After seeing her mother murdered by a baobhan sith, Lady Aileana Kameron takes it upon herself to hunt down the killer. In the course of her training, she becomes adept at fighting the faeries who wander into Edinburgh. But there’s an old faery prison under Arthur’s Seat, holding faeries more powerful than Aileana can imagine, and the lock is degrading quickly.
One of the things I love about The Falconer is the way it weaves Scottish history and culture into the narrative. Of course a story about faeries would be steeped in Scottish folklore, but it happens in much subtler ways, too. When Aileana responds to a question with ‘Aye’, her friend’s mother tells her she ought to say ‘Yes’. This is indeed what many middle- and upper-class Scots did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, even going so far as to take elocution lessons to sound English.
It’s the little things like this – coupled with the familiarly short and dreich December days – that make the book feel like it’s set in Victorian Scotland. I find this sense of place very difficult to attain in historical fiction in Scotland; either the author goes overboard and creates a shortbread-tin representation, or too little attention is paid to the small ways in which Scotland differs from her southern neighbour, and the book feels more like it’s set in England than Scotland. Elizabeth May gets the balance right, contrasting an increasingly ‘North British’ population with the distinctively Scottish supernatural threat.
In fact, the way Elizabeth skillfully compares and contrasts Edinburgh high society with the hidden faery world is one of my favourite parts of the book. When I first read this book, I wasn’t entirely sure about the steampunk elements, because I felt like they jarred with the faeries. In retrospect, I think my issue was that I hadn’t expected them; I’d been under the impression that this was a paranormal-type historical fantasy, and so I was surprised by the presence of ornithopters in Charlotte Square. On a second read through last week, I saw how well these elements complement the supernatural aspects of the faeries. The lines between magic and science are blurred in this version of Edinburgh, where Aileana creates mechanical weapons that shoot seilgflùr, a type of thistle toxic to faeries, while the faeries who are invisible to the human eye have advanced engineering skills.
Aileana hunts faeries because they’re a danger to humans, but there’s more to it than that. She does it because she enjoys it, and the way she struggles with this darker side to herself is brilliantly done. She never tries to justify her actions by calling faeries monsters; instead, she quite bluntly calls herself a murderer. She questions what it means about her that she enjoys it, but at the same time she doesn’t stop, even as the story progresses and her perception of faeries as a whole becomes increasingly nuanced.
If you like faeries, steampunk, Scotland, or just a well-crafted novel about a kickass woman, then you can’t go wrong with The Falconer. It’s witty and nuanced, keenly juxtaposing the layers of Aileana’s life as a Victorian noblewoman and secret faery hunter. The sequel, The Vanishing Throne, is out in November, so now’s the perfect time to start the series. Did I mention there are faeries?