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Does children’s fantasy have its own rules? Specifically, are atmosphere, whimsical setups, and a character’s imagination more important than plot and story arc?

I ask these questions with regards to a specific children’s fantasy I read recently: Christopher Pennell’s first-time novel, The Mysterious Woods of Whistle Root (Houghton Mifflin, 2013). This book, from the spooky-yet-cozy front cover illustration to the cutesy concept of musical rats playing on rooftops to the girl MC with quirky sleep habits, screams kid fantasy designed by hipsters. It checks in at a user-friendly 215 pages and features artsy doodlish illustrations throughout.

The problem is that while it promises scary spooky excitement with a dash of quirk, it mostly just serves up quirk. The main character, a girl with the properly quirky name Carly Bitters Bean, casually accepts such oddities as rats that play musical instruments, accompanied by vegetables atop her roof that do the same. This, combined with her day-for-night nocturnal habits, might lead one to believe that she is in deep trouble. The trouble eventually does come, in the form of a whispering feathered monster named Griddlebeast, but Carly shows little fear or even astonishment. About halfway through her adventures she casually considers the fact that she may be losing her mind, but this thought gets easily discarded.

This rather blasé acceptance by her creates an emotionally flat storyline, and the events that follow—trying to save her rat friends, finding the secret of the woods—lack resonance or even much coherence. What should be at least a little nail-biting turns out to be fluffy entertainment. While I’m an adult, I know that kids who are old enough to read this book, and be amused by it, will not at all be thrilled by it.

The story has some promising moments, such as when Carly discovers mysterious stories inside library books, stories that give the beginnings of an intriguing backstory. Unfortunately, when it’s time for the orphan Carly (aren’t all child heroes orphans these days?) to learn about who she really is, the backstory doesn’t quite fit, and the appearance of yet another nonsensical quirky character to explain things feels dropped out of the night sky.

Nonetheless, I’m guessing that Houghton Mifflin decided that a safe nocturnal fantasy with a proto-goth girl character and the usual assortment of magical creatures written in an accessible style could occupy a few kid readers (and at least a few adult ones) long enough to make it worth their while. Christopher Pennell is not devoid of writing talent—I did read all it all the way through, which is more than I can say for some novels. But it takes more than that to put together a satisfying story, which means ratcheting up tension and making characters and situations serve to move the story along. This is not at all easy to do, and I wish Mr. Pennell good luck with his next effort at wrestling the Fiction Beast.

Most of you reading this will know who Robin Williams was, how he fought depression that ultimately led to his suicide. Far fewer will know who Walker Judson is, a fictional character in Janice Strubbe Wittenberg’s recently published first novel, The Worship of Walker Judson. Coincidently, I learned of Williams’ death right about the same time I completed reading about the fictional Judson. Both have been on my mind recently, but more than that, both—despite obvious differences—are men who had vast talents (humor, healing arts) who fell prey to their inner demons. So I decided a comparison was in order.

Comedians have long been viewed as having shamanic powers, using humor to expose our hidden fears in an act of audience catharsis. Robin Williams did more than just do this symbolically in the movie Patch Adams, in which he plays the lead role as a doctor who uses humor to treat patients. Fittingly, his character is a maverick who contemplates suicide after his girlfriend is murdered. After he bounces back, he still has to fight the state medical board on charges of practicing without a license. Just as in real life, his character is a misfit who struggles against conformity. In real life, of course, Williams didn’t bounce back, and took his own life—a victim of his own demons.

[spoiler alert!]

In Strubbe Wittenberg’s novel, Walker Judson is a faith healer who is also a nonconformist, though in a completely different way. Though blessed with the power to heal others with his hands, Judson is a passive-aggressive masochist, abused as a child, a chain smoker who also has a peculiar way of attracting females. Judson doesn’t take his own life, but he seriously compromises it, especially when he is convicted of sexual assault. He is in many ways a typical cult leader, and falls prey to the darker aspects of his own powers. And yet, paradoxically, he heals many—often without asking for anything in return—including a young woman who falls in love with him and becomes his acolyte.

