The Autumn Castle by Kim Wilkins
This review contains significant spoilers, which begin after the Plot heading.
There’s a tension when reviewing authors who are alive and live relatively close to you. You’d like them to succeed. You’d like to give them a hand. You’d like, in short, to give them positive reviews. The problem, when you are reviewing, is that you’d like to be fair to your readers, and that means being publicly disappointed by the part of the book which did not work for you. In writing this review, I’m intensely aware of this dynamic tension, so if you feel I’ve strayed one way or the other, please contribute to the comments.
The plot of The Autumn Castle is slow, and dwells heavily on the internal lives of the characters, rather than what they do. The descriptions are vivid, and there are some original ideas compared to other urban fantasy novels. The magic system has no underlying structure. It becomes increasingly difficult to find characters whom you hope will succeed. Enjoyable, but only recommendable to people who like lengthy books with the slow pace, and introspective, passive characters found in litfic.
Foundationally, I think I wrong-footed myself on this book. My favourite book about faeries is Diane Purkiss’s Troublesome Things, which is non-fiction and stresses the liminality of faeries, and the possibility that they are not fully cognisant beings. This created a problem for me, in that the reader’s position on the characters was not immediately clear. When we meet Mandy, who hunts faeries, I didn’t immediately flag him as a villain.
The book’s position, which is that faeries are people and a faerie hunter is therefore a sort of serial killer, was not clear to me until we meet enough faeries, later in the plot, to measure them as moral agents. Mandy’s ugly, and the other characters bodyshame him pretty thoroughly for about a hour (in audiobook). Rather than seeing his outer form as a symbol of his spiritual twistedness, I initially thought they were a pack of drunks piling crap on the guy who was supporting their lifestyle. I was kind of hoping they’d get a comeuppance.
Then, we pull back to a rather more conventional narrative in which the artists are the side we are meant to hope will win. They deepen their characters by sitting around talking, mostly, and mostly about each other. The Queen of the Faeries seems to be little more than an aggressively demanding adolescent, and she seems to keep a slave in a well. Perhaps slave is too strong a term? If the slave is lost the faerie kingdom will die, so I was hoping for some Those Who Walk Away From Omelas, but, no, the slave is, according to the people who need to keep her enslaved, wicked. This means you can just Gitmo her according to them. She also seems to hate them and will hurt them if she gets free: another reason she can and must be kept locked away. In her situation, I think I’d be plotting escape myself.
When she tricks her way free because of the Queen’s inability to control her infatuation, she becomes a second villain. The two villains are out doing things, while the other characters just gossip about each other’s love lives. This gives the main characters time to work through their childhood traumas. As the characters pushing the narrative forward, the villains are the more interesting characters. The female villain quickly disfigures a woman and eats parts of her, so that the reader is quite clear that the faerie princess is still on Team Right.
I’m sorry we were given that marker, because the side we are meant to support are terrible people. The princess is gradually wrecking the lives of the other characters in her endless quest to fulfill herself. This is perhaps forgivable because she’s not a moral adult, having been raised in a fantasy kingdom as a princess, but that makes the man who wants to be her lover creepy. Her faerie parents were also horrible beings, in a classic faerie way. We are all set up for a twist in which the ugly slave and the serial killer are the heroes, but are denied it.
The faerie plot ends with the good guys winning by simple luck. None of them do anything to deserve victory. They just stand by while victory is handed to them on a plate. One of the leads finally gets enough forward momentum to not just be carried by events (after the villains are taken away). We then settle in for another hour and a bit of the main characters resolving their love triangle in a way that was obvious from early in the story. The story claims the ending is an act of restitution by the faerie princess, but she gets exactly and precisely what she wants. Again.
In the same way that I wrongfooted myself with a definition of faeries, I think think I wrongfooted myself, in this book, with a definition of love. Characters in this book can do terrible things if they say that they are doing it because they love people. The thing is, though, their loves are never selfless giving to the beloved. Love, for all sides, is a possessive impulse that excuses other immoralities. Initially I thought that was the characters being hypocritical, but no, in this universe, that’s really how love works. It really is a higher calling so great that if you claim it, you feel justified doing anything else for it, and in the end, are rewarded for whatever evil you’ve done, provided you looked nice to begin with. So, love, in this world, is a great source of evil and peversion, even in the nominally good characters.
You will need to be patient with this book. If you are listening to the audiobook, you have surrendered the pacing of the story to the author. The book is 19 and a half hours long (462 pages). The point where the real conflict starts is about Section 12, which is about four hours in. This is so far past “hook me in the first hour or I’m leaving” rule of thumb that I would have given this book up, if I’d not given up on my previous AWWC book for the same reason. The framing for the final confrontation occurs in section 36, so you know, because the book has 50 sections, that things are going to take an awfully long time to resolve. When the epilogue starts, buckle down for an extra quarter hour.
I feel for the audiobook presenter. The shorthand the author uses to distinguish many of her characters is that each comes from a different place and so has a different accent. This works well in audio, and the reader gamefully struggles through all of these. He does very well, but at one point he’s asked to carry more than any performer could.
Sex scenes are difficult to write. The authors need to get across the emotional impetus of the scene while ignoring the mechanics beyond a few indicative acts. To give too much detail is boring. To give too little detail is to miss the point at which characters realign their priorities and alligences. Add to this that each reader is interpreting the book in their own way, and sex scenes often come off as unconvincing. The reader of the audiobook then tries to perform both parts, with voices. I felt so sorry for him, because he’s hitting square on the difference between a performance of the book and a person reading a book to themself. He does as well as could be hoped, but he can’t carry the scene, which is problematic, because its seminal to the plot’s development.