Kit Whitfield’s 2022 In the Heart of Hidden Things is a stand-alone fantasy novel.
Once upon a time, far far away, there was a village called Gyrford, a socially stratified community whose laws were draconian (but somehow not applicable to the well-to-do).
Also, there are fairies.
Long experience with the People, as Gyrford cautiously refers to their supernatural neighbors, has taught the villagers to be cautious in dealing with the fair folk. When caution does not suffice (or some foolish person tempts fate once too often), Gyrford has in the Smith family its fairy-smiths, blacksmiths whose work in iron and knowledge of the fair folk makes them of particular use in limiting the chaos that follows when one catches the People’s attention.
Patriarch Jedediah Smith, son Matthew, and daughter-in-law Janet are all in their individual ways concerned about young John Smith, Matthew’s son, who they fear might be fey-touched. Thus far, the problem shows itself only in distractibility and a knack for matters connected to the People, but the fey-touched have a way of becoming odder as they age. The Smiths do not want John to become another Tobias Ware.
The Wares are one of two families living along Chalk Lane (the other being the Porters). Young Tobias is an amiable but feral child whose grasp of language is shaky, who prefers the forest to indoors, and who is utterly incapable of comprehending such concepts as poaching laws. The Smiths and the Wares do their best to contain Tobias, but it’s all too likely that Tobias will be hung for poaching.
Enter cruel miser Ephraim Brady. Ephraim has a brother Anthony upon whom he dotes, a barren wife he loathes and abuses, and a keen eye for profit. He is prone to take offense at what he deems interference in his personal business. Ephraim is convinced, with some degree of reason, that the Smiths deliberately vex him at every turn. He has a cunning scheme for revenge, which involves Tobias Ware.
Once Ephraim completes a few land deals, he will be able to give his brother Anthony a nice parcel; he will also be in a position to bring charges against Tobias for poaching. More to the point, he will be in a position to collect a reward for doing so. Everyone wins! Or at least Ephraim and Anthony do, which is all that matters.
Matthew Smith is determined to protect his inarticulate neighbor Tobias. Matthew’s son John, taking his inspiration from his father, sets out to use his peculiar gifts to benefit his community. Alas, the inexperienced boy only makes matters much, much worse.
The author is extremely clear that trying to assign this story a specific time and place is folly. Rather appropriately for a story with the fair folk in it, it has all the historicity of a fairy tale. I am surprisingly comfortable with this, because it avoids such issues as “how, if angels fall from the sky, is Paris Paris, and how, if demigods carry out endless vigilante campaigns employing powers beyond human ken, does Metropolis so closely resemble a conventional American city?”
This novel has been at the top of my to-read list for over a year, eluding my efforts to acquire it due to the trifling technicality that it had not yet been published (and as seen below, isn’t all that available in North America unless one has access to Book Depository). While a year is nothing compared to the decades over which I’ve been waiting for certain other books, it is sufficient time to build up a lot of anticipation. Did Heart live up to expectations or will readers yet again be bitterly disappointed1?
Readers will be relieved to know it’s option A; the book lived up to expectations2.
The narrative pace is deliberate. Whitfield studs the tale with artful digressions, which provide useful backstory without really interrupting the story. The prose is skillful and appropriate to a fairy tale.
Whitfield is also adept at convincing readers that the stakes are life and death. Gyrford’s rich, powerful, and well-connected use the law to oppress their less fortunate neighbors. The People are also menaces (fairies such as Black Hal, who is generally the last thing that some villagers see before their bloody demise). People do die in the novel and the reader is well aware that some favorite character may be in that number. Suspense!
Heart was one of 2022’s more enjoyable discoveries, so I am well please to see Whitfield has other books I can track down and read. Albeit “other books” is just two other books but better two than none!
1: I suspect that following that question with a six-paragraph digression would be both hilarious and ill-advised. Ill-advised is the best kind of hilarious.
2: Except that I didn’t look at the table of contents, overlooked that there are ancillary sections, and was surprised when the ending appeared sooner than I expected.