Williams and Judson are both complex, charismatic, and in touch with powers that most of us only glimpse fleetingly throughout our lives. It takes a strong person to not let those powers destroy oneself, and in the end both men succumbed to those powers. Being a shaman carries inherent risks, but for those compelled to be one, the risks are worth it. I for one am glad that Robin Williams took that path; and those healed by shamans such as Walker Judson are undoubtedly glad as well. Who am I to judge them, after all?

(spoiler alert)

I guess I should have seen this coming way back in 2007 when Gregory Maguire rescued the reputation of Oz’s Elphaba in Wicked. Postmodern feminist lovefests are rapidly replacing the old fairytale memes of evil queens and noble princes riding to rescue damsels. This can be seen most clearly in the most recent line of Disney movies, which all feature a kickass female lead who challenges the patriarchal bad guys. And the two most recent ones—the highly popular Frozen and this summer’s Maleficent—go even further by booting romantic love to the curb in favor of love between women. (Not sexual love, of course—we haven’t reached the point where Disney would feature a romance between two women.) To accentuate the point, in each film this female bonding twist gets revealed in the exact place in the narrative where the male lead is supposed to bring his love magic and win the day.


(Memo to Disney: We get it. It’s not a big surprise anymore, it’s the New Normal. So how about a story where love between women is expected and even taken for granted? And then do the same for men.)

Of course there’s more to it than a plot twist. Let’s take a look at these two movies.

Frozen distinguishes itself with not one but two princesses. One good and one bad, right? Not so fast. They actually love each other deep down, despite the bad one’s icy habits. And they both have what appear to be eyes from an alien species: huge, saucer-shaped, and floating tentatively on their plastic CGI faces, screaming “I’m cute!” in 142 different languages. So we know right off that, deep down, they love anime and are awesome.

Good Princess Anna, the goofball, falls head over heels for a gorgeous prince and his equally gorgeous horse, so the postmodern feminists know right away he’s gonna eat it, and he does. Anna eventually has a safe romance with an ice hauler who is strong and loyal but no royal. So it’s no real surprise when her frozen heart is rescued not by him but by her big sister Elsa.

What I found interesting about Frozen is that it has no backstory at all to explain Elsa’s peculiar ice-generating powers. Was she put under a spell by a witch? Bombarded by a radioactive ice storm? Or just born that way? I suspect that the under-12 crowd who make up the main audience don’t give a flying icicle. She just has it, the power that is both a wonder and a curse. For adults, it’s a different matter. I want to know who did this to her, and why, and what the ramifications are for the world of Arrendale, and how did their parents meet, and why was the Prince of the Southern Islands such a shmuck? Guess I’ll never know.

On the other hand, Maleficent—with a much more complex target audience—is virtually all backstory. It explains “what really happened” in the tale of Sleeping Beauty, so we need to know the fairy tale first, just as in Wicked we need to know The Wizard of Oz. And just as we learn how Elphaba is unfairly branded in Oz, we learn how Maleficent’s cruelty sprang from crueler treatment at the hands of a prince who could have been her lover.

And my goodness, once you get past staring at Angelina Jolie’s supernatural cheekbones, consider all the different messages and subtexts this movie has! Overly cute fairies and other sprites and goblins, check. Innocent princess eager for first love, check. Rampaging patriarchal madness, check. Doofus prince, check. Violence and war (without a drop of blood shed but plenty of sturm und drang), check. And a once-innocent, then kickass, then evil, then repentant witch queen with devil horns and wings of a Fury, check. Then underneath it all, hints of bondage and illicit desire. It’s like the bastard child of Spiderwick Chronicles meets Legend meets Neverending Story meets Once Upon a Time meets Batman. Too violent for kids, too Magic Kingdom glittery for adults, Maleficent tries to please everyone and fails, despite entertaining visuals and a reasonably good storyline.

I wanted to love Maleficent, I really did. And it almost delivered. I crave magic tales with dark themes and haunted characters. Without buckets of gore. I guess it’s good the story didn’t have any Ewoks or Jar Jars, but that’s not saying much. Now that Disney has postmodern feminist plots down, let’s hope they can put one in a real dark fairy tale without the cute stuff.

I have it on the authority of one George Lucas that Joseph Campbell’s magnum opus, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, is the ultimate blueprint for those who wish to fuse contemporary fiction with the timeless tales of the ancients. Since my many-twisted tale Kid Midas involves a teenage boy with issues who wants to be a hero and does so while getting tangled up with the gods of ancient Greece, I decided to consult Campbell to see what he had to saw about the matter. What I found was by turns enlightening, entertaining, and baffling.

