Fresh from causing havoc at the climax of the first novel in this sequence, ‘The Fairy’s Tale’, plus-size cabbage fairy Bea finds herself entering the fabled Academy to learn how to be a Fiction Management Executive (FME). For those who have yet to encounter the amusing ‘Orwell with pixies’ world of FD Lee’s ‘Pathways Tree’ books, the conceit is that we humans are characters whose destinies are determined by tales invented with daunting industry by a supernatural agency operated from a world just beyond our own. Whether we follow or even believe in these tales determines both their continued existence and the energy that keeps that world operational. Belief is a power source, like electricity, and if you think that’s far-fetched you should probably have a look at the news sometime. This agency is populated by mythical characters from witches and elves to genies and even Cerberus, Watchdog of the Underworld, who serves as a dreaded enforcer called The Beast.
The supernatural community is a great creation, not just for the level of metaphysical detail involved its depiction but also because it is as full of misinformation, ignorance and bigotry as our own. Bea, for example, is looked down on by just about everyone including the other species of fairy, particularly the pretty winged ones who have a higher belief rating despite being demonstrably more ridiculous. Due to an ill-advised alliance in aeons past, fairies have become outcasts and none have ever attended the Academy, let alone become an FME. However, since her ambiguous success at the end of ‘The Fairy’s Tale’, Bea has acquired a sponsor in the form of Mistasinon, a powerful figure who appears to be on equal standing with the senior Academy staff and to whom Bea is attracted, despite the fear he inspires in her.
The novel has several points of view, one of them Mistasinon’s, and it becomes clear that he is suffering some inexplicable malady, probably psychological, with roots in his sense of identity. This arc is one of the most powerful in the novel and climaxes with a great twist. Many of the characters, particularly the antagonists, are motivated not by evil but by love. Like belief however, love can become destructive, especially when its sheer hopelessness prompts extreme action at Bea’s expense.
A word of warning: the ghosts we meet are not the ghosts we are expecting. Indeed, there is a question about whether they are ghosts in the traditional sense at all, which goes back to that bedlam of mythologies and belief systems that informs Bea’s world in the first place. The ghosts also appear about halfway through, so this isn’t a ‘Woman in Black’ type story designed to make you jump out of your seat. There is horror, but it is a subtly political, even fantastical kind as some peculiar malaise turns people into brain-dead automatons who let entitled authorities with dodgy agendas do what they want with them (check the news again).
There is a risk with this kind of novel that it can be too metaphysical for its own good, and the workings of Bea’s world do repay close reading. There are also a lot of characters, some of whom deal with the fallout from what Bea is dealing with in a way that flavours the narrative without necessarily advancing it. I particularly liked chain-smoking elven witch Melly, who is too preoccupied to bother with niceties like personal hygiene and who is clearly a talent to watch. However, she inhabits her own story peripheral to Bea’s and I would rather she feature in her own novel asap.
The story goes from whimsical and intriguing to downright compelling once Bea encounters the ghosts. The conspiracies that spawn these sad creatures are intricately drawn and their outcomes executed with real imaginative flair. For example, Bea can communicate with the Academy itself via the wood used to panel its walls because that wood used to be trees, which are a cabbage fairy’s natural ally. There are also a series of climactic action sequences, particularly one involving a troll, a storm and an unwelcoming window ledge. The book is strongest here, when psychological pain or even illness move from creeping unease disguised as flippancy to elemental conflicts driven by a sense that even supernatural beings struggle to understand where they’re meant to fit in.
As always, the trump card is Bea, who for all her self-doubt will always do what’s right even if it comes across as catastrophically wrong. Like many of the characters, she deals with the consequences of her actions in the first book. She has physical scars, but is still better off than King John, who is now permanently confined to a wheelchair. The novel is very honest about outcomes, and not for nothing is a new harshness entering the narrative world. The latest story doing the rounds on earth is one of those disturbing tales whose misogyny is disguised as actual horror, in which a girl suffers torments for the approval of a male character. Interestingly, it is one of the ‘old tales’, which everyone sucks up without question because it’s easy.
Meanwhile, Bea is constantly belittled, bullied and snubbed. She does have friends at the Academy, but they’re outcasts like her. One is a female dwarf called Chokey and another is one of my favourite characters: an elf called Hemmings who does a nice line in elegant, intelligent despair, like a goth Marvin the Paranoid Android. A more surprising ally is one of the witchlein staff; a spiny, snakelike creature whose species are responsible for Bea’s scars. Bea’s solution to her terror of this character is set up and executed with a warmth and humanity that is hard won.
‘The Academy’, perhaps even more than ‘The Fairy’s Tale’, comfortably straddles adult and youth fiction. The college setting with its rules and hierarchies will be grimly familiar to younger readers although they should be aware that despite outward similarities, Hogwarts this ain’t; for one thing, you can’t leave… Adults will identify with the sense of self as it disintegrates into conflicting factions in response to rules no one understands anymore and roles that belong in the bin of history. For all that, this is a light and fun novel, albeit one with a rather dark heart.