The Hidden People (Alison Littlewood)

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4 stars

“Pretty Lizzie Higgs is gone, burned to death on her own hearth – but was she really a changeling, as her husband insists? Albie Mirralls met his cousin only once, in 1851, within the grand glass arches of the Crystal Palace, but unable to countenance the rumours that surround her murder, he leaves his young wife in London and travels to Halfoak, a village steeped in superstition.

Albie begins to look into Lizzie’s death, but in this place where the old tales hold sway and the ‘Hidden People’ supposedly roam, answers are slippery and further tragedy is just a step away …”

I’m very fond of a faery tale. Being Welsh, I’m a little more familiar with the mythologies of the Old Celtic countries than English folklore, but both seem to overlap on a key point: their depiction of faeries as wild, elemental, not-entirely-benevolent beings. This book goes one step further, dealing with old country folklore and looking at the flaws in the human condition, seeming to ask whether it is humans themselves who are the most inhuman of all…

Character: 4/5

  • Albie is not the most likeable or reliable of narrators and I think that’s one of the most interesting parts of the book. Albie is a young, rich, newly-married man, an insufferable snob and an unconscious misogynist. The story could not happen as it did without the miscommunications that occur because he does not treat his wife as a human being.
  • I actually found it really interesting to see a book written with the same condescending tone as many classics, but with that tone being used to critique the treatment of women during the period, especially those of a lower socioeconomic status. There were a number of times where Albie thought that his wife, Helena, was acting like some kind of bizarre fae creature, but as a reader you can just tell that she thinks he’s ridiculous and is upset by something that he has said and done. Once or twice I was actually scared that he might do something to hurt her. Such a unreliable point of view was frustrating and sometimes very disconcerting, but very well done.

Worldbuilding: 4/5

  • The setting of this book is amazing. I loved the descriptions of the backward, rural village with the fairy rings and the terrifying old ‘wise women’. There are some truly gorgeous scenes spent under the night sky, ethereal, charming, wonderfully creepy. You spend the entire book questioning yourself. Are fairies real? Am I maybe the one who is backward and misunderstanding? Littlewood does an incredible job of imbuing the world in such a way that you understand why folklore developed in the way that it did.
  • It makes you wonder how much of the ‘changeling’ lore was built upon the fundamental misunderstanding that women are somehow different to men? If a woman is wilful, is not subservient, miscarries a child it somehow meant that there was something wrong with them, that they were unworldly and somehow not human women. There were some parts of the story that were painful, seeing just how little control some of these women had over their own lives.

Ending: 3/5

  • Whilst I enjoyed it, I felt that the ending was maybe a little open. I suppose it would have not made much sense to impose an ending on the reader, especially after a book that had been been based so much upon questions. But I did find myself wishing that there was something more, something that made the ending memorable.

The Nitty Gritty: 4/5

  • ‘The Hidden People’ is a beautifully written book, rich and wild in the ways of some of the classics referenced within. Littlewood mentions ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Goblin Market’ in text and she manages to put some of that magic and bleakness into her own work. Think looming hedgerows and wild oaks, fairy rings and dark moons.
  • My one qualm is that I sometimes felt that the book felt a little repetitive and maybe lingered overlong on scenes that could quite happily have been condensed into one. Some of the power was maybe diluted a little by too many words.

Conclusion

  • This was not an easy read but a fulfilling one. Questions are not entirely answered, you end without feeling that you will ever be certain what it was that happened, or that those who truly deserve to be punished ever will be. But I also felt it was a strangely real book and a strangely tender one. By the end the characters are finally true to themselves, even though it might not be the most satisfying or happy conclusion. Definitely a book that I would recommend to a lover of the classics, folklore and the old tales.

For readers who enjoyed: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke) , The Bloody Chamber (Angela Carter), Smoke (Dan Vyleta), Great Expectations (Charles Dickens)

Thank you very much to Quercus Books for a copy in return for an honest review.

And I Darken (Kiersten White)

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“No one expects a princess to be brutal. And Lada Dragwyla likes it that way.

Ever since she and her brother were abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman sultan’s courts, Lada has known that ruthlessness is the key to survival. For the lineage that makes her and her brother special also makes them targets.

Lada hones her skills as a warrior as she nurtures plans to wreak revenge on the empire that holds her captive. Then she and Radu meet the sultan’s son, Mehmed, and everything changes. Now Mehmed unwittingly stands between Lada and Radu as they transform from siblings to rivals, and the ties of love and loyalty that bind them together are stretched to breaking point.

The first of an epic new trilogy starring the ultimate anti-princess who does not have a gentle heart. Lada knows how to wield a sword, and she’ll stop at nothing to keep herself and her brother alive.”

I really wanted to adore this book, I mean, what’s not to like, a brutal, fierce female lead, a gory and underexplored part of history, that sounds like it ought to be great. I did enjoy this book but I didn’t adore it as I’d wished.

Positives first, I thought the decision to make Vlad the Impaler a woman was great, I mean, having a female character that was largely amoral and brutal is exciting. I have some qualms with how this decision affected some of the historical elements of the book, especially the relationship between Radu and Sultan Mehmed, but, who knows, that could be addressed in book two.

I also really loved a) that it’s set in a period of history that’s been largely overlooked by fiction and b) that it portrays Islam in a positive light for once, rather than the stereotypical war mongering rubbish of many books set in the Islamic world.

The machinations within the Court and the political wrangles with the vassal states within the Empire were my favorite parts of the book. The struggles of a young Sultan and Lada’s battle to assert her control over soldiers who automatically assumed her unfit to lead simple because of her gender are the stand out parts of the novel. The personal and political implications of age, ethnicity and gender were explored in a way that never made you bored. I would perhaps have liked to witness more of the political struggles within the Sultan’s Harem, since having a female lead made that much more possible. I cross my fingers and hope we see a little more of the lives of the women in the Harem in the next book. I think their stories are just as important and potentially even more interesting.

I suppose one of the problems was that it lacked ‘richness’. I wanted to be regaled by the opulence of the Ottoman Empire, to experience the vast buildings, the rich silks and heady scents but instead I found myself feeling a little distant from it all. Sometimes I lost track of where exactly I was supposed to be.

I had a similar problem with the characters. Lada and Radu are interesting characters but they’re lacking the little something that would make them ‘fascinating’. I found Lada’s internal monologue a little ‘one track’ and repetitive, and whilst I generally enjoyed her character I wasn’t sure it was as fully realised as it could have been. I would have liked to have gone a bit deeper into her motivations and maybe focused a little less on her preoccupation with Mehmed.

I found Radu’s motivations clearer, I liked his quiet, intense internal dialogue and the way he worked around the problems he faced. I was less interested in the tortured LGBT plotline…I wondered why we couldn’t have a Radu confident in his sexuality, after all, in history Radu and Mehmed were supposedly lovers.

I also felt that Lada wasn’t entirely the ‘feminist’ lead she was touted to be…or, at least, she wasn’t given a chance to be. She struggled with a lot of internalized misogyny, seemed to, at times, openly despise Radu’s more ‘feminine’ attributes and just generally seemed to dislike every single female character she met in the book (not that there were many…). I’m hoping it’s part of her character arc, that she realizes the strength in being a women, not simply in trying to emulate the behaviour of the men around her, but I think we’ll just have to wait and see.

Objectively, this was good book. However, it didn’t give me that sensation of mindless love I get after reading some books, where just thinking about it makes my heart leap. It gets 3.5 stars because, despite my problems with it, it’s fresh, interesting and generally well executed.

I will be really curious to see where the next book takes us.

Many thanks to Penguin Random House Books who gave me a copy of the book in return for an honest review.