Gary K. Wolfe Reviews Blackthorn Winter by Liz Williams

Blackthorn Winter, Liz Williams (NewCon 978-1-912950-79-9, $15.99, 348pp, tp) January 2021.

One of last year’s most appealing fantasies, Liz Williams’s Comet Weather, introduced us to the redoubtable Fallow sisters, each balancing the challenges of life in contemporary England with a family heritage entwined with fae, ghosts, alternate dimensions, demons, star-sprites, and even time travel. The sequel, Blackthorn Winter, again brings the sisters back to Mooncote, the family home in Somerset, which seems to have the best metaphysical bandwidth of anywhere in England – although the sisters serve as pretty effective hotspots wherever they go. This time, they’re gathering for the Christmas season but, even before everyone makes it home, each sister is confronted with the sort of portentous puzzles they should have come to expect by now as a feature of family reunions. Serena, the successful fashioner designer in London, finds that her new collection has been mysteriously shredded, possibly by a sort of junior pterodactyl demon. Stella, the DJ, is trying to figure out what happened to her missing ex-boyfriend Ben, while an angel she meets on the street sends her off to an ancient London boneyard. Luna, the peripatetic free spirit, now expecting a child with her boyfriend Sam, experiences visions of a Roman god and a prehistoric family. Bee, the more grounded caretaker of Mooncote (despite her Elizabethan ghost boyfriend), has stumbled upon a half-frozen young girl in the churchyard, whose greenish skin and unknown language recall the 12th-century legend of the green children of Woolpit.

The invocation of that particular medieval leg­end (also the source of the poet and critic Herbert Read’s rather mysterious only novel, The Green Child, though it’s shown up in fantasy less often than you might expect) is a good example of what makes Williams’s use of faerie especially rich: her almost encyclopedic knowledge of the folkways of pagan and pre-Christian England (her other major new book this year is a non-fiction history of paganism). For the most part, Williams doesn’t flaunt this arcana, but there are a number of clues that she’s well aware of the tradition she’s working in. Luna remembers that Lloyd Alexander was a favorite childhood author; Bee cites Robert Kirk’s famous 17th-century treatise The Secret Commonwealth; Sam mentions Robert Graves, whose The White Goddess may lurk in the novel’s DNA. While the various supernatural intrusions and visions arrive with more frequency and spectacle than in Comet Weather (the wood­woses are especially cool), and while it’s clear that there are portals to other times and worlds (such as the “green world” from which the green child has arrived, the “blue world,” or the “White Horse Country” of the earlier novel), Williams wisely refrains from the sort of reductive worldbuild­ing that offers easy explanations. As explained by the family matriarch Alys – whose frequent disappearances suggest she knows more than she lets on – “I don’t think there’s anyone alive – in any time or place – who has mapped the whole thing, who knows the full story. We each have our own little stories.” That sense of incompleteness is important; the last thing we need in a fantasy novel is a GPS telling us exactly where we are.

And those “little stories,” as in Comet Weather, play out with a brilliantly managed balance be­tween the mundane and the marvelous, introducing some intriguing new characters while deepening the roles of some familiar ones. Serena has some­thing more of a central role here, and her boyfriend Ward, a well-known TV actor, emerges as a faithful if somewhat bemused sidekick. While still deal­ing with the trauma of her new collection being destroyed, she’s contacted by a wealthy investor named Caspar Pharaoh, who wants to generously underwrite her career (but whose real plans, of course, only later become clear). Stella, trying to discover what happened to Ben, meets an unassum­ing but knowledgeable magician named Ace (and his even more mysterious friend Anione), while Bee and her 400-year-old ghost boyfriend Dark not only try to puzzle out the story of the green girl – who, it’s eventually revealed, isn’t nearly as help­less as she seems – but also find themselves dealing with a tweedy old-school hunting master named Wratchall-Haynes. All this plays out mostly over Christmas, New Year’s, and Twelfth Night, which inevitably lends the novel a holiday flavor, even as Williams repeatedly reminds us that such festivals often predate the arrival of Christianity, and one of the more amusing bits of dialogue involves Bee trying to explain to Dark about Christmas customs that emerged centuries after his death. While the margins between worlds seem even thinner here than in Comet Weather, and the narrative a bit more crowded with monsters, angels, and sprites, the overall sense is that of a sort of fantasy analog of what Brian Aldiss, referring to apocalyptic SF, called the cosy catastrophe. England may be on the verge of all sorts of psychic invasions, but a smart and competent family can handle it with a little help from their friends.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This review and more like it in the January 2021 issue of Locus.

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