Nathan’s review of Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries
I went into Emily Wilde thinking that this would be a perfect book for me. I have recently been enjoying a lot more cozy fantasy, fantasy romance, and fae stories, so I thought this would be the perfect combination of everything I have been seeking. Throw in the fact that the main character is an academic and I was all in. Unfortunately, I am disappointed to say that Emily Wilde failed in most things I look for in a novel.
For me, the book fell a bit between the cracks of what other books and authors have done better. This book lacked the humor and wit of something like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the critique of academia found in Babel, or the sheer atmosphere of Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver or Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy. Fawcett appeared to be trying to incorporate different elements from these earlier fantasy works, but failed to package them into a book that was engaging and thought provoking.
Instead, everything felt a bit too muted and gray. Outside of Emily and Bambleby the characters all fade into one another. Fawcett populates the small Scandinavian village Emily stays in for her research with a variety of characters, but so often they just felt like names on the page. I had a hard time remembering who was who because none of them felt like fully realized people with personalities and histories. The villagers all coalesced into a single hivemind individual, and as a reader I missed the experience of exploring an island village with interesting inhabitants.
Similarly, the atmosphere did not quite transport me anywhere. The antagonistic court fae were not quite sinister enough to feel threatening, and I didn’t feel the wintery forest vibe that I believe Fawcett was going for.
Throw in the fact the humor did not endear me to the characters or their plights, and there was little to really keep me coming back except my own toxic trait of rarely DNFing books (something I am hoping to get better at!).
The writing style of this book also did not really work for me as the book is told in a series of Emily’s journal entries. In many ways Fawcett succeeded in expressing the ways in which an academic like Emily would have approached a research journal; for example, at times Emily even remarks about how her personal feelings shouldn’t be creeping into her research notes. However, Fawcett’s choice to present the book in this manner means that the writing comes across as really dry, and perhaps even overwritten. There is little in the writing that hooks the reader. To fit Emily’s style, the prose is simultaneously plain and overly stylized, and the plot moves at a snail’s pace for more than half of the short book’s page length. Even the numerous footnotes add little to the experience because they too become dry and cumbersome (the footnotes give additional context about the fae and their history as it becomes relevant to the plot).
The fae feature quote prominently in the book, and it is obvious Fawcett did a lot of research in different cultural views of the fae to include here. As an academic myself, I definitely commend that! However, the problem is that the research got in the way of the story. In many ways Fawcett took her title too literally and the book becomes a reference book for fae stories rather than a story with plot and character. The book, which is pretty short for a fantasy novel, gets overwhelmed with the sheer amount of background on the fae. This problem is only worsened because the information is given to the reader in such a haphazard way that it all becomes relatively meaningless. Little of it plays any real role, and it isn’t incorporated well enough to create atmosphere or world-building. This all creates problems later in the book when the fae become much more central to the story because their intentions and goals are not clearly comprehensible (behind a shallow or superficial understanding of the fae).
Enemies to lovers is not something that I necessarily seek out in my fictional romances, but I do think the Emily and Bambleby relationship works really well here. I liked that they are more like professional rivals with mutual respect rather than the “chosen one” and the “big evil” somehow finding common ground enough to start a relationship. The romance in this book felt real and grounded, and the development of the romance plot moved in realistic ways (outside of things moving just a bit too quickly!). It also helped that any obstacles that Emily and Bambleby experience in their relationship fits with the flow and timbre of the plot. Nothing felt overly contrived, nor felt like it existed only to keep the two of them apart from one another. I think readers who are seeking fantasy romance will be swept away by the slow burn romance between Emily and Bambleby.
I have often heard this book recommended in lists of cozy fantasies. I’m not sure how some people are defining cozy fantasy, but I wouldn’t put this book on that list. To me, cozy fantasies feel like you are being enveloped in a big warm hug. Emily Wilde didn’t give me that feeling; there was definitely a sinister and dark aura around Emily and Bambleby’s adventures in the story that, while at no point moving into “dark” or “grimdark” territory was definitely outside of the range of what I would call “cozy”. This isn’t a criticism of the book itself; I don’t think that Fawcett set out to write a cozy fantasy book. Instead, I think this came down to a bit of mismarketing of the book as cozy rather than slightly darkly atmospheric and academic.
Overall, I did consider DNFing this book about 1/3 of the way through, but decided to power on. While the book does get better in the second half when the larger overarching plot kicks in, honestly I would have probably been better off not continuing at all. Fans of slow burn romances and fae stories may find enough to chew on here (and looking around the internet, there are definitely tons of Emily Wilde fans!), but this book just wasn’t for me. I will not be continuing with this series.
Concluding Thoughts: A slow burn romance between two early twentieth century academics interested in the fae, Emily Wilde is a dry novel that does not quite bring enough of a spark to set it apart from other fantasy books. The combination of flat characters, confusing lore, and shaky atmosphere failed to draw me in. It is a short book, and the second half much improves, but unless you really like slow-burn romances or fae stories, you are likely better off elsewhere.