Paul Brandon, The Wild Reel (Tor, 2004)

This will not be your typical review of a novel as it's more of an interview with Paul Brandon. Oh, I'll talk about this wonderful novel, but I'm strongly interested in the process of how it came to be. Paul and I sat down in the Green Man Pub over pints of Wychwood Brewery's Circle Master Organic Ale late last week and that conversation will be referenced in this review. But first a look at The Wild Reel itself would be in order. This is only his second novel, with Swim the Moon being his first, and is less intimate and more sprawling than that tightly focused novel. Likewise the setting is mainly the urban area of Brisbane, his current residence, whereas the setting in his first novel was, to put it mildly, rural. Why the change in focus, I asked him. And where does the title come from?

'Well the working title for the book was something like An Autumn Portrait, but I decided to change it as it sounded a bit, well, farty really. The Wild Reel was one of the chapter headings and seemed to fit. It's kind of a shame that there's not really that much music in the story though. As for the inspiration, well I was sitting under one of the huge fig trees in central Brisbane late one night (during a gig break I think) and I looked up through the branches and I could practically see all the faeries sitting up there swinging their legs and having a merry old time. I had already started a story involving Natty and her coming to Australia, and the two fit together perfectly.'

The plot of The Wild Reel is that the Finvarra, the Faerie King of Connaugh, has decided that Natty Nelwyn, an artist touched with magic, will be his next mortal bride. He will not take no for an answer, as he will lose His Throne unless he weds by All Hallows Eve. To that end, he will follow her to the other side of the world if need be. And when Natty decides to attend a wedding in Brisbane, He and His Fey Court will do just that. Now Brandon's depiction of the Courts bears more than a little resemblance to that which Laurell K. Hamilton created in her Merry Gentry series, Charles de Lint in his Jack of Kinrowan novels, and Emma Bull in her 1984 novel, War for the Oaks, so I asked him if he had read these works before he started writing this novel five years ago.

After sipping more of his ale, he replied:

'The funny thing is The Wild Reel turned out completely different to how I started it. Initially, it was going to be a fairly serious affair (and there are still a few parts in the beginning where you can see that), but, as is usual, once I'd got a little way in, the tone changed. This time it was the faeries' fault. I started them off as dark, brooding enigmas, but for some reason they just kept misbehaving (as faeries are wont to do). I think in the end, the portrayal they wanted was somewhere between the images of Rackham and Froud, and the humour of Monty Python. I guess the comparison between The Wild Reel and Jack of Kinrowan is a valid one, though it's been about ten years since I read it (there is a little tip of the hat to one of Charles' characters, and Natty is also mentioned in one of his books), but equally there are influences there from Jim Henson, Dunsany, Tolkien, Terry Jones (Labyrinth, more than his collaborative work with Froud though), Shakespeare and stuff I grew up on in England. And though I'm familiar with them, I've never actually read War for the Oaks or Merry Gentry . . . I'm still going to do the serious English faerie tale, probably after I finish the next story.'

Natty is indeed mentioned in one of Charles' books, on page 174 of the American hardcover edition of The Onion Girl:

More cards and letters arrive all the time, too. I hope people understand that I can't actually reply to them. There was even a card from Natty Nelwyn in Ireland, a crazy drawing of her and her beau Ally breaking me out of the hospital like we're escaping from some dark and dismal dungeon. If I close my eyes, I can see that cheeky grin of hers when she's pulled some prank or another, and then I hear her innocent, 'Don't go all serious on me now. I was only messin'. . .

