The Gentleman Recommends: Elizabeth Knox

As someone who loves books and fears fairies, I am part of the target audience for “The Absolute Book” by Elizabeth Knox. You probably are, too. (If you don’t currently fear fairies, you haven’t read the right books about them, and you’ve certainly never faced the consequences of entering (even unknowingly) a bargain with one. For example, perhaps you’re traipsing through an idyllic woodland in a doomed attempt to recover a monocle or ascot you lost the previous day while burying a cache of aged cheese, when a dapper young man calls out to you, “Yoo hoo, care for some aged cheese?” There’s no way you’re passing up free cheese, and now that it’s been brought up, you have a real hankering, and you’ve left your shovel at home, so you can’t very well dig up your cheese cache, and also, you’re beginning to suspect this young feller may have acquired his cheese by pilfering the stash you’d so carefully concealed, and accepting the cheese would give you the chance to compare it to the cheeses you’d buried, and, if it matches, give this lad a stern talking to about a burier’s honor and the digger’s code. So you graciously accept the cheese, compliment him on his monocle and ascot, compare the cheese to your memory, and realize it’s an exact match. You start to admonish him, but then he says some stuff about how in exchange for the cheese you’re now forever doomed to write preposterous and patience-testing introductions to your blog posts without realizing you’re doing so. He also offers his monocle in exchange for a “magically sealed guarantee that you will fulfill a darkest bargain” at a later date. After asking for another piece of cheese and impatiently agreeing to additional inscrutable terms as he presents them (you’re quite hungry, and could do with a long soak in the tub), you retire to your manor. Much to your relief, you find your blog posts are as sensical and relevant as ever. But even were his “darkest bargain” to hold, even if the stuff about “forever serving” and “suffering the emptiness of the bleakest evenings eternally for the amusement of the fae’s brood” is true, a being who extracts bargains in exchange for stolen goods is one a gentleman does not hold in high regard, and a being who steals buried cheese is one to be feared.)

The Absolute Book book cover

The Absolute Book” will give you other reasons to fear the fae. One reason is the fairies collect humans, let them enjoy the fairy lands for a couple centuries, and then trade them to hell for eternity.

There are also many humans in this story. The most important one is named Taryn, and her path to fairyland begins while she’s still a child and her sister is murdered. Years later she tells the story to a creepy hunting guide, and when he offers to murder the murderer, she doesn’t say no. So, when the murderer turns up dead after being released from prison, there are cops interested in talking to Taryn. (Also, unbeknownst to Taryn (who at this juncture doesn’t believe souls and hell and whatnot are real), this act has damned her soul, which will make her eventual possession by demon possible.) A few years later, Taryn is a successful author with a book about libraries that have been lost to fires. This book draws the attention of some demons: demons have long been trying to find a specific unburnable book, which is why they burn libraries in their search. With demons on her tail and inside her, she gets help from a fairy and a cop.

At this point, there are still hundreds of pages of story left, and like their title demands, they offer a lot. What starts as a well-written “arcane thriller” turns into a well-written epic fantasy, but it includes a horror-thriller sequence involving people in chains and rising water, and some delightful and/or chilling tales that will remind fans of a novel it’s inevitably compared to and which remains a benchmark in my reading life, “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.” It does so many fun things an epic novel can do, like unveil shocking fundamental truths of reality (at least in this novel’s reality), bounce between genres, visit purgatory, and give humans that have been in fairyland for over a century the chance to ask how the world fares, to ask:

Was it possible yet to be poor and live decently? Were young men still sent to die in wars made by old men? Were the meek still waiting to inherit the Earth, as scripture promised, through generations of them were already under the ground, and a grave isn’t an inheritance?

After a thrilling finish to the main story, we get an epilogue that I’d really like to talk about. Let’s just say that while I still fear fairies, I now also admire and even love them, so long as they aren’t digging up my cheese and trading it back to me in exchange for my providing of strange and spooky services, which they have yet to collect on, which is good as I find myself utterly exhausted and my very-real-seeming dreams to consist solely of completing mysterious and sometimes scary services at the behest of uncanny children wearing cloaks.

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