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Fairy Tale by Stephen KingUK edition3 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsMost readers think of Stephen King primarily as a horror writer, but in fact a great deal of his work is pure fantasy. The seven-volume Dark Tower series is one of the defining works of King’s career, and many of his stand-alone horror novels like The Stand and It tie directly into the lore of that series — meaning that for most of his career King has not just been telling spooky tales but constructing his own full-blown universe just like any respectable epic fantasy writer. Fairy Tale is not a story with any ties to The Dark Tower. But it shows that King is still as passionate about fantasy fiction as he ever was, and the COVID pandemic, during which time King wrote the bulk of this book, inspired him to create what may be the first cozy fantasy story he’s written since Eyes of the Dragon.

Unfortunately, it’s possible that Fairy Tale is a little too cozy. King may have a passion for fantasy, but his narrative doesn’t always succeed in conveying it. This is an epic novel that has King’s usual hallmarks, like his gift for creating vivid, flesh-and-blood characters. But it’s also a book that never feels like it fully commits. It’s enjoyable but not thrilling, nor even very suspenseful. It holds your interest but never quite evokes a sense of wonder or true magic. It wouldn’t be fair (or accurate) to say King has dialed this one in. But he’s not exactly breaking a sweat here either. Fairy Tale gets by on the charm that just flows naturally from Stephen King’s authorial voice, as well as the inclusion of Radar, without a doubt the single most lovable dog ever to star in a fantasy novel. But when it’s all over, you’re most likely to think, yeah, it was pretty good, but it was never great. And it should have been.

Fairy Tale is a coming-of-age portal fantasy in which King draws upon a number of universal tropes (like the Chosen One), but in ways that are meant to suggest they ought to be celebrated rather than interrogated or disdained. Living in a world where problems never seem to get fixed naturally gives rise to tales of the imagination in which we get to travel to other worlds where we actually can fix problems, with only a few token hardships to overcome. Fairy tales are intrinsic to our lives, so why not accept them on their own terms?

Our narrator is Illinois high school athlete Charlie Reade, whose mother was horribly killed in a vehicular accident when he was a young boy. This tragedy took his father down an alcoholism spiral, which in turn steered Charlie into a phase of juvenile delinquency as a trauma response. But as the story opens, Charlie’s dad has turned things around, gotten sober, gone back to work, and Charlie himself has cleaned up his act and is excelling at school and sports.

Everything changes when Charlie comes to the rescue of old Mr. Bowditch, an elderly neighbor who lives alone with his German Shepherd, Radar, in one of those stately but dilapidated old mansions that always seem to figure in stories like these. Mr. Bowditch has fallen off a ladder, and Charlie comes running upon hearing Radar barking. I would so love to think my dogs would run to fetch a neighbor if I were to do something stupid and injure myself, but I’m pretty sure they’d just climb all over me and then run off chasing the nearest squirrel.

Charlie, who is pretty altruistic as teenagers go, becomes Mr. Bowditch’s caregiver after the accident, and eventually manages to break through his cranky-old-man exterior. As they develop a friendship, Charlie learns that there are some interesting secrets about Mr. Bowditch’s life, such as the cache of gold nuggets in his upstairs safe (which allows the uninsured Bowditch to pay with a personal check for his entire hospital stay), and the padlocked shed in the backyard from which strange scrabbling noises can occasionally be heard.

To cut to the chase, Bowditch eventually passes away, and Charlie discovers the old man had revised his will to leave Charlie everything, including the house and all its contents, and, most importantly, Radar. Charlie now learns the secret of the locked shed: that it conceals a passage deep underground that opens up into another world entirely. This world is called Empis, with two moons in its sky. And not only is it the source of Bowditch’s gold, but somewhere in a distant city called Lilimar there is a magical sundial that can reverse the aging process. Because Bowditch, you see, was actually much older than he let on, old enough to have returned to our world from Empis and live under a false identity as his own son. Charlie makes the fateful decision to journey to Empis himself, mostly because, if the sundial is real, he intends to use it to save Radar, who’s pretty old herself and starting to weaken fast.

I cannot lie. At this point, Fairy Tale absolutely had me. Because when have we gotten a fantasy novel where a protagonist hasn’t been fixated on saving the world, but motivated by something as simple and pure and relatable as a desire to save a beloved pet? The problem, from a storytelling standpoint, is that by having such a strong emotional investment in this specific outcome, it was really hard for me to have the same level of investment once it’s resolved (yes, Radar is saved) and we still have nearly half the novel to go. Not only that, but we’re fully a third of the way into the book before Charlie and Radar go to Empis, and this creates pacing issues, which have historically been a problem for King whenever his books get huge and extremely ambitious.

It’s the way in which the latter half of the story is so much more blandly conventional that made it lack that needed spark. We discover that Empis is plagued by a mysterious blight brought by an evil usurper known as the Flight Killer. It’s a disease that causes its victims’ skin to turn gray and appear to be melting off their bodies. This fiend has deposed and slaughtered the rightful royal family of Empis, the Galliens, and worse, he intends to unleash an imprisoned eldritch demon, Gogmagog, upon all of Empis once the twin moons in the sky enter a collision course.

Do I need to get into how Charlie is captured and forced to perform in horrible bloodsport while learning he’s apparently a prince from prophecy ordained to save the realm and so on and so forth? Probably not. None of this is bad, per se, but that’s exactly its problem. The best you can say about Fairy Tale once it goes full secondary-world is that it’s ...not bad.

When Stephen King is playing to his strengths as he does in the first third of this novel — establishing his main characters, giving them backstories and emotions and personal triumphs and tragedies that feel so real it’s as if these people are physically in the room with us — his stories are compelling and rewarding, sometimes unforgettably so. But there’s something about the way epic fantasy fiction constructs realms of pure imagination and then captures our hearts and minds for the journey that just eludes King here. So much about Empis feels like World Building 101. It would be impressive coming from a first-timer. But from a master of the craft, you expect more, and I can confidently say nearly everything in the final 40% of Fairy Tale would have been written with more excitement and tension and emotional conviction by someone like Joe Abercrombie or John Gwynne or even Mark Lawrence. Where King excels is in bringing the denizens of dark fantasy into our world, not so much in taking us into theirs. But Fairy Tale does have Radar. She’s worth it.