They called it Operation Pied Piper, and the sirens singing out on those nights of bombs and German aircraft were the piper’s shrill music, drawing the children out of their homes and far away from the city. Whoever came up with the name had clearly never read the tale in its entirety. Otherwise, they might have known that the Pied Piper of Hamelin had no designs of leading the children to safety.
These are the first lines of a lovely, lyrical book that is equal parts coming of age, finding oneself, and first love, mixed with the gothic horror of Bluebeard’s Wife and Der Erlkönig, a story of the elven king stealing children from their parents arms.
Sylvia is twelve when she and her brothers are whisked away from London to the safety of the countryside where she learns of her aunt, also called Sylvia. There, in her aunt’s old room with her aunt’s old things, Sylvia learns about the fae folk who wander the woods, of pixies and black hounds and the Wild Hunt. But at twelve, Sylvia is both brave and foolish, as she follows a white doe into the woods and ends up face to face with the King of the Underwood himself.
With Sylvia having fallen into his hands, the king has no desire to let her go. Not now, not ever, and so Sylvia is bound to redeem an ancient debt her namesake left unpaid. Years pass — though time in the Underwood is not what it is in the Overland — with Sylvia working in the atelier, sewing coats and pants, mending tears, and embroidering gowns for the lords and ladies of the King’s court. It isn’t until she’s nearly twenty that she learns there is another human in this castle of fae folk, and for the first time in years, Sylvia find herself curious.
Sasha is nothing Sylvia could have imagined. With copper curls and wearing leathers more suited to hunting and woods work than Sylvia’s own gowns, Sasha is freedom personified. Unlike Sylvia, Sasha is here by choice and has no reason to leave. There is nothing waiting for her at home, and everything she could ever want is here. Especially now that she has Sylvia. But the King has plans of his own, and Sylvia features most highly in them.
Sylvia has always been a quiet, creative person. She loves to embroider and relishes in making beautiful designs. Her dream is to own a dress shop of her own, one day, and when the King tells her to make a gown — for all that she knows she should be wary of him — she does so with joy. Having been beaten and warned that the other men of the castle will devour her if she strays too far from the King’s protection, Sylvia keeps quietly to herself. She is terrified of raised voices and raised fists, conflict avoidant, homesick, and lonely. When she meets Sasha, even she wonders if it’s merely being with another human, someone who understands what it’s like to be surrounded by inhuman people, that makes her cling so tightly.
Sasha had a traumatic childhood and, to escape, ran into the woods as fast and as far as she could, and when she found a fae king, she asked to be part of his court. To tend to the woods, to have a cottage of her own, to be free of and protected from humans … and he agreed. He has been indulgent with her, indifferent at worst, and Sasha — having nothing to return to — sees no need to leave. Until Sylvia. Until the woman she loves, her friend and her heart’s other half, is in danger. For Sylvia, Sasha would defy the King of the Underworld. For Sylvia, she would sacrifice her freedom, the one thing that has meant everything to her … until now.
The two of them form a bond made of friendship, as well as lust. They are lovers, willingly bound to one another, so much so that Sylvia will agree to any demand of the King’s so long as he does not let Sasha come to harm. They love one another, and trust one another, and bleed for one another. And it’s beautiful.
As much as I enjoyed this book (I was drawn in, a willing victim from the opening paragraph), this book includes content that some readers may not enjoy. Sylvia is beaten several times and raped. She is married to the man who raped her and suffers rape again and again as he tries to get her with child. She is mentally and emotionally abused, with the life and safety of those she loves and cares for held over her head, to be punished or killed if she does not yield to his demands, and ends up having to watch as a friend and mentor is beaten near to death. Animals are brutally killed and there are graphic mentions of body horror. While this is a fairy tale, it is one meant for adults and contains adult content.
The world building is lush and vibrant with folkloric elements spiced up with a dark poetic flair. The characters, the culture, the promises of what is to come and what has come before are so well done. Even when I saw the turn coming, I was so caught up in how well it was done. The writing leans heavily on style and simile, and there are a few times where it felt like a little too much, but only a little. For all of the horror elements in this story, the love story itself is so well done, and a second book is already on its way. Which is good, because the ending is a bit of a cliffhanger. Still, be wary of the trigger warnings. Rather than being simply a graphic depiction of the events, they are written in an emotional and, in may ways, more painful manner as Sylvia internalizes every harm, sensitive and gentle soul that she is. And I cannot wait to see who she will be at the end of her adventure.