The Forbidden Planet of Faerie

24 Sep

There’s a street in London called Shaftesbury Avenue, which runs though some of the most glamorous parts of the British capital – Oxford Circus, Covent Garden and Leicester Square – but is otherwise unremarkable, save for its length and how busy it is. There is little to signify the fact that secreted somewhere along this road (you have to look really hard to find it) is one of the best bookshops in the world – Forbidden Planet. American readers will probably be very familiar with the name already, as there are several large stores that are part of the same chain in the States (the one in New York is particularly famous). For those of us who live in England, however, Forbidden Planet is particularly to be treasured because there is virtually nothing like it anywhere else in this country (and believe me, I’ve looked). Even ignoring the vast collection of graphic novels and associated memorabilia within these hallowed walls, this bookshop is home to by far the largest, most varied and most eclectic selection of fantasy, science fiction and horror to be found in the UK. I stumbled across the place quite by accident while trying to find a spot to avoid the rain and for a book lover like me, it felt like coming home! I mean, this place had everything – brand new best-sellers from the USA in their original covers (several months before they were available in any other store), old favourites which weren’t stocked anywhere else, genuine collector’s items which had been out of print for years (or in some cases decades), works by authors whom I’d never heard of before but devoured eagerly nevertheless, magazines, journals, hardbacks, paperbacks, fiction, non-fiction, illustrated books and absolutely everything in between. Needless to say, I’ve been back on a regular basis ever since and London’s Forbidden Planet has been a never-ending treasure trove of reading material for me for many years now.

Why not just use the internet? I hear you ask. Well, that’s a fair point but there’s no doubt that there are a number of books which I’ve bought from Forbidden Planet which I quite simply wouldn’t have come across any other way. Where else can you see all of those wonderfully illustrated covers and browse for hours and even days on end if you’re so minded? Where else are you exposed to a wealth of writing, much of which you’ve never heard of, much of which is not even available in e-book form (or on the internet at all without a long and uncertain wait)? The staff are knowledgeable and friendly, many of them being just as passionate about books as their customers and some even being authors themselves. Oh, and there’s almost always a killer song playing in the background (I’ve discovered almost as much new music as new books on my trips there).

The book that I’m going to mention in this post is one that I came across in Forbidden Planet in the usual accidental way. I remember that I was actually looking for the latest instalment of my favourite comic (Fables, since you ask – and yes, there will certainly be a post about it in the not too distant future), when I saw a book called Elfland with an odd but alluring cover of a woman with what looked like fairy wings treading through a starlit forest. Despite the fact that I was already overloaded with shopping, having just come there from Bond Street, I couldn’t resist having a quick peek, especially when I saw that it was written by Freda Warrington, an author who I had admired for many years but who had somehow never reached the big time.

I was hooked from the first page. Elfland starts with the premise that the race of Aetherials, who are indistinguishable from humans apart from certain physical characteristics and their link to a world beyond our own that resembles the Land of Faerie, have lived among the rest of us since the dawn of time. Despite this somewhat otherworldly concept, this book is firmly rooted in reality and is focused on two families, the Wilders and the Fox’s who are at different times good friends, passionate lovers and mortal enemies. Rather than being a traditional fantasy epic in terms of having its characters go on a quest, Elfland‘s epic feel comes from the span of time it covers and the personal journeys that its characters go on during this period – in particular the heroine, Rosie Fox and the (anti-)hero, Sam Wilder – when their race’s very existence is threatened. Whilst there is plenty of ‘magic’ and ‘fantasy’ in this novel, it is never allowed to overwhelm the humanity of the characters or the very real struggles and losses that they experience, and I feel that Elfland is all the better for this. Well-written and gripping, in some ways this book feels a bit like Wuthering Heights with fantasy elements (I know that sounds a bit weird but trust me, it works!). The good news is that this is only the first volume of Warrington’s Aetherial Tales series but the bad news is that you’re unlikely to find a copy of Elfland in your local Waterstone’s – it just isn’t mainstream enough. You’ll almost certainly have to order a copy if you want to read it, unless of course you feel like heading down to a certain bookshop in London located somewhere down Shaftesbury Avenue…

(By the way, if you’re reading this article and thinking that Forbidden Planet sounds like it might be right up your street, do visit it – I don’t think I’d ever get over it if the place shut down!)

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