The Falconer by Elizabeth May
Whatever I read after The Devil Finds Work was going to be, at the very least, a step down in enthusiasm. That stunning work of criticism is a remarkably tough act to follow, unless the follow-up is perfect, sublime trash. The Falconer, a young adult novel I picked up completely on a whim a few months ago while trying to pretend my interest in Scotland was not due to the Dreamboys and their famous alums (shut up!), is neither. In fact, it is the opposite of both stunning and sublime trash: it is forgettable. And that is always the worst thing a novel can be.
The Falconer is young adult steampunk urban fantasy, featuring Aileana Kameron, a young Scottish lady who turns to killing faeries after one murders her mother. She is tutored in this deadly hunt by one of their own. Her already tumultuous double life worsens when she learns that the seal preventing the worse of the fae from being unleashed on Edinburgh is going to expire in six days, that she is the only human who can stop it, and that her best friend’s brother, her childhood crush, is returning to Edinburgh. But these are all distractions from Aileana’s true goal: avenge, bloodily, the murder of her mother.
In a perfect world, The Falconer could have been 1840s Scottish teenage girl Batman. (Which I would be all over.) All the elements are there: a painful double life whose supposed “true” identity is a much-detested mask; revenge for a dead parent against a hated entity; thrilling action sequences with tons of gadgets; a love story with someone from the other side. You just need to switch “crime” for “fae,” and it would work brilliantly. But, here in our world, The Falconer feels half-baked, because all those elements are never properly utilized.
Part of this, I will admit, is my sheer fatigue with the Excepto-girl. Other than her best friend Catherine, Aileana rages against all things feminine and femme. She’s violently ashamed to her bone marrow when Kiaran, her faery mentor, sees her in skirts; treats society niceties (including treating other people like human beings) as pure torture; and thinks of femininity as inherently opposed to brutality. (I can hear a chorus of hard femmes laughing so hard they’re coughing up glittery black lungs.) This is, I assume, meant to emphasize how much pain, guilt, and grief Aileana is suffering. Had she not been an innocent young society girl, she would have been able to save her mother (as she states time and time again over the novel.) Aileana can’t reconcile that girl with the girl who takes revenge. That reconciliation would be a fascinating story, but Aileana simply hates the girl she was and all her trappings without any further reflection on what this means. The period setting (which the precariously steampunk nature of the novel does much to obscure beyond flavor) means that Aileana is up against a lot of institutionalized sexism—but thinking that she’s superior to other girls only plays into those hands.
So, given that this isn’t about Aileana growing into a person able to hold all the contradictions that make her up, The Falconer should be a revenge story that begins in medias res. But Aileana ultimately gives up her quest for revenge. Again, the raw material is there. If avenging her mother and soothing her soul through killing faeries made her what she is today, what must it take for her to decide to give it up? After all, she’s trained hard and sacrificed everything for this: her already strained relationship with her father, any semblance of good standing with Catherine’s conservative mother, and her reputation. She’s so sure she’ll die at one point in the novel that an arranged marriage to Catherine’s brother barely registers. What could change that?
Supposedly, it’s her love for Kiaran. And the novel fails again here, because it lacks the connective tissue to make us believe that Aileana is in love with Kiaran. It’s blindingly obvious from the first that Aileana is sexually attracted to him something powerful in a number of clumsily constructed but well choreographed scenes. But a love so powerful it overrides her main motivation without a huge epiphany? I don’t buy it. Kiaran is nothing but frustrating and cruel, often ignoring Aileana’s safety and etiquette in the same breath. At one point, he trains her by taunting her about her mother’s death until she snaps—after he smashes a hole in her latest invention. Because May wants to highlight his fae nature, any moment of vulnerability is glimpsed from afar, underneath the surface. (A particularly dark part of myself wants to think that Aileana might be imagining those microexpressions.) The endearing moments, then, are so thin and fragile that they cannot excuse the vast bulk of his behavior. While I won’t persist with this trilogy for obvious reasons, I do hope Aileana ends up with Catherine’s brother. As much as I dislike her, I want her to be with someone who, you know, treats her like a person.
Bottom line: The Falconer has the basic elements to be a wild yarn about a 1840s steampunk Scottish teenage girl Batman, but fails to deliver on every level. Avoid.
This book was made available to me for publicity purposes.