Clarissa Pattern approached me to do a review exchange. Her book is completely different to mine: a flight of fantasy set in Shakesperean London. Here is my review.
Clarissa Pattern’s Airy Nothing is spellbinding. From the opening paragraph the reader understands that the protagonist is unusual: interest piques as he runs in fear, wearing girl’s clothes and helped by his hobgoblin protector. He is “not a Fair Maiden, but a badly made boy called John with no friends in the world apart from a faerie only [he] can see”. Pattern deftly integrates gender fluidity into a previous era. Participants in contemporary conversations regarding LGBTIQ+ issues will relate to the characters’ sensitively-portrayed reactions and emotions.
John’s delightful hobgoblin guides him to recognise danger, prompting John to question, “Should you listen to people’s words or trust how safe you felt?”. The ability to transport into the safe and kind faerie world proves critical to the naïve country boy’s navigation of the dark, dirty city John finds himself in: plague-ridden Victorian London with its colourful characters scratching to survive, where he is “just one more limb of the” overwhelming “vast, wounded animal” that constitutes the city. The charmed ones who see the faerie folk also see people in their true forms. In gothic horror style, the faerie-world demons are truly frightening.
The settings depicted through eloquent prose are visceral. The historically-accurate backdrop of London streets and the theatre, overlayed by the faerie world and other magical elements, are radiant. If this story were filmed the mise en scéne would be rich with the detail woven into it, the opulent descriptions that stimulate the imagination.
Black Jack, the streetwise urchin who takes John under his wing, initially has the intention to exploit the innocent newcomer. The bond that builds between the two is extraordinary, hovering in the unspoken space between platonic and romantic relationship. As Black Jack’s motivation to keep John around changes, heartache is foreshadowed: what these two remarkable people gift each other ultimately weaves unbreakable synergy.
The difficulty of living on the streets is eased by the boys’ acceptance into the troupe of William Shakespeare’s new Globe Theatre. Black Jack urges John, “If you want to be something, be it, do not fret over what others are thinking”. The magic continues to layer as the players add yet another element of fantasy.
Each chapter begins with a Shakespearean quote which deftly relates to the plot. Endnotes explain Pattern’s authorial decisions in mirroring or subverting the playwright’s original meanings to match the characters and the plot. She reveals, “I love this [airy nothings] quote and … take it to display how magical the world actually is, how love and poetry, (and in John’s case some seriously mad visions), can transform the ordinary things that most people don’t even notice into things of terror and beauty.”
Airy Nothing is remarkable. Lovers of Shakespeare, along with readers of fantasy and historical fiction, will all delight in this novel. Readers may well find that, like John, they realise “deep in [their] soul[s] that everything [they] thought [they] knew was, in the end, just airy nothings”. Be prepared to be transported.