Discussion · Fantasy · middle grade

Going Back to Fairy Oak

May is Wyrd and Wonder month, and the prompt for today is nothing other than “Who’s afraid of the suck fairy?“. Well, I am.

I’ve known this feeling since I tried to reread City of Bones in 2017; as I’ve learned, the book that is your favorite at 15 might not look so great two years and two hundred books later. We can talk about this in a boring “your tastes will change, that’s natural and good!” way, or we can do so in a fantasy way: nothing about you changed… the suck fairy happened to the book.

You read a book you used to love, and—something’s happened to it! The prose is terrible, the characters are thin, the plot is ridiculous.

Jo Walton, The Suck Fairy

For this post, I’m reading the new installment in the Fairy Oak series, which I loved in middle school; it has fairies in it and I’ll be crushed if it sucks, so it’s perfect for the topic. Also, after my last post, I feel like dedicating at least one post to an Italian fantasy book is the right thing to do.

For the 15th anniversary of the Fairy Oak series, author Elisabetta Gnone returns to Fairy Oak with a new story. For this post, I went back too.

I’m not going to write an actual review of Fairy Oak: La storia perduta because it wouldn’t make sense to review in English a book that doesn’t even exist in said language; I’m going to use it as a comparison – one between my current feelings for this series and how I felt about it at the time; one between Italian fantasy and US publishing’s idea of Italian fantasy.

I didn’t feel the way I felt while reading the other books in the series when I read La storia perduta, both for my own limitations (I’m 21 instead of 12) and the book’s (it’s a low-stakes story set between already-written books, it didn’t have much space to be its own thing) but it was still a nice time – for the nostalgia, the gorgeous illustrations, and because reading something created outside US publishing’s direct sphere of influence is always a breath of fresh air…

…for the most part. This book is made of flashbacks, and the parts set in the present are exactly the kind of “the characters you loved are now straight married and with kids” thing I despise. Back in middle school I related so much to the main character Pervinca – I, too, was boyish and messy and the less perfect sibling; if I had had magic I would have also been the only Dark Mage in a family of Light Mages – that to read about her happy straight marriage and three kids just feels like a lie. Not like I expected anything different from an Italian book, but I wish I could be more than one part of me at a time, Italian and not trapped in a heteronormativity web. I don’t need it, but it sure would be nice.

this book has a beautiful naked hardcover

But this is Italian, at least.

Americans’ idea of Italian-inspired fantasy often doesn’t feel Italian to me at all; much of it is either stereotypical or simply baffling. The average American Italian-inspired fantasy will involve some fake version of Venice, the mafia, or the Catholic Church (all three if the author is feeling inspired) and a lot of google-translate Italian thrown in where English would have been just fine.

So I’m going to explain why the Fairy Oak series feels Italian to me (well, Ligurian, as both me and the author are) even though it isn’t even trying to be set in Italy, because I don’t think most of these things would even register as Italian-inspired to many. I believe that part of this “Italian inspiration” isn’t intentional, it just bled into the books, which now feel like home.

⇝ The plot of this last book revolves around recognizing cetaceans, together with an illustrated guide; the year’s event is the return of the whale. This is the most Ligurian thing ever. The Ligurian sea is a cetacean sanctuary! (My university has an entire course about that and I gave that exam just a few months ago!)

⇝ There’s so much about sailing and fishing and ropemaking when the book is mostly set on land; that’s very Ligurian too. My family history is made of these things, and in a book that is about roots and tangled family trees and the repeating nature of history, it’s appropriate.

Multiple generations living under one roof and many elderly characters whose only role in the story isn’t dying to teach the main characters about grief. Just a lot of Old People, most of them somewhat nice, which is something American fantasy just doesn’t do.

⇝ In the main series, the enemy is a rainstorm that takes away people: a Ligurian fear made character. A “simple” rainstorm, not a hurricane or a tornado; it’s a… local metereological fear. We (mostly) don’t have hurricanes or tornadoes, but in Liguria, every few years the November rainstorms get deadly.

Magic ≈ Plants. Just like all Ligurian towns, this book is set in a small piece of land between the mountains and the sea, and the two sides come together, green earth and saltwater. There’s sailing, yes, but there’s also more botany than one would expect, because there’s magic in what grows out of the earth in the little space we have. Some magical lessons are set in the greenhouse, the whole town is built around a talking oak, fairies are tied to flowers, and even most of the human magical characters are named after plants. It’s like Prebogión. (Genoese word: mixture of spontaneous weeds that are gathered to make soup or ravioli filling; there are at least 35 plants that can be put in it but some should be used sparingly.)

some of the other books in the series

Fairy Oak doesn’t feel the need to dress up as Italian because it isn’t written to be Italian, it just is. It doesn’t matter that most characters have English names or that the setting clearly isn’t Liguria. The English words are just a dressing: the concept of fantasy is inherently English in the Italian imagination, and this is a fantasy book after all.

There’s nothing that even suggests the characters are speaking in English, which has some… interesting consequences when it comes to names. There’s an evil character named Lesser Skullcup, like the flower (Scutellaria minor, lesser skullcap), but with a misspelling. Yes, “Lesser” is his name. This is the first time I’ve seen the English equivalent of the nonsensical fake Italian names of American Italian-inspired fantasy!

I’m so used to Italian-inspired American-hearted books written by authors who only care about Italy as a decoration that finding the exact opposite was an Experience. Does it make me think less of the quality of the writing? Yes; I’m bilingual, this is ridiculous. Do I still kind of love it? Also yes.

I’m going to end this post with a picture I took in 2019, both for Atmosphere reasons and to explain just how literally I mean “between the mountains and the sea” and “the little space we have” when I talk about Liguria.

Vernazza, once Ligurian fishing port and now beloved Ligurian tourist trap.

Would you reread or continue the series you loved in middle school, or do you feel the shadow of the Suck Fairy hanging over them?

2 thoughts on “Going Back to Fairy Oak

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