Review of Unseelie, by Ivelisse Housman


by Ivelisse Housman

Inkyard Press, 2023. 423 pages.
Review written March 4, 2023, from a book sent to me by the publisher.

This is a debut novel I read in consideration for the 2024 Morris Award, with a review written before any discussion with the committee.

This book begins with this inscription before the story:

Stories tell of children stolen away by faeries, replaced by inhuman look-alikes.

These look-alikes, they say, could be identified by their strange speech or silence. They cried without reason or never showed any emotion at all, and struggled to relate to a world that seemed foreign to them. Folklorists theorize that these stories were early descriptions of autistic children – proof that autistic people have always been here.

But once, they called us changelings.

Unseelie is a story told by a changeling. But she lives with the twin sister the faeries tried to steal – because their mother went to the Seelie Court, and when offered a choice, refused to give up the baby she already had and brought up both girls as her own.

But now at seventeen the girls are on their own, living by their wits, with twin Isolde having developed into a clever thief and pickpocket. On the night of Revelnox, she has a plan to break into the local manor and steal the treasure hidden behind locked doors.

When they go after it – this particular lock needs two people to pick it – it turns out they’re not the only ones who had that idea. The treasure turns out to be a compass. For Isolde and for the other two would-be thieves, the compass only brings a vision of a faerie guardian. But when Seelie touches it, it magically goes into her skin and now shows on her palm. What nobody else realizes is that the faerie guardian also gets inside her head.

The book is about their quest to follow the compass to an unknown treasure. It’s not long before they’re forced to join forces with the others who tried to steal it, who have a personal history with the lady of the manor. But they’re also being chased by the manor’s security forces.

Seelie has trouble with crowds. And textures. And other things. She’s used to Isolde looking out for her. But now her magic has been stirred up, and when she gets angry, it flares out in dangerous ways. Can she learn to control her magic? And what about the faerie guardian of the compass?

They travel in an enchanted coach with a cat that’s really a brownie. (I loved that part.) Their journey seems a little random, but after all, they’re following an enchanted compass while trying to avoid pursuit.

I enjoyed the book and especially the portrayal of an “autistic” (without using that word) heroine, who’s different, and discriminated against for being a changeling. I did think how the magic in that world works was pretty murky – though, to be fair, Seelie is just figuring it out. I absolutely hated their reasons for living on their own in the first place, and didn’t completely understand the coincidence of four people going after the “treasure” at the same time, nor any of their motivations to try so hard to get it. I also didn’t appreciate that, although there was a map at the front, I had no idea where they were on the map except at the very beginning. (Was I just not reading carefully enough?)

Those are all nitpicky things. I was reading in a nitpicky way because I was reading for the Morris Award. As a first novel, this was delightful and the author shows lots of promise. (And needing to understand the magic and the location is an affliction that not all fantasy readers have anyway.) I enjoyed my time spent with Seelie and Isolde.

The most frustrating part, though, is that the story is not finished yet. This is the first book in a duology, and I will be watching for the concluding volume. (Looks like it’s scheduled for September 2025 – a long wait.)

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