Upsetting the mystique: Elves in Now You See It… by Vivian Vande Velde


How can parents who’ve named their daughter Wendy ever expect her to be taken seriously?

If you’ve never read any books by Vivian Vande Velde, I highly recommend her (MG? YA? somewhere in between?) novels, particularly if you like humour and fantasy. And even if you don’t like fantasy. (If you don’t like humour, I can’t help you.) One of the reasons I keep rereading her books is that no matter how straight-forward the narrative voice seems, there is a lot more going on beneath the surface than meets the eye. Which is particularly fitting for Now You See It…, which foregrounds (mis)perception, expectations, and presumptions.

Aka a lot of leaping to conclusions on the part of our narrator, fifteen year old Wendy, who is self-absorbed, shallow, and very funny, not that she necessarily means to be. She has also absorbed a lot of emotional pain, what with her father’s abandonment* (he ran off with his secretary five years ago) and her beloved grandmother’s descent into Alzheimer’s, which partially prompted Wendy’s less appealing character traits as something of a defense mechanism. Wendy’s behaviour and attitude are spot-on, from her exasperation with her mother to her detente with Wicked Stepsister Gia to her resistance to her step-father, Bill (whom Wendy refers to as “my mother’s husband”) to her interactions with her best friend and other classmates.

My backpack was on my lap, my glasses on top of my backpack, and I was talking to Shelley, because I didn’t want Parker thinking I was sitting around waiting for him to notice me. Parker didn’t even glance in my direction, which might have meant that he really, truly hadn’t noticed me or it might have meant that he hadn’t noticed me in the same way I hadn’t noticed him. But because I wasn’t noticing him, it was hard to work out. (p. 15)

But! Sticking to the theme of the month (elves!), much as I would like to talk about how this is really a story about family as much as it is about growing up, let’s discuss what VVV does with the elves. Because there are elves, my dears, and dragons and witches who look like hundred-year-old crones when they don’t glamour themselves into sexy elf shepherdesses or popular cheerleader-type classmates.

First off, the narrative upsets the “high elf” trope. You know the one: elf = good. Elf = mysterious. Elf = smokin’ hot. Elf = good with all weapons. Elf = physically unaffected by combat. And elf would never sweat, or behave less than nobly, or sit around moping with self-pity. Elves are always the heroes, always the rescuers, always at, or near, the centre of whatever of significance is going on.

Most of the narrative, in fact, is Wendy (human), Eleni (human), Tiffanie (crone/popular classmate), Brave Heart (recently reformed attack dog and devoted admirer of Tiffanie), and Larry (spreenie)** figuring out how to rescue Julian (elf prince). Elves, who by the way do not live in “Elfland” but in the realm of Kazaran Dahaani, have courts and politics, coups even. And bullies. This from when Julian is kidnapped. One of his kidnappers tackles him to the ground.

While the [elf] who had given the do-not-kill-him order stood aside, all four of the others kicked and pummeled Julian until he stopped struggling. I’d seen guys horsing around before — I’d even seen sports brawls — but this went beyond that into vicious.” (p. 95)

The other elves Wendy meets aren’t particularly noble, either. In fact, they’re decidedly frivolous, weaving flowers into complete strangers’ hair and singing songs on the upper range of the human aural limits. Fortunately, they also have short attention spans, so they don’t interfere — much — with the rescue mission.

Tiffanie is presumably the Queen of Kazaran Dahaani, but she doesn’t seem to be wildly popular among her subjects, either because she isn’t an elf (making the elves racist, since they object to their future king, Julian, being only half-elf) or because she’s less than stunningly beautiful in her natural