‘Haffling’ by Caleb James
Author: Keith Glaeske
July 8, 2014
Sixteen-year-old Alex Nevus lives in the East Village with his family, attends Stuyvesant High School, and generally tries to keep his world from falling apart. Admirably, he has succeeded in doing so—until the morning his schizophrenic mother goes AWOL and misses her annual redetermination review with the Department of Social Services; unless he can find her, and convince the review board that she is at least minimally functional, both he and his younger sister Alice will be taken from her custody and placed back into foster care. Using the GPS on his cell phone, he tracks her to Fort Tyson, in the northernmost remote corner of Manhattan—and finds himself in another place altogether. And then Alex’s life really implodes.
For Alex has somehow followed his mother into the realm of the Fey, into the land of the Unsee, which is ruled by the bloodthirsty Queen May. Slowly (for the answers to questions, when asked in the Fey realm, have a literal cost), over the course of several visits, Alex learns that a lethal mist is ravaging the Fey, and Queen May is trying to escape; he discerns that his mother is completely sane when visiting the realm of the Fey, and finally uncovers the truth of his own parentage—he is half human, and half Fey, a “haffling”—and thus key to Queen May’s plans. So Alex has two battles to fight simultaneously: in the human realm he faces endless bureaucracy in order to protect his sister Alice, and in the Fey realm he must thwart Queen May and her plans to take over the human realm.
His nearly super-human efforts to keep his family together notwithstanding, Alex’s portrayal is atypical of half-Fey characters in other fantasy novels. He does not appear physically any different from “pure” humans (no cliché pointed ears, or supernatural otherworldly beauty), and doesn’t seem to have any obvious magical abilities either—aside from his ability to bridge the human and Fey realms safely, a talent that May will do anything to possess. The “pure” Fey themselves are presented as amoral tricksters, largely devoid of human emotions or ethics; for example, they cannot lie, but they do not necessarily speak the whole truth, or present it in a straightforward manner, even when asked questions point blank. However, in a daring departure from expectations, the Fey realm itself is not some Middle Earth bathed in Celtic twilight, but rather appears like the set of a reality TV show. (With this kind of a setting, it is not surprising what kind of venue Queen May later uses when she finally sets her plans to take over the human realm into action.)
Refreshingly, Alex’s problems throughout the novel do not stem from his being gay; although his being gay is a given from the beginning of the novel, it is not central to the narrative. Nevertheless, I think his life situation emphasizes the precarious lives of a lot of LGBTQ youth, who often are not served well by an uncaring bureaucracy, and thus more likely to be homeless, and therefore living under the poverty line. Although there is the obligatory bullying incident, and an unrequited crush on a “straight” classmate, neither of these plot elements form the crux of Alex’s troubles: his focus remains solely on rescuing his mother, keeping his family from being forced apart by social agencies, and finding out what the hell is going on. (SPOILER ALERT: That being said, the fact that Alex is gay proves to be pivotal to how he, with his boyfriend, eventually defeat Queen May.)
By Caleb James
Paperback, 9781620388945, 258 pp.