The part most apropos to my purposes was his exploration of what he termed the Monomyth, in which he maps out the various archetypal stages a hero typically must pass through in order to complete his or her adventure. I won’t go into details, but it was pretty clear to me that Lucas applied much of this to his original (NOT the insipid prequel) Star Wars trilogy. The stages should all ring a bell: the hero is called to an adventure, at first refuses it, but then with supernatural aid commits to it and crosses the threshold into a different reality (the Underworld, Faerie, etc.). He battles demons, dragons, guardians, and other monsters, and is either crucified, dismembered, or abducted deeper into the pit, where with helpers he finds atonement and either steals an “elixir” or is given something of great value; he is then either rescued or resurrected after a chase scene, and crosses back into normal reality carrying the elixir that he uses for the benefit of the greater good.

I applied my own story line to this map and found that it actually followed the Monomyth pretty well, though my story is more of a family drama than one about a superhero or prince with high political or social stakes.

While the Monomyth is necessarily simplistic, Campbell does a great job showing how myths from different cultures fit the pattern in different ways. I found myself fascinated how he found common themes running through ancient epics and Maori folk tales, for example. He spends as much time delving into the heroic aspects of Buddha, Krishna, and other Eastern divinities as he does classical Western pagan gods and heroes. Everything he does is carefully footnoted, and he has an extensive bibliography. Clearly, he spent an enormous amount of time researching, connecting, and condensing this material.

Campbell is more than just an academic star. Though he died 27 years ago, thanks in part to a PBS interview with Bill Moyer he continues to this day to exert considerable influence on creative artists and thinkers, and is frequently mentioned in the same breath as such luminaries as Carl Jung. His writing can be astoundingly absorbing, and even amusing.

And yet…at times I found myself scratching my head as I tried to decipher a particular way he tries to apply poetics to sophisticated psycho/metaphysical concepts, resulting in something that sounds like it came out of an academic committee: “The constriction of consciousness, to which we owe the fact that we see not the source of the universal power but only the phenomenal forms reflected from that power, turns superconsciousness into the unconsciousness and, at the same instant and by the same token, creates the world.”

In general, Campbell is less successful at wrestling these tales into academic pigeon-holes as he is sticking to the stories themselves and how they relate to our cultural commonalities. Fortunately for us, he is quite successful at achieving the latter.

Having not read Ms. Russell’s previous two novels Swamplandia! and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, I didn’t know what to expect from this acclaimed collection of stories. What I discovered about midway through the third story, “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979,” is that Karen Russell is fearless. She will pick up any wacked-out idea for a story, something that would get buried in my ever-growing pile of notes on old calling cards and shopping lists, and run with it. And not just run with it, she’ll find a voice that’s funny yet literate, that fits the bizarre nature of events real or imagined to a T. She’ll produce memorable lines that work on many levels—symbolic, graphic, sensory, slapstick humor—at once. Then just when you finish chuckling at an odd phrase or admire a clever twist, you realize that Russell cares so deeply about her characters that she has shared something precious about herself as well.

That’s “precious” in a non-sarcastic way, BTW.

But the ideas that run through her head! Who would have ever thought of old vampires hanging out in an Italian lemon grove, desperately trying not to revert to their old ways as they suck on the bitter fruit for decade after decade? Or a barn full of dead presidents reincarnated as not-so-special horses, who like the vampires cannot quite abandon their previous lives?

Based on my perusal of comments left on Amazon, some people who picked up this book thought it would a collection of horror stories, and were severely disappointed. The thing is, Karen Russell is a protean chimera—just when you think you have her sussed, she goes Monty Python on you and comes up with something completely different. Case in point: after bemusedly cruising through two funny stories, I ran smack into “The New Veterans,” a 50-page tale of a massage therapist caught up in a soldier’s terrifying memories of war in Iraq—as told by a monumental tattoo on the soldier’s back. Not exactly laugh-out-loud stuff!

