Book Review: Orfeia

“There’s wisdom in an old wives’ tale, and magic in a story.”

Orfeia, by Joanne M. Harris, is the third of the author’s folklore-inspired novellas. Like the previous two – A Pocketful of Crows and The Blue Salt Road – it is beautifully illustrated throughout by Bonnie Helen Hawkins. Based on two Child Ballads – Ballad 2: The Elphin Knight, and Ballad 19: King Orfeo – it is also a reworking of the Orpheus myth.

The protagonist is Fay, a widowed mother who is now grieving the death of her daughter, Daisy. The story tells of her journey through modern London to London Beyond and then London Beneath. She seeks an audience with the Hallowe’en King.

While out running one evening, Fay is shown a vision of her daughter, asleep in a bed of bluebells. She enters a liminal world, where strange songs seem familiar and guises change. Whatever the warnings, she will risk all to travel to the Kingdom of Death to barter for Daisy’s release.

The gossamer world created is both fabulous and fearsome. Fay cannot know who to trust, nor what price must be paid for the answers she seeks. There is beauty in abundance, to delight each of the senses, but it is used as a distraction by those whose aim is manipulation. The Kings Fay encounters may not be entirely cold-hearted but their aims remain selfish.

Fay’s nebulous grasp of how to navigate through the world of Fae is made more difficult when her memories start to fade. To conclude her quest she must answer riddles, harness the power of music, and unravel dreams. The concepts of time and reality grow ever more equivocal.

The writing style is perfectly calibrated to weave the world of a modern fairy tale whilst retaining the darkness inherent in the genre’s long history. Unlike many contemporary equivalents, moralising is limited to understated warnings over consequences. The language is rich with a plot that remains compelling.

The book is beautifully bound and contains artwork that deserves full attention.

Imaginative and uncanny, this is a tale of a mother’s love – and its cost – from a consistently adept storyteller.

Orfeia is published by Gollancz.