Few fictional duos gave me more joy last year than intrepid scholars Emily Wilde and Wendell Bambleby. The quirky central characters in Heather Fawcett’s cosy light academia novel, Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries, quickly won me over with their curious minds, kind hearts and complete lack of conformity. So it was with immense excitement that I delved into the second instalment in Fawcett’s utterly charming fantasy series – and I’m pleased to say it didn’t disappoint.
Whilst the previous book saw the academic rivals-turned-potential-lovers on a faerie hunting mission in Scandinavia, Map of the Otherlands takes them on a new adventure to the picturesque Austrian Alps, where Emily hopes to find the door to her enchanting colleague/exiled faerie king’s elusive realm. With Wendell’s true identity no longer a secret, his folkloric insider knowledge should be invaluable in aiding Emily with her latest academic project, a map of the realms of faerie. But with Wendell on the run from his murderous stepmother and her disturbing assassins, their most pressing concern is staying alive long enough to see their respective quests through to the end.
Along for the fun fantasy ride are Emily’s enthusiastic niece Ariadne, who harbours dreams of following in her unconventional aunt’s dryadology professor footsteps, and Dr. Farris Rose, the eccentric Department Head who’s hellbent on proving that Emily and Wendall are academic charlatans. Naturally, both Ariadne and Rose get a little more than they bargained for as they accompany Emily and Wendell to the charming village of St. Liesl, where curious and dangerous Folk lurk in the forests and hollows. Throw in the mysterious decades-old disappearance of another faerie researcher, as well as the unsettled elephant in the room that is Wendell’s marriage proposal to Emily, and this book is as much a voyage into the inner workings of Emily’s heart, as it is a journey to find an elusive faerie realm.
But the reality is that one would have to be an utter idiot to marry one of the Folk. There are perhaps a handful of stories in which such a union ends well and a mountain of them in which it ends in madness or an untimely and unpleasant death. I am also, of course, constantly aware of the ridiculousness of my being the object of a marriage offering by a faerie monarch.”
In a fictional landscape populated by dark fantasies drowning in tragedy, angst and trauma, it’s always refreshing to find a more light-hearted story involving faeries. Emily Wilde’s Map of the Otherlands might have a darker, more ghostly edge than the Encyclopaedia of Faeries, due in no small part to the vengeful faerie queen hellbent on ensuring her son doesn’t reclaim his throne, but it’s still a rare gem of a novel, filled to the brim with wit, intelligence, and grumpy x sunshine romantic magic. Unsurprisingly for a book about fair folk, it’s also full of genuine magic too, and it’s a testament to Fawcett that the characters remain so grounded and the folkloric magic manages to feel so rooted in the real world.
This sequel propels the story forwards, deepening Emily’s knowledge of faeries, as well as her understanding of what she actually wants from life. And, aside from furthering her academic endeavours, what she wants – spoiler alert – is Wendell, even if she’s not quite ready to admit it. As a scholar, she’s practical above all else and it’s her pragmatism, along with her intelligence, that’s her biggest weapon against the dangerous faerie magic. But though there are plenty of faeries that would do Emily harm, Wendell isn’t one of them. Their shifting relationship is one built on friendship, genuine affection, and a mutual respect for one another. Wendell’s whimsical, cheerful nature is the perfect foil for Emily’s cantankerousness, though she does seem to be mellowing slightly as the books progress.
The fantasy adventures are fuelled by enchanting – occasionally macabre – imagery and curious folk tales, but it’s the relationships between the characters that’s the real charmer here. First there’s the relationship between Emily and Wendell; whether they’re bickering good-naturedly, mulling over academic theories together, or worrying about the other’s safety when they’ve gotten themselves into yet another faerie pickle, reading their interactions feels like standing in a ray of sunlight that warms you from the outside in. Then there’s the protective relationship between Emily and Ariadne, which almost feels maternal, even though Emily isn’t the mothering type. Finally, there’s the prickly relationship between Emily and Rose, which evolves from fraught to grudgingly respectful as they grow to understand each other. You really can’t help but fall in love with Fawcett’s characters – and that includes the unsightly faeries who pop up at regular intervals (special shoutout to Poe, who makes a triumphant return with his famous bread).
Second books in a series are always tricky to get right and many of them have the unfortunate habit of being more filler than anything else. That’s not the case with Emily Wilde’s Map of the Otherlands. Whilst Wendell slides into the background for a small portion of the book – a plot point that makes perfect narrative sense but does create a little distance between the central duo – this is one of those fantasy books that barely puts a foot wrong. The annotated journal format sets it apart from other faerie novels and the story’s cosy atmosphere will whisk you away from reality, transporting you to a magical realm that’s as delightful as it is dangerous. Like its predecessor, it’s the perfect read to pull you out of the dreaded winter slump. And I for one can’t wait to see what adventures Emily and Wendell embark on next.
Emily Wilde’s Map of the Otherworlds is published by Orbit on 18th January 2024