Still, my favorite stories are the ones that did make me laugh out loud. The horsey presidents tickled my inner animal, and she follows that up with an amazingly creative satire, “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating,” a confounding mashup of sports fan culture, marine biology, and tough guy survivalism; she even gets in a not-so-subtle dig at Twilight fandome when she refers to fan groups with names such as Team Blue Whale and Team Krill. The narrator of this short but hilarious gem is so off-the-wall deadpan enthusiastic about such things as an Antarctic tailgate recipe (“1. Whale Meat 2. Fire”) and the dead themselves (“Nobody likes a litterbug. You can’t get much lower class than a boat of tailgators who just leave their dead around.”) that I found myself wishing that 1. I had written it, and 2. It would go on forever, with the tailgators fixing themselves permanently to the vaults of heaven in the dreaded Antarctic night.

Well, maybe not.

Anyway, I came away from this collection amused and enthused. Karen Russell is definitely going up alongside Kelly Link and Ramona Ausubel as Queens of Quirk Fiction.

firing squad on food truck

Opening Hook

I’m not good at beginnings, but then nobody at Penderstout, Inc. is. “We’re always looking for that opening hook” is a phrase I’ve heard countless times, not only from the mucky-mucks but from the Darlings themselves. Maybe that’s why they keep hiring people here—in the vain hope that, sooner or later, someone will come up with an opening that will knock the reader’s socks off.

So, how are your socks?

Feh. I crumple that one up and toss it vaguely in the direction of the company-supplied wastebasket. It falls amongst the countless other crumpled notes, candy wrappers, and assorted flotsam and jetsam that never actually make it inside the gleaming cyclinder. Oh well, at least it gives the custodian something to do.

Maybe I should start by saying I’m an employee at Pendersnout. But maybe that’s not entirely correct. I suspect I’m an employee—that would be more accurate. I say this because others here appear far more “employee-like.” They have actual desks assigned to them on a permanent basis—at least until, you know. Whereas I have…if I’m lucky, part of a desk. Shared by someone else. Sometimes it’s only just a corner of a desk, barely large enough to keep the scraps of paper I’m supposed to be keeping track of.

Paper. Pendersnout, for some reason not fully comprehended by the up-and-coming Millenials, insists on still using it.

But my “desk” isn’t my job, is it? Then what is my job? Is it to hang out and schmooze with the Darlings at lunch break, or is it to spend all day combing through the manuscript, looking for excess buts? Of course I don’t have the actual manuscript—that’s for the mucky-mucks. I’m stuck with pieces of the previous drafts, because as we all know, Pendersnout is one anal retentive CEO.

Schmoozing with Darlings is fun, but risky. Because as everyone knows, Pendersnout eventually kills his Darlings, and associated Schmoozers are at risk, too. He has them marched out at dawn into the courtyard next to the food truck, where they get one final burrito before the firing squad puts them out of their misery.

Inciting Incident

Today I hear that the Inciting Incident is under review. Everyone’s talking about it: “Did you hear about the Inciting Incident?” “Who hasn’t?” “It’s critical to the story, so I’m not surprised.” “Nothing about this place surprises me anymore.”

“I hear Pendersnout’s going all post-modern on us.” It’s the new receptionist, who’s deranged in an adorable way—rumors are she’s on a fast track to make it into a side plot, or at least a back story. She wears flashy hoop earrings and proudly shows off a tattoo of a pert hamster on her thigh. How did she find out Pendersnout has a thing for hamsters? I’ll never know, that’s for sure.

“Post-modern? Not likely.” This from an Ink-stained Wretch. Nobody knows why he’s here, or what he does either. But he has narrative cred, so we all listen. “Pendersnout’s too old school for that.”

“Hah!” says Hamster Thigh with a sneer. “Post-modern is old school. Fiction is totally retro now, or haven’t you heard?”

“Then if post-modern is old school, it’s also retro, which makes it totally now, Hamster Thigh. Or haven’t you heard?”

Ah, an argument—are things heating up? Could this be the Inciting Incident?

“Lunch break.”

Employees and unnamed visitors wander off in search of food. Guess this isn’t the Inciting Incident, after all.

Faux Pas

Oh my God. I’ve been writing Pendersnout instead of Penderstout. If any of the mucky-mucks see this, my hide is history.

Though perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I could get taken off copyediting and put into sales, for example.

