I have an unusual history with this book-- for the last 20 years I have acquired it in secondhand stores and then, usually after reading it again, I sell it. I have just finished rereading it again and have decided that this time, since it has no resale value to speak of, I will tear out the only stories of true narrative merit and gleefully throw the rest of the damn thing away. And also, since there are far too many people giving this thing glowing reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads, to add my critique.
What keeps me buying this collection is those 2 stories of unblemished merit-- the first being "The One and the Other," which concerns the lives and fortunes of a mortal changeling in Elphame and the fairy child left in his place. Their lives intersect at the end of the story (and the end of their lives) in a way that is both literary and masterful storytelling in a more classic tradition. The second story, "Five Black Swans," depicts the death of Queen Tiphaine of Elphame.
Queen Tiphaine, ruler of Elphame (one of the numerous "kingdoms of Elfin" that provide environments for this book), fascinated me enough to make a very detailed drawing of her a long time ago, as she is presented as the very same "Queen of Faerie" in the ballad of "True Thomas." No other of the Elfin Queens matches her portrayal, in fact many of them are presented as distressing banal and neurotic in spite of their rank.
Once upon a time I heard someone describe the failure to sustain interest in the later works of a talented author (in whom we had both had an avid interest when this author's career began) by saying rather than firstly desiring to tell a good story, she went wrong by wanting to "commit literature." I see this as exactly what has happened in Warner's "Elfin" book; the wellspring of the banal tediousness that pervades most of the rest of the stories, which is mistaken by the "urbane" for satisfying literature.
A mistaken view that is perpetuated in the favorable reviews of this book is that the opposite of the romantic moonlight and gossamer notion of fairies is a relentless harping on their cruelty, banality, whimsicalness, etc. presented in the form of cynical, tongue in cheek narratives. In the former instance, fairies become a projective device for saccharine romance, in this instance, its obverse, a disenchanted "knowingness" that cynically pretends to be wiser than the romantic about human nature.
There is no denying that Warner had genuine craft, education and worldliness. The literary syntax with which she had written her stories was so skillful that it obscured how boring and cynical her take on "human" nature ultimately is. So many of the stories have fragments of description or concepts that are genuinely inspired-- strange notions about fairy customs, elfin longevity, rarely bits of magic, dealings with mortals in various guises, character sketches (the appearance of the Persian Peri Queen Pehlevi, the apparition of a female spirit at a wellspring, etc.). It makes these stories worth at least one read. And yet these jewels of description are assembled into artifacts that feel largely fraudulent to me-- by the time I am halfway through the book I start skimming through the boring parts faster and faster.
One of my pet peeves in "literature" is to introduce a female character in detail whose sole purpose is to give birth (and usually die right afterwards) to the putative character/s of narrative interest, which is what happens in one of the later stories, "Castor and Pollux" in which much detail is wasted on the exceptional beauty of Nel, who is "compromised" by a mortal and dies giving birth to twins, who grow up to have ultimately pointless lives like most of the characters in most of the stories. This is but one example of a subtheme endlessly repeated in these novels-- that people's doings don't really matter. It doesn't signify whether they are fairies or not.
In the old lineages of storytelling, what characters do-- MATTERS. This modernist/postmodernist attraction to nihilistic, allegedly "slice of life" forms of narrative turns me off in general.* I especially dislike it when it is applied to realms of lore, myth and archetype. In the final analysis, this is probably why Warner's book, despite her multiple gifts as a writer, ultimately repels me.
(*I dislike Del Toro's movie PAN'S LABYRINTH for much the same reason, co-opting the traditional narrative in order to present a "pomo" revision that is "adult," "mature," and "realistic" in its bleakness and unredeemed ending. But that's a subject for another review...."