It’s interesting to see how the term “urban fantasy” has grown and changed. Many people nowadays seem to use it to describe tales of vampires and werewolves as they relate to the normal everyday world. But originally, the term stood for a novel in which magical things happen in an urban setting. Charles de Lint is the acknowledged father of urban fantasy with his Newford novels, but there aren’t a lot of authors following in his footsteps. Irene Radford has taken a stab at it with her newest book, Thistle Down.
In Skene Falls, Oregon, the children play with pixies. Generations of kids find their way into the Ten Acre Wood to interact with these mischievous beings. As they grow older, they stop believing in them and gradually forget how to see them. But Dusty Carrick and her brother Dick have always been able to see their former playmates, and one day the one that they knew the best shows up on their doorstep… as a human.
Thistle Down has been exiled from the Ten Acre Wood for playing a prank on her king. Trapped in a human body and denied access to the forest, she tries desperately to adjust to her situation. But being a mortal gives her a precious opportunity to save her tribe when she discovers that the woods are about to be cut down. If she can get help from Dusty and her friends, she might find a way to finally go home.
This novel had a lot of promise on initial inspection. Dusty is a childhood cancer survivor, and the things her family did to help her fight it have made her timid and scared of people. Generations of townsfolk have interacted with the pixies, only to tell themselves in adulthood that they were only imagining them. Thistle Down has her own complex relationships among the pixies that she can no longer associate with.
However, none of these elements really plays out to their fullest potential. Dusty’s cancer seems like nothing more than an excuse for her timidity. The years of interaction with pixies could have been a way to draw in the town as a whole, but it isn’t. And Thistle Down never returns to the forest to confront those who exiled her.
On top of this, the characters are mostly two-dimensional. This isn’t quite as bad with Thistle Down herself, because as a pixie, she’s a manifestation of mischief and thus doesn’t need to display much more character, even as a human. But Dusty’s main calling card is her lack of social acumen, her brother is nothing more than protective of Dusty, and others of the cast are painted in a similar fashion. There’s really no character development, as Thistle continues to come off as a pixie in a human body, Dusty only steps out of her shell a little bit without the sense that the change is permanent, and so on. The antagonist in particular is of the mustache-twirling variety.
While Dusty shares main character duties with Thistle, neither of them find any resolution to their stories by the novel’s end. In fact, the novel leaves off in the middle of a climactic scene. It feels like the author got tired of working on this tale and just stopped writing. I seriously wonder if there’s going to be a sequel to this book, since the ending is so abrupt. I checked around online, but couldn’t find the answer to that one. Thus, in the absence of any further information, I have to assume that this is a standalone novel and treat it as such.
This book had so much potential, but it failed to live up to any of it. I would have liked to have seen Thistle confront the king who exiled her. I would have liked to have seen the eventual fate of the antagonists. But I got none of that. So I have to give this novel a thumbs-down. It’s just not up to Radford’s usual standards.
Also by this author: Guardian of the Freedom, Guardian of the Promise, Guardian of the Vision
This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on June 22, 2011.