On second thought, sales? Feh. Better to be shot with the Darlings. Note to reader: please replace Pendersnout with Pendersnout wherever you see it. Thank you for patience.

Story Arc

Just the look on the face of Joan the Serious Editor as she trundles out of the meeting clutching her tablet is enough to send hamsters and other assorted rodents scurrying for cover. I focus on the one remaining square inch of desk that has not been overrun by Ink-stained Wretch’s collection of antique fountain pens and assorted bottles of ink, but it’s no good. Joan the Serious Editor has perfected the art of the Voice of Doom, and we are compelled to listen.

“Why are you here?” she says in a deceptively upbeat warble. “I mean it, people. Can you answer that question?”

Everyone looks at their shoes. Finally, Ink-stained Wretch, while expertly rolling a cigarette, holds forth. Or at least starts to. “Perfectly good question,” he mumbles through his moustache. “I believe Camus had the best answer to that one. Or Artaud, actually, in The Theater and Its Double. He said—”

“Artaud?” Joan the Serious Editor’s voice grinds the Ink-stained Wretch’s vocal meanderings into the rug. Okay, bad metaphor, but you get the drift. “Why do you think anyone here gives a damn about Artaud? I’m asking you a question. And you need to come up with an answer. Jesus.” She shakes her head and sighs. “I’m sorry. It’s just…”

“It’s the Inciting Incident, isn’t it?” interjects Hamster Thigh.

“No, it’s more than that.” Total silence now. “It’s…the Story Arc.”

We all gasp.

“The whole thing?” squeaks Ink-stained Wretch.

“Yup. Everything’s under review now. Nothing is sacred.”

“Good God,” says Hamster Thigh. “Does that mean…”

“I know what you’re thinking,” Joan the Serious Editor says. “But I just want to assure you—all you people—nobody’s going to lose their job.” She clears her throat. “But I want each of you to draft a statement summarizing your job function here at Pendersnout, Inc. Tell me how you can improve our productivity.” With that she spins on her heel and leaves us with her best authoritative stride.

“We’re fucked,” says Ink-stained Wretch. “She said the P word.”

We all know what that means. Anytime management says the P word while claiming you’re not going to lose your job, guess what happens.

Even Hamster Thigh looks downcast. “What are you going to say in your statement?” she says to me.

“Not sure yet,” I reply. “But I can start by deleting a few buts.”

“And saying Penderstout instead of Pendersnout,” adds Ink-stained Wretch.

Whatever.

Voice

A new directive has come down: the voice is no longer first person present, but omniscient third past tense. That’s not surprising, but why did it take so long for the mucky-mucks to figure it out?

Climax

Harry Penderstout looked puzzled at first, but immediately clamped on his winning smile as the visitor strode confidently into the executive suite of Penderstout, Inc.

“My son,” said Harry Penderstout, beaming widely. “Harry Penderstout, Jr., my beloved son. What brings you here?”

Harry Penderstout, Jr. chuckled softly. “Beaming widely, Dad? Really?”

His father’s smile wavered for a split second before catching itself. “My son,” he boomed, “have I ever told you that this”—here he made an expansive hand gesture toward a non-existent window—“will all be yours?”

“Two clichés in a row. Impressive, even if not ironic. Except that I’m not Penderstout now, Dad. Nobody’s named Penderstout. So now I’m Pendergast.”

The old man sighed. “I suppose the mucky-mucks insisted on the change?”

“With help from Joan the Serious Editor.”

“You might have asked me first.”

Harry Pendergast shifted uncomfortably. “That…brings up something else, Dad. I’m not asking you first anymore.”

“You’re not?”

“No, in fact I’m not asking you at all.”

The old man’s brow furrowed. “Like storm clouds?” he pondered.

Pendergast smirked. “That’s your third cliché, Dad. Your entire idiom is tired. You’ve lost your story mojo.”

Penderstout reeled with indignation. “No son of mine is going to treat me like this!” he roared. “Apologize, or I’ll have you taken out and shot with the next round of Darlings!”

His son couldn’t hide the gleam in his eye, even as he spoke softly, with concern. “The Darlings won’t be rounded up and shot anymore, Dad. They’ll be put to rest peacefully, instead.”

“What are you saying?”

“What I’m saying is that you are no longer in charge of Pendergast, Inc. I have the Board on my side, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Sorry, Dad. I love you, but you’re expendable.”

