Reformed (but still tempted) heroin-addict Douglas flees Minneapolis, and his still-addicted fellow junkies, to his grandmother's home in Edinburgh, Scotland. His skills as a street musician serve him well during Edinburgh's annual Fringe Festival. Until he encounters a mysterious woman who leaves him with a dubious gift: the Sight, the power to see the fairies, elves, trolls, bogies and other creatures of Faerie whose own Festival overlaps, unseen, with ours. And these Fair Folk are very, very dangerous.
There's a fairly standard plot progression for stories where a young protagonist discovers a secret world behind our own, whether it be aliens, fairies, or Illuminati: Protagonist discovers secret world. Adventures and danger ensues as the protagonist tries to learn more, and he gains both enemies and allies. As the story progresses, the protagonist begins to guide and influence events, rather than reacting to the actions of others. By story's end, the protagonist has gained skills that enable him to take control of the story's situation. Villains are vanquished, wrongs are avenged, happiness ensues.
At first, I thought Stemple was following this plot-path in Douglas' story. But then things began to turn very dark and grim. Douglas' grandmother tells him:
I think that's called foreshadowing. Brutal and explicit violence takes place, sympathetic characters die, and apparent friends prove false.
"There's not a Scottish fairy tale that doesn't end without someone getting hanged or burned at the stake or thrown down a well. And the faeries themselves? They're all the wandering spirits of unbaptised children or murdered relatives, and even the good ones will turn on you in a second if you break one of their unwritten rules."
But still the reader hopes that the villains will be vanquished, wrongs avenged, and happiness achieved.
And villains are vanquished. Wrongs are avenged. The story's protagonist discovers his unsuspected strength and power.
But at a cost. Because Douglas' choices, though they vanquish villains and avenge wrongs, are the wrong choices. He yields to his inner weaknesses, and at story's end he is addicted again. Not to heroin, but to something even worse.
Thinking about the book's ending, I realized that Stemple never intended to write a standard adventure fantasy. What he has written is a genuine tragedy.
Stemple's prose flows smoothly and colorfully. And there is a lovely (of course) cover by Charles Vess.