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The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein

In order to prove to myself that I’m slowly devolving into a mental state where I’m three wildebeest short of a full herd, I sometimes engage in conversations with myself. No, I’m joking. I actually find this internal dialogue a very useful way of finding out what I’m thinking. If I just sit passively in my chair and look out of the window, this is an excuse to switch off the brain, to mindlessly watch the occasional cloud drift by or admire the ferocity of the rain. Only by interrogating myself can I discover what I think. So for The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein (Tachyon Press, 2011), the conversation went something like this.

“So what did you think?”

“I thought it was very clever, but I didn’t believe a word of it.”

“It’s a fairy story, you twit! Believability is not supposed to be high on its agenda.”

“Yes, but I always judge a book by the credibility of the characters’ responses to the situations in which they find themselves. Take the arrival of a flying saucer in my front garden as an example. After overcoming the initial surprise, my reaction would be that no self-respecting Grays would travel parsecs to harvest my organs. I’m too close to death and everything’s pretty worn out. So I would be flattered these aliens had picked me to speak on behalf of Earth and go out to offer them a cup of tea — well, instant coffee since I’m out of tea right now. In this book, I’m completely in tune with Ben. As a scam artist in the making, he has exactly the right attitude in tracking down this family and courting one of the three daughters. I also get why he would offer his innocent friend, Will Taylor, an introduction to one of the other sisters. If there’s money to be made, he sees no reason why it should not be spread around his circle of friends. But once involved, Will Taylor fails my credibility test. Oh, no, wait a minute. If this is a fairy story, he’s the Prince! Doh! A man, noble in spirit and too stupid to be anything other than brave, he’s got to be the one to wake Sleeping Beauty. Well call me cynical or any other words that come to your mind, but I don’t buy it. Not for one minute do I think Will would go to these lengths to rescue a young woman he has known for so short a time.”

“How sad. This is a book about the magic of love and you just don’t get it.”

“Well, I’m old and all out of romance. You wait until you’re in line for the next daisy up-pushing exercises prescribed by the relatives waiting on their inheritance, and see what you think about young men who recklessly defy the supernatural.”

Lisa Goldstein planning on fairy cakes for a snack

Returning to a more normal style, you may remember Gordon Gekko from Wall Street (1987). He volunteered himself as the leader of the “Greed is good!” brigade. Well, this is a book describing an offer the Gekkos of this world would find impossible to resist. All you have to do is. . . and you shall be rich beyond your wildest imaginings. Well, perhaps not that rich. But certainly financially comfortable although, in the darkest hours of the night, it’s possible there might be a slight pricking of your conscience. Fortunately, most of you would sleep through it. Not surprisingly, this offer has been around for hundreds of years — greed didn’t wait until the 1980s before making its presence felt. Once cave dwellers found value in material possessions, they were suckers for the something-for-nothing, once-in-a-lifetime offers a cave-to-cave double-glazing salesman could make. Except these sellers weren’t offering better windows. In a scaled-down Faustian way, all they wanted was a little of your time and there was good luck (and gold) in return.

Coming back to Will Taylor, he’s a contrivance introduced by Lisa Goldstein so she can run all the fairy story tropes through her modern sensibilities and find way of beating the snares and traps. This would be impossible without a man prepared to jump through hoops on demand. This is not to say I did not admire the cleverness of the plot and the ingenuity with which our hero manages to keep on the rescue track. I just found it all less than completely engaging. What kept me going was curiosity to see how he would win — sorry, no spoiler warning is necessary. In all fairy stories, the Prince kisses the frog and gets turned into a pumpkin (“pumpkin” is the German for “love-struck loon and proud father”). Although, after too long a session in the fairy realm, we get a kind of epilogue and, in that final breath, our Will grows more credible. As an old man, I know he’s right when he says the world always looks to have been more exciting when we were young and that, no matter what jobs we take, always hoping they will keep our interest, almost everything gets boring when we’ve seen hundreds of examples of the same thing. In a way, the same thing happens to love as the marriage matures over the decades. Even the children drift away. Getting to the end of life can be remarkably unglamorous.

So The Uncertain Places is almost a great book. The ideas are engaging, the prose elegant. Or perhaps it’s me. Perhaps my own cynicism and prejudices are getting in the way. Perhaps, if you enjoy romantic fiction masquerading as fantasy, you might find Prince aka Will Taylor an attractive hunk and follow his fairy story adventures with delight.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For the record, The Uncertain Places was a finalist for and won the Mythopoeic Awards – 2012.

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