Yes, The Wild Reel was turned in to Tor and was indeed supposed to be published before The Onion Girl came out as this passage forms a postscript of sorts on the relationship between Natty and Ally. I was puzzled about this — not the characters showing up in The Onion Girl as this was a deal between him and Paul, so that Paul could in The Wild Reel have Jilly Coppercorn as a mentor to Natty. (Charles put it this way: 'I did. It's there because he wanted Jilly in his book and I said only if Natty can be in mine.') What Paul said in response to my question ('Charles tells me that your book was supposed to be out before The Onion Girl, so his bit reflected that Natty and Ally were now lovers. Why did Tor take four years to print it?') was illuminating as regards who gets published and when they get published:

'Well the mini crossover was something Charles and I talked about a good while ago. At that point, I think I assumed that The Wild Reel would be out first, but I didn't take into account how fast Charles is and what a slug I am! Then, when I was visiting Tor, they were talking of a late 2003 release, and that was before they'd actually bought it, so it's really down to bad timing on my part. I mean really, The Onion Girl kind of reveals one of the endings of The Wild Reel, but you'd have to be pretty sharp, and read the books very close together to get it. I guess also the time delay comes down to Tor wanting to see what my books do before they commit, whereas Charles is very much a known author. I don't mind —it gives me time to write. I have this notion of always having a buffer so I'm never chasing deadlines. Even though The Onion Girl was published earlier, it still seemed the better story to put the threads in, what with Natty and Jilly both being painters.'

So the end result is a comedy of manners with the very Irish Faerie Court quite a bit more than a little out of place in the sub-tropical streets of Brisbane, Australia; Finvarra finds that winning the heart (or at least the soul) of a mortal just isn't as easy as it used to be when mortals knew their place. I liked this novel as much as the extended look at Brisbane as I did for the plot as it's rare in fantasy fiction that one gets a good look at a real place. What Paul does here in that regard is the equal of Charles in Medicine Road or Emma in War for the Oaks. Unlike the fictitious Newford that Charles so lovingly has created, Brisbane is a real place, and that has a decided impact upon the plot because Brisbane is what makes this novel work. Finvarra and His Court — and the Unseelie Court who follow him here in hopes of foiling his plan to wed — are strangers in a very strange land. This is a lighter, more fun, and far more complicated (storywise) read than Swim the Moon is; there are multiple plot lines and lots of characters. I'm not saying it's a difficult read because it's not — but it is a more complex tale. I've said more than enough about the plot as much of the fun here is in the telling of the tale. Though there's less outright usage of music here than in Swim the Moon, there are both musicians and music involved, not surprising given that Paul is a talented musician himself! Stop by later in the Green Man Pub and you'll likely find him playing in The Neverending Session. Or perhaps his band, Rambling House, will treat us to a concert if we're very lucky! I asked if we would see more of Natty and Ally to which he replied. . . .

'Weelllll . . . Yes I think so. I kind of have a sequel to Wild Reel planned. There were a few things that I didn't put into the book that I'm keen to explore, and I genuinely like the pair of them too, which helps. There's also a fair bit about Ally that could do with looking into.'

I wrapped up our conversation in the Pub by asking him what his next novel was about:

'Alas it's not The Wild Reel 2. At the moment, it's called Rambling House (it was called that before the band was, as the band members really took to the name when we were looking for a new one last year). And it's about being in a Celtic band in Brisbane, partly. At first, it started off as just me noodling around as a break from the dark thriller thing I started after Wild Reel (writing horror messes with my head too much!). It was really just supposed to be something along the lines of Nick Hornby or Roddy Doyle, but of course the little fey voices started whispering in my ear and it pretty quickly turned into an urban fantasy. One of the main characters, an odd fiddler called Mally Flynn, actually turned up in The Wild Reel briefly. After that I might to get back to the Dark Thrillery thing, which is already half-done, but then Jack Dann and I are talking about a collaboration on story about an aging Nazi-hunter, so who knows. Then I'm away back to Kent for a peculiar village novel that I've had dandelioning around in my head for ages. After that, maybe, the second Wild Reel. That takes me up to my early forties I guess!'

In a span of a few months, I read this novel, Charles' The Blue Girl, and James Hetley's sequel to The Summer Country, entitled The Winter Oak. All three dealt with the Fey in some form, and all three were well-worth the time spent reading them. You'll find little better for fantasy literature on the shelves of your favorite bookstore than these three novels.

[Cat Eldridge]

Green Man Review is proud to offer an excerpt from The Wild Reel.