Ever dream about seeing fairies in Central Park? Of course you did. But how about vampires on Broadway, selkies in the Hudson, or dragons on Wall Street? For that, you might need Delia Sherman.
For a lot of people, authors and dreamers alike, fantasy is harder to pull off in an urban environment. The stories tell us that magic is an ancient tradition, predating urban civilization: as a result, it can be hard to imagine magic happening all around you in a city. Even authors who work in the field of urban fantasy can sometimes retreat to the green places for a form of contrast, to root their work in the myths and legends of yore. But Changeling combines old and new for a result that's unique.
Changeling tells the tale of, clearly enough, a changeling, although not necessarily the one whom you might expect. Sherman leaves affairs somewhat ambiguous by telling the tale of two changelings: a human child carted off to Faerie as well as that of a fairy left behind in her place. Narrated in the voice of the former, now called Neef, the story begins in Central Park. Neef is the official Changeling of Central Park, raised in Belvedere Castle by her fairy godmother ... a white rat named Astris. Her godfather is the pooka, she takes dancing lessons from Iolanthe, she visits with Water Rat from The Wind in the Willows ... and she studies Folk lore (which differs somewhat from the discipline of Vladimir Propp and Alan Dundes).
Folk lore is a kind of a living history, highly pertinent for a mortal living in Faerie: as well as relating some of the timeless rules which every student of the supernatural must know (to guard one's name, for example, to never step of the path, and to make promises with extreme caution), Sherman updates the classic fairy tales for immediate relevancy. Neef's heroes and heroines are the characters of tales such as "The Twelve Dancing Debutantes", "Radiatorella", and "Jack and the Extension Ladder". At the very outset of the novel, Neef wonders what ever happens to happens to all those possible heroes who never take chances, never break rules ... and ponders the possibility of the answer being simply, nothing at all, shortly before she begins to break the rules for herself.
Neef's life, idyllic as it might seem, is constrained by Astris's caution, but having decided to have an adventure, when she's sent on a simple trip to take a journey to fetch the Blockhouse brownie for assistance in spring cleaning, she deliberately steps off the path ... and onto another that will carry her straight out of Central Park and into the furthest corners of New York Between.
Breaking a geas which the Genius of Central Park had laid on her when she first came to live amongst the fairies, Neef finds herself banished from the park and bereft of all protections, natural prey to the Wild Hunt. Her only chance to make amends lies in the bargain which she makes with the Genius: to quest for the Magical Magnifying Mirror of the Mermaid Queen, a ticket to Peter Pan (with the original Tinkerbell), and the Scales of the Dragon of Wall Street. Neef's quest carries her to the Plaza Hotel, where she must escape from the contest for the Eloise Award for the Naughtiest Child in New York, into the sanctuary of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to take refuge among old friends such as Bastet and the statue of the Old Market Woman, beneath the depths of the Hudson to riddle with a tattooed Genius, through the streets of Broadway, haunted by scalping ghouls and pint-sized vampiric actresses, and finally, to visit with the financial wizards (well, technically dragons) of Wall Street before she can even think of going home.
Sherman does some fascinating things with myth and folklore: her Genius's, for example, are built on the premise of the genius loci, physical embodiments of their locales ... although written in such a way as to make one wonder, what came first, the chicken or the egg (appropriately recast, the phoenix or the egg, one supposes), as some of the Geniuses apparently predate their environments, whereas others, such as the literary characters (Eloise being the Genius of the Plaza Hotel, for example) are inspired by them. It's a conceit that demonstrates Sherman's encyclopedic and nuanced knowledge of New York and the fantastic alike, and one which adds an additional element towards her descriptions of the magic in the city, and the magic of the city.
Neef and Changeling are both well-written characters: both the products of their own highly disparate environments, they're completely unable to find common ground, at least at first; however, their differences serve as a source of strength, uniting them into a whole that's greater than its parts in a manner which should leave young readers with characters with whom to identify regardless of their own idiosyncracies, readers of all ages with some food for thought on the concept of individuality and the debate of nature vs. nurture, and readers with a bent for folklore simply enthralled.
Delia Sherman's Changeling is one of those rare and wonderful novels that's intended for, and effective with, children, and yet remains a rich and satisfying read for adult audiences as the result of its carefully researched folklore and well-modulated humor. We couldn't recommend it more highly. Also, for visitors to Neef's world who find themselves longing for a return trip, rest assured that Sherman is currently at work on the next book in the series: in the meantime, take solace in her short story "CATNYP", in the The Faery Reel, a tale which takes Neef into that most beloved of New York institutions; the 42nd St. library. You'll find two more New York Between tales in The Green Man and Firebird.
[The drawings in this post are by Charles Vess, Iain McCaig, and Alan Lee, and come from the Fairy Sketchbooks in the lastest issue of the Journal of Mythic Arts. The photograph of Delia Sherman is by Ellen Datlow. More information on traditional changeling folklore can be found here.]