Friday, November 17, 2017

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part 3: The Tufa Novels, by Alex Bledsoe

Alex Bledsoe’s Tufa novels (there are five out, I have read three, I believe the final total is to be six) are contemporary fantasy that places fairies in mountains of Tennessee, in the fictional Cloud County, and they are filled with humor, compassion, and the magic of music, traditional music of the British Isles and the Bluegrass it became in America. Anyone who has heard me talk about any of these things will know at once how much I love these books. I love the music especially. I love music, mostly folk music of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and also some bluegrass and old-time Appalachian music. I spend a lot of time listening to music, and while I cannot play, I love to think about it, and I love to read and to write about it. Books that center a complex and novel interpretation of fairy lore along with beautiful description of traditional music, are about as far into my wheelhouse as anything can get, so these are very much books for me. So, what am I stealing from them?

Fairies come in courts, or something like them, and the division is about internal politics, intra-fairy rivalries, and different relationships with humans. The idea of different fairy courts came up the Promethean Age, but it doesn’t loom as large in my idea of those books as it does for Bledsoe’s books. I think he gets to the heart of what I want to matter about the different kinds of fairy. It isn’t good fairies and bad fairies, that’s a very important start. If there are fairies that can be easily labelled good, I’m ready to get off the bus right there. The core division is between the fairies who leave us benevolently alone, and the one who take at will, the hungry ones; not a distinction between good and evil, but between foreign and monstrous. Bledsoe nails the dynamic, and his fairy flavors are distinct and interesting. The ‘good’ ones are content to keep to themselves and their traditions, built around strong families and a memory that stretches back over the Atlantic; the bad ones are specters of abuse, seducers who take one night of passion and leave you with an addiction you can never shake, the products and recapitulators of abusive families and toxic gender-politics. Bledsoe does pitch-perfect work making two kinds of fairies that are both part of the same whole, two sides of a coin with only a narrow edge between them.

Music is the magic, and it reaches as deep as the soul. Bledsoe’s fairies are all about music, not as a side element or one of many things, but at the center of all their magic and all that makes them different from the humans around them. I take the Tufa novels as my guide for writing about the uses and power of music and poetry: how a song can be made to fit a need, how music can command the heart and mind, how the stories songs tell are so important. It is possible that people who do not primarily listen to ballads won’t connect with this the way I do, but I’m writing a second novel this month that relies on the hope there are enough people who care about this to sustain a stable market.

There is power in rules and traditions, whether you follow them or break them. Old traditions and old memory define the Tufa community, with immortals and keepers of immortal memory to keep them alive. You can see the deep thought Bledsoe puts into the nature of these traditions as the series unfolds, and his characters begin to manipulate the old rules and break them for maximum strategic effect. I think old laws and traditions belong in a fairy story, but it’s equally important to remember that magical laws are more judicial than the laws of physics. They can be bent and twisted and broken at need.

There is a power in community, in gathering, in ritual, beyond the strength of the individuals who come together. Bledsoe’s fairies gather to make music and work magic and order their lives, and the gathering places and knots of people that fill them are places and patterns of power. This is an idea with no need to be confined to fairy stories, but Bledsoe’s books make me think about the strength and the importance of gathering together, especially for small communities, more strongly than any other books I can bring to mind. It is a lesson I can always do with remembering, as someone who grew up and lives in a big city, and pays more attention to intentional communities and intellectual ones in my private life. Bledsoe is an excellent teacher about communities that are a place filled by a people.

Morality and goodness matter and can prevail, even in the face of fairy weirdness and magic. Bledsoe’s books are full of good people who try to do the right thing, and sometimes it works, and that’s important. I have a tendency to complicate motives and fill the world with shades of grey, but it is always worth remembering that there are good people, and that people do good, and sometimes that’s what matters, and sometimes the fallen world doesn’t throw it back into their faces.

The Tufa Novels so far released are The Hum and the Shiver, Wisp of a Thing, Long Black Curl, Chapel of Ease, and Gather Her Round.

Also, as you read, look up The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, which is a real painting that has a very important fictional life in these novels. In the interest of full disclosure, I first read about the painting in these books and thought it was made up until earlier this year, when I listened to the audiobook of View from the Cheap Seats and heard Neil Gaiman talking about it.

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