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[Mild spoilers.]

The fae are creepy, and I don't think it's just me. They're the hooligans of the world of myth, it seems, like unruly children out to make trouble for the hell of it. Even the "good" ones seem to be a little too into such pastimes as kidnapping and murder. So I suppose my distaste for their nature probably accounts for why I've enjoyed so few fantasy novels about the fae, like Elizabeth Bear's impossibly dreary Blood and Iron. That, and the weird way writers of such fantasies appear to consider them not creepy at all, but — in a manner reminiscent of Stockholm Syndrome — genuinely enchanting and beautiful, being so attuned to nature and everything. If the fae were people, they'd be those eco-extremists who spike trees and break into research labs to burn the place down and set all the animals free.

So, given my disdain for the subject matter, you'd think I'd not have anything nice to say about Except the Queen. But except for a few serious storytelling deficits, like a whacking great deus ex machina at the climax, the tale isn't half bad. Mostly it gets by on the authors' sensitive attention to character, rather than its plot, which clumsily tries to pull off a twist allowing one character we've been meant to think is villainous suddenly turn out not to be, it was just all part of a secret plan. Considering how things transpire in the story, it would have made a lot more sense for this character's intentions to have been made plain up front, so our two heroines wouldn't have spent so much time stumbling around figuring stuff out on their own and letting things get pretty bad indeed (people dying and all) before they get better. But then, whence the suspense, I suppose.

Our heroines are Serana and Meteora, two fun-loving faerie sisters who make the mistake of spying on the Queen in a tryst with a mortal. Being the Queen and thus rather high maintenance, she flies into a regal rage and banishes the sisters to Earth, where they find themselves in dowdy middle aged bodies, stripped of their carefree youth and beauty, and most of their magic. They're also geographically separated, with Meteora in Milwaukee and Serana in some borough of New York City.

This separation makes little sense from a logical standpoint — given not only that they figure out how to communicate with one another quickly, but what we eventually learn about their exile near the end — but it does work in character development. Being apart means Meteora and Serana have to learn about their new world, their new bodies (with plenty of not-bitter-at-all commentary about the general invisibility of frumpy Women of a Certain Age in a youth-and-beauty obsessed culture), and evaluate their lives based on what they have lost and what they now have to live with. One especially charming part of the story involves their learning to use the mail (which they call the "eagle mail" due to the USPS logo) to reach one another, and it reminds us of the lost art of letter-writing in the Internet age. Something to consider regarding what we know about real figures from history is that we often have their personal papers and correspondence, enough to fill library shelves. And 200 years ago, people, unlike today, could and did write. We ought to be thankful Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson never limited their thoughts to 140 characters or less.

Unfortunately, we're also treated to comedy relief that's kind of lame, like an extended sequence involving the discovery of the mortal world's fondness for profanity, something the "Double Dumbass on you!" exchange from the movie Star Trek IV did much better 25 years ago.

Meteora is taken in by none other than Baba Yaga, who has turned her notorious chicken-footed hut into a boarding house, where she rents a room to an angsty young woman calling herself Sparrow. That name, and the fact her backstory involves having been looked after by deer in the woods as a girl, pretty much makes it obvious she's got a wee bit o' the fae going on as well, and mutes some intended surprises late in the story. Sparrow allows herself to be tattooed by a charming rogue named Hawk, who, as it turns out, isn't named that at all, and whose tattoo is some sinister brand of ensorcellment. Meteora realizes it's up to her to protect the antisocial girl from whatever seeks to possess her. But Meteora cannot do it alone, and Serana — who has herself encountered a strange and disturbed young man with a role to play in all this — must find a way to reunite with her sister to face down the looming threat.

There's quite a lot of lovely writing here, and the sisters are, I must confess, a most likable pair. Grateful for that, as likable characters tend to be thin on the ground in your average fae fantasy. Sparrow and the supporting protagonists are sympathetic as well, though there are more viewpoint characters than absolutely necessary. The book also shows a great deal more imagination, and willingness to take a less-than-conventional approach to the genre, than most of the dross labeled "urban fantasy" these days. But our villains are not as threatening as they could be (Hawk is in fact something of a complete wuss when faced with an opponent who isn't a timid young girl), and the book's overall unhurried pace also weakens some scenes that needed the suspense to be truly gut-twisting. So, except for these criticisms, Except the Queen is skillfully-crafted and appealing if not ingeniously plotted character-driven storytelling. Fans of fae fantasy will happily notch the rating upward.