Women in SF&F Month Banner

Today I am delighted to welcome Jeannette Ng! Under the Pendulum Sun, her debut novel, is gothic fantasy in which Victorian missionaries journey to Arcadia with plans to convert the fae to their religion. It was just released in October 2017—and, as was announced just a couple of weeks ago, Jeannette Ng is one of this year’s finalists for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer!

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng

An Incomplete Taxonomy of Fairies, with examples

Mystical, mysterious and magnificent, everyone thinks they know fairies.

The word itself conjures up vivid images and subtle variations in spelling[1] can mean a world of difference. And so just as many (but not all) readers felt that there was something fundamentally un-vampire about sparkling in sunlight, any new incarnation of fairies needs one foot in the old.

Much of the reinvention of fairies is rooted in a need to explain their actions. Their fundamental Otherness and frequent actions as enablers of simple plots with superficially flimsy explanation result in a need to create a framework for that to make sense. After all, why is a sleeping curse on the child an appropriate retaliation for being snubbed to party? These new reasons often play on old themes, justifying their idiosyncratic actions of the fairies. Some are quite playful, such as J M Barrie explaining in Peter Pan that fairies are unable to feel more than one emotion at any time due to their diminutive size.

Fairies as Other

But any taxonomy of fairies must begin with their Otherness, held in contrast to the human and the normal. As the concept of the anchoring norm of society and story shifts, so do the fae with it. Many folkloric traditions, such as the Italian, have only female fairies. The chivalric romances of the middle ages are replete with fairy queens and fairy brides, each more powerful and beautiful than the last. Other stories have fairyland be a place of strange and opposite logic, existing beyond the boundaries of civilisation, beyond walls, behind mirrors and under the ground. Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin features fairies that are incomprehensibly alien, likened to the indecipherable Linear A[2].

George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has fae-like beings who are literally named The Others. Malevolent and mysterious, they exist beyond the Wall and at first are said to be nothing more than fairy tales to scare children.

Otherness does not always necessitate horror as Robert Weinberg’s A Modern Magician features a changeling who is compelled to annoy all those around him with constant eating and assorted other behavioral quirks.

Fairies as People

Yet in stark contrast to the very alien fairies, sometimes they are just people. Despite their strange (or not) appearances, they behave with human logic. The fairies of Mercedes Lackey’s SERRAted Edge series may still fear iron and are incapable of creativity, but they are still very human in their behaviors and emotions. Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted has fairies with frivolous and sensible dispositions but both are relatably normal, with some even living as people.

Fairies as Predators and Parasites

Reports on real changelings are likely rooted in the people’s misunderstanding of neurodevelopmental disorders, paired with the belief that the real “healthy” child has been stolen away. This scrap of folklore has persisted from WB Yeats’ “The Stolen Child” to the 1986 film Labyrinth. Abduction or seduction away to fairyland has become a cornerstone to its idea.

Catherynne M. Valente’s beautiful Fairyland series opens with a Green Wind inviting September, a twelve year old girl, on a journey to the great sea that borders Fairyland. More sinister abductions are often paired with the theme of the fairy realm as predatory or parasitic. Fairies can feed off the passions of people and seek to induce them for their own satisfaction, such as in Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely series. Emma Newman’s Split Worlds novels have deeply unpleasant fairies that fit this mould, unable to leave their own realm and seeking entertainment from mortal playthings.

The Middle English Sir Orfeo stands at an intriguing intersection as it is a reworking of the Orpheus and Eurydice story from classical myth, but that Eurydice is not dead, but abducted to a fairyland inhabited by those thought to be dead but are not. It presents a fascinating early example of a hellish fairyland, strikingly raw in its imagery of men and women suspended in their moment of death, headless and limbless, drowning and burning.

Fairies as Abstract Concepts

The seasons or the elements are often woven in to explain the very fabric of these otherworldly beings. They are beholden to these large semi-abstract concepts, either acting in accordance with them or simply advancing the concept itself upon the mortal realm. Julie Kagawa’s The Iron Fey series features Winter and Summer Courts.

Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies puts another twist on the fairies as they are from a parasitic alternate dimension and cleave not to elemental concepts but ancient stories and tropes. The Fair Folk of White Wolf’s Exalted table top RPG are all about comporting themselves to what is narratively appropriate, manipulating others by magic or guile to fulfil the correct story role.

Fairies as Mirrors

The fairy court as a mirror to the mortal one has probably Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream to thank for popularising its trope, with many productions doublecasting Oberon and Titania with their earthly counterparts, Theseus and Hippolyta.

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell uses this mirroring as scathing social critique. Lady Poole is bartered away by men into the fairy world of endless dancing and forced frivolity. Stephen Black finds himself the reluctant accomplice and servant to a fairy king. Their otherworldly bondage clearly parallels their earthly oppression.

Fairies can also be a bright, resplendent mirror as Edmund Spenser’s infamously long epic poem The Faeirie Queen was written to flatter Queen Elizabeth I[3]. Swaddled in layers of cloudy allegory, Gloriana rules as benevolent monarch over a court of virtuous knights.

[1] I hazard to say that the rule of thumb is that the more e’s you have the more malevolent they are. So a “fairy” is a sparkly pixie of childhood whimsy and the more faux archaic spelling of “faerie” and “fey” are the dark adult creatures. But there are many exceptions to this rule. Jim C. Hine’s engaging Princess series come to mind.

[2] Linear A being one of the yet undeciphered writing systems of the ancient world.

[3] And arguably criticise. It also has the dubious honour of being among the ten most boring classics that Jasper Fforde’s heroine is condemned to read.


About Under the Pendulum Sun
Catherine Helstone’s brother, Laon, has disappeared in Arcadia, legendary land of the magical fae. Desperate for news of him, she makes the perilous journey, but once there, she finds herself alone and isolated in the sinister house of Gethsemane. At last there comes news: her beloved brother is riding to be reunited with her soon – but the Queen of the Fae and her insane court are hard on his heels.

Jeannette Ng Jeannette Ng is originally from Hong Kong but now lives in Durham, UK. Her MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies fed into an interest in medieval and missionary theology, which in turn spawned her love for writing gothic fantasy with a theological twist. She runs live roleplay games and is active within the costuming community, running a popular blog.