial researcher who locks herself in her office like a troll under a bridge — and that maybe Bambleby isn’t as annoying as she thought he was. 

The highlight of this book is by far the prose and the dialogue between the two main characters. Encyclopaedia is formatted as entries in Emily’s scholarly journal for her expedition, and so the vocabulary reflects the education and stuffiness of a Cambridge professor. Several sentences had me laughing from delight: the writing — ironic, dry, lively — is such that the reader can be reasonably sure that the author is a fan of either Jane Austen or Shakespeare (if not both). Fawcett takes particular care to craft ridiculous scenarios and use grandiose vocabulary for comedic effect. Sentences have rhythm and fluidity. 

Consider some sentences I liked, all from the span of two pages: “This last was directed at the sheep, which, having had quite enough of the screaming madwoman in the cottage, now sought the relative peace of their rain-soaked abode”; “Away with you, woollen rat!”; “Any more of your demented beasts lurking within?”; “You would not think a scarf could be tailored, until you met Bambleby”; “This place looks as if it’s being tenanted by raccoons.” The book is packed with writing like this, which, depending on the person, either induces glee or eye rolls — in my case, the former. 

Fawcett’s writing style is the perfect mode of delivery for the personalities of the two main characters. The quotes above are from the scene where we first meet Bambleby, when he is first knocked over by two sheep and then a dog in front of Emily’s cottage and as a result is introduced to us as a rather pathetic figure. Bambleby is initially accompanied by two students, who are basically his servants, because he doesn’t bother to do anything of use besides sewing and talking to people. He doesn’t remain this useless throughout — over the course of the novel the reader learns more about his true identity and capabilities — but at his core he’s petty, capricious and frivolous, which is really fun. Bambleby’s character isn’t unique by any measure, but the trope he embodies is done well, and if you enjoy that trope it’s delightful to see on the page. 

Emily herself is rather curmudgeonly and we get many scenes of her failing miserably at interacting with the townsfolk of Hrafnsvik, the made-up village she is staying in. Emily is also very dedicated to her research, to the point of abandoning common sense at points in the novel, but her character is established well enough that the reader is able to understand why she would make those choices. She cares more about research than she does about the lives or the wellbeing of people around her, even though she does still care about the latter, and this makes for an interesting character. Emily is a pretty original character for the genre that Fawcett is writing in: some readers might consider her neurodivergent. One area of weakness in her characterization is the scant amount of backstory we get about her upbringing, but hopefully that is something Fawcett addresses in subsequent books in this series. 

My main issues were in the realm of plot, which consists mostly of faerie world tropes:disruptive changelings, faerie kidnappings, faerie kings and queens and princes and their political machinations. Given the premise of the novel, that’s to be expected, and the sequencing and the execution of these tropes isn’t poorly done. But this stuff is all well-trodden ground in the genre of faerie stories — Holly Black has probably covered all of it, to name one author — and Fawcett doesn’t really inject any of it with anything new, besides the novelty of Emily’s character as a scholarly investigator of these happenings. In particular, the last major plot point in the novel is one of the least original parts of the book: without too many spoilers, we finally find ourselves in faerie land rather than the human world, and as someone who has accompanied many authors into faerie land, Fawcett’s take, once again, just does not feel new. 

Lastly, the romance plotline is a bit weak and underdeveloped. I can envision Bambleby and Emily together, but Fawcett doesn’t seem to be putting in much effort to convince the reader, and we don’t get many scenes of emotional or physical intimacy between them. However, Encyclopaedia of Faeries is the first book of at least a duology, if not a series, so the feebleness of the romance isn’t too much of an issue; I can appreciate a multi-book slowburn. 

To end on a positive note, the creation of a scholarly history around faeries as real living creatures was convincing and thorough. Fawcett has developed a peripheral world of academic literature around folklore that Emily references throughout her journal entries, either in the journal proper or in footnotes, and we frequently get snippets or summaries of the faerie stories or species Emily has encountered or tracked. There are also interludes that are just straight fairy tales, and the importance of the oral history of fairy stories is built into the plot and the worldbuilding. These details all serve to fully immerse us in Emily’s professional situation and motivations. The fairy world itself isn’t as interesting to me here, but the worldbuilding of the human world is well done and unique. 

Encyclopaedia of Faeries is a delightful, lighthearted adventure, and even if Fawcett doesn’t offer too many new ideas on the world of faeries, the writing and the characters carry the day. Fawcett also leaves many promising plot and character trails that I hope will be picked up in future books in this series, and I’ll be looking forward to the next release.