Kiki Hamilton The Faerie Ring Tor Teen 2011
Eighteen seventy-one was an eventful year, by many accounts. There was the disaster that was the Paris Commune, when thousands — maybe as many as twenty thousand — communards were massacred during ‘Bloody Week’ in May. But there were positives too, such as Queen Victoria opening the Albert Hall in memory of her late husband. In literature Edward Bulwer-Lytton published The Coming Race, a novel about the Vril-ya, winged super-humans who lived under the surface of the earth. This was the year too that Lewis Carroll published Alice Through the Looking Glass. 1871 is also the year in which Kiki Hamilton’s novel is set, the action taking place in a Dickensian London (Dickens had died the year before) of toffs and pickpockets. But this isn’t really a novel where social realism is to the fore, as the title strongly suggests.
The protagonist, through whom we see everything, is Tiki, an orphan who has turned to life on the streets rather as Oliver Twist did though with considerably more success. She has a fierce loyalty to her makeshift ‘family’, other orphans like her who have make a home in an untenanted shop by Charing Cross Station. She is suspicious of a fellow pickpocket Rieker who seems to shadow her every move, and who has a secret of his own to conceal.
Pretty soon she finds herself, rather incredibly, skulking around Buckingham Palace — which is when she comes across the ring of the title — and her life somehow gets entangled with two of Victoria’s sons, Princes Arthur (21 in the December of this year) and Leopold (a mere eighteen years old). Possession of the ring further entangles her with fairies (fey or faeries, the usage which the author prefers), some of whom seem about to stage an insurrection, and with whom Tiki unknowingly has a link through birth.
I do like the mix of themes that the author has brought into this story. The ring motif, familiar to us from mythology (the ring of the Nibelungs, for example) and literature (Tolkien’s ring of Sauron) is here featured in quests to both steal and return it as an object of inherent significance. With fairies she has principally incorporated Irish and Scottish traditions (for example, the fairy called Larkin, from an Irish name meaning ‘ fierce’ or ‘cruel’, and the Seelie and Unseelie Courts of Scottish fairy lore) but relocates them to the English capital. By involving Tiki with the British Royal Family she cunningly introduces a Cinderella motif. (Interestingly, Alice Liddell, the original Alice in Wonderland, was romantically linked with Prince Leopold from 1872 when he became an Oxford student.) Victorian street life naturally features, both a conscious nod to Dickens and also, in an aside about climbing boys, perhaps a reference to Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1863); this last galvanised the public into periodic action until the Chimney Sweeper’s Act (1875) required sweeps to be licensed, thereby making it easier for previous legislation regarding the age of apprentices to be enforced.
There is a lot to like about this first instalment in a quartet involving the cross-dressing Tiki and Rieker: burgeoning romance, genuine menace, upstairs-downstairs intrigue, supernatural happenings, above all characters to engage in, especially the feisty (if headstrong) heroine. It may be a bit churlish then to point out why it didn’t quite work for me, mainly because although Kiki Hamilton is clearly an Anglophile there are aspects that don’t quite ring true for those born or bred in England. Language is the chief issue: throwing in the odd ‘bloody’ or ‘bugger’ doesn’t cut the mustard, in the same way that introducing ‘Gee whiz’ or ‘swell’ doesn’t convince any North American reader. Other things jar, such as the American English use of ‘vest’ which has different connotations in British English, and the constant referral to Buckingham Palace simply as Buckingham when this last is a town some way to the west of London.
These and other minor quibbles aside, this is a tightly plotted story, rendered more enjoyable if one accepts that this is a romantic novel loosely tied rather than dovetailed into an historical context. Not being part of the targeted readership I enjoyed the implicit as well as the explicit influences: the Tam Lin ballad of the human ensnared by a fairy lover, or the J K Rowling feel to aspects of London (there is even a Mr Potts with a bookshop that wouldn’t feel out of place in Diagon Alley). I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the author chose 1871 as much for the appearance of Alice’s Looking Glass and the winged Vril-ya that year as for the convenient ages of the two young princes. The only thing missing in this fantasy is the final epic battle between Good and Evil, but as this is just the first book of a series no doubt that is still to come.