A little while ago, I heard that Hand Held Press was looking for reviewers for the book Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Now there are many things that attract me to a book. The name, the snippet on the jacket of a book or the author. In this case it was the name. I love almost any book that covers fantasy as long as it is well written, so I asked if I could review it and I was graced with a PDF copy that I read through my train and bus journeys in Sri Lanka. As most of you know, I don’t own a Kindle and the PDF copy in my tablet certainly made my bag lighter and I was grateful for that. Before I head on to talk about the Kingdoms of Elfin, I think we should take a look at the author Sylvia Townsend Warner.
SYLVIA TOWNSEND WARNER
An English poet and novelist, Sylvia Townsend Warner was born in Harrow on the Hill in Middlesex. Sylvia’s like spanned 84 years and she drew on her experiences to write a number of masterpieces with Lolly Willowes being her first success. I haven’t read any of her other books and I must confess that I hadn’t heard about her before I read Kingdoms of Elfin. That is probably largely because I haven’t crossed paths with her literature before. Sylvia seems to have left a legacy in the written word which continues even though she isn’t around anymore.
KINGDOMS OF ELFIN
At first, I thought that Kingdoms of Elfin was one story. I was rather surprised to find that it was in fact a number of stories that twined together in a single universe. Quite remarkable in that sense. With that understanding laid down, I had to recondition my mind to read it differently. Reading the Kingdoms of Elfin is very much like looking at the universe from different perspectives, through different lives and at different times. As a reader I loved it. As a writer I was amazed!
To say that perspective was the only part of the book that set it apart would be wrong. What really caught my attention was the way Sylvia understood people. She understood their psychology enough to grasp the struggle between the good and the bad, the right and the wrong and the understanding that no single person can tow along one line. Using this psychology, she spun a universe that existed in parallel with the one that we see today. The elves live alongside humans and yet are different. Their ideas, concerns and immortality set them apart. They even have their own economic differences. The royals and the working class are set apart from what they can or cannot do.
One of the things that I love about Sylvia’s writing style is that you need to expect the unexpected and you still will probably be wrong! Every story starts talking about a Kingdom. Just when I think I have the main character pegged down, the focus shifts. Nothing could be more perfect to a person like me.
Another interesting thing about the book is that it touches on different aspects of human wants. More than one story talks about infertility of the elite and the joy of child birth. Another talks about favouritism and falling out of favour. The story I loved the most is ‘The Power of Cookery’. I felt like I connected with the cook in a weird sort of way even though the story did not entirely revolve around her.
At the end of the day Kingdoms of Elfin may not be for everyone. It isn’t always a tale with a happy ending or the usual happy fantasy story. There is a lot of human emotion packed in the lives of the elves. While at first couple of pages I wasn’t sure whether it was something I liked, I found that the more I read the more I loved the writing style. It was different and it was the difference that captured me.