“Damn you!” Penderstout picked up his phone. “Security!”

“I agree,” Pendergast said. “Security?”

The door to the Pendersnout suite opened and four men in lab coats entered. They carried tasers and red pencils. “Come with us, Mr. Penderstout,” they said.

“Don’t worry, Dad. You’ll be well cared for in a new facility with all the modern conveniences.”

“My own son. I don’t believe this.”

“Save the histrionics, Dad.” Pendergast nodded to Security. “Take him.”

After Security efficiently hustled out Penderstout, Pendergast gingerly set himself in the old man’s chair, feeling the soft leather, inhaling its intoxicating dead animal scent.

“Finally,” he whispered to himself, “I can put this thing to rest.”

Denouement

Do you suppose Hamster Thigh got it right? Is Pendergast, Inc. now committed to post-modern fiction, or will Pendergast continue to churn out the usual pulp?

“Know what I heard?” said Hamster Thigh as she munched on her food truck burrito. “I heard this isn’t a novel, after all. It’s a short story. Almost flash, even.”

“I could have told you that all along,” Ink-stained Wretch said.

“Then why didn’t you?” I said.

Hamster Thigh cocked her head, as though listening to the wind. “Did you hear something?” she said.

“Nope,” Ink-stained Wretch said.

“I thought it was that guy.”

“The all-about-me guy?” Joan the Serious Editor had just joined the conversation. “He’s no longer here.”

Hamster Thigh and Ink-stained Wretch didn’t say another word as they finished off their burritos.

There are two basic kinds of fairies: Fairies and Faeries.

Everyone knows about Fairies. They’re the little winged ones who hang out in buttercups, help Cinderella, and grant you wishes. Disney pretty much has a patent on them.

Faeries are another matter entirely. They come from the Land of Faerie, and they have their own agendas. They can be small—or they can be human-sized. They can be a nuisance, or even deadly. If dealt with the right way, they can be a help. They can also be an enemy, a lover, or both. If you enter their land, you may never return. If you do return, you may be changed, for better or worse, and you may not remember any of it.

Recently I checked out two books on Fairies/Faeries. The one I found to be more useful is Through the Faerie Glass, by Kenny Klein. The other is The Ancient Art of Faery Magick, by D.J. Conway.

What I really like about Klein’s book is that it revels in the literary origins of Faeries. He explores myths, legends, and even old song lyrics to get at the essence of these otherworldly beings. Of particular interest to him are the ancient Welsh legends in the Mabinogian, as well as Irish legends in such tales as The Voyage of Bran Mac Febal. He also covers traditional English, Scottish, and Irish ballads about Faerie encounters, such as Tam Lin. But this is no stuffy academic study—he touches on popular culture as well, ranging from folk-pop group Steeleye Span to Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and J.K. Rowling. Though his writing style is breezy, his content is packed, and had me scrambling to Wikipedia and other sites to find out more about Queen Mab’s Wild Ride, the English antlered god Herne, and other goodies. If you like Faeries and their literary origins, this is a great book to have on your bookshelf.

Conway’s book starts right off with a poem by Conway herself, and that sets the tone for the rest of the book. After an introductory chapter, the first thing one reads is How to Find Fairies and Befriend Them. Pages are accompanied by illustrations of Fairies (not Faeries) sitting on toadstools, etc. I found no references to the Mabinogian, and few references to traditional songs and legends. Instead, the book presents itself as a guide to Faeries and the use of Magickal spells, rituals, and charms to evoke and control them. One chapter categorizes Faeries quite neatly, and includes some Faery Tales in the last chapter.

It’s easy to thumb through it and find out little interesting tidbits about Faeries. The problem is that interspersed throughout are cute little tips and advice about dealing with them that I found inherently irritating. I realize that, for some people with a deeply abiding faith in Faeries’ existence, these tips are the best part of the book. But I’d rather have the meatier approach that Klein takes. Of course, Klein professes to believe in Faeries as well, enlisting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and W.B. Yates—literary lions who also believed in them—to the cause. But Klein seems a bit more grounded than Conway, with a few more winks in his prose. And I can fully attest that dealing with Faeries is vastly safer if done with a fair dose of winkage.

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