Spell Hunter (Faery Rebels 1), by R.J. Anderson (HarperCollins, 2009, middle grade/ YA, 327pp).
In an ancient oak tree, shut off from the human world around them, lives a beleaguered bastion of the faery realm. Their magic has faded, and their numbers dwindling. But one young fairy rejects that possibility that they have no future. No floral faery name for her--she is Knife, fighting in the outside world, facing down the animals that prey on her people.
"Knife plunged through the hedge and leaped into the air, wings whirring. She drew her knife, wishing fervently that she had brought her bow and quiver instead.
The crow raised its head, and she recognized the limp form dangling form its beak: Linden. A soft-spoken faery, whose shyness and drab coloring made her easy to overlook--but she could carry twice her own weight in chestnuts, and the Gatherers could ill afford to loose her.
At first Knife feared she might already be too late to save her, but as she flew closer Linden roused and began to struggle. The crow's grip on her was cruel, but he had not killed her yet. Gathering her strength, Knife put on a final burst of speed, flashed up to him, and hacked wildly at his tail." (page 89).
Knife is determined to journey as far as she must in order to discover how to regain the magic her people have lost. She has no instructions, only a few clues to add to her instincts.
When instincts lead her to a forbidden friendship, the deepest she has ever known, Knife must weigh the feelings in her heart against the fate of her people. Her friend, her more than friend, is a human, a teenager named Paul who is slowly recovering from a terrible accident that has left him dependent on a wheelchair. She can help him, just by being who she is, but will he, in turn, help or hurt Knife?
It's a great story. All other aspects of the book aside, the relationship between Knife and Paul is nuanced and heartfelt (one of the most interesting love stories I've read for a while). It is a dangerous, moving, and tender journey that they take together, with a cliffhanger at the end. It definitely overshadowed, in my mind, the other half of the plot--the unravelling of what has gone wrong with the magic. This is ostensibly a middle-grade book (adventures of a young faery girl), but, what with the relationship being so front and center (although there's nothing blushworthy), it seems more young YA to me. Like, 12 and 10 months on up.
Before reading this book, I was worried that it might be a bit "fairies at the bottom of the gardenish" --twee, in other words, and I was very glad to find myself in a place that was not twee at all. The world of faery that Anderson creates is one that reminded me of the detailed ethnography of the Gnomes book*, rather than the Celtic-ish faery realms. These are small faeries, magical yet with mundane concerns, and Anderson has made them a solid fictional place to live.
And Knife is a kick-ass heroine, a point made much more clearly in the UK edition, the artwork of famed fairy illustrator Brian Froud. The American faery is wearing too much lip gloss for my taste.
Other reviews and comments can be found at Grow Wings (Laini Taylor's blog), Reader Rabbit, and My Favorite Author.
The sequel to Spell Hunter comes out in the UK in the January of 2010 as Rebel. I found on Goodreads that the North American edition, titled Wayfarer (Faery Rebels 2), will be coming (in Canada, at least), in the spring of 2010. This one Goodreads entry was from R.J. Anderson herself, so she should know...(she gave herself five stars, because of being rather fond of her book).
*This Gnomes book, and I mean the comparison in a complementary way--small magical denizens of the woodland risking their lives to gather things from outside. But it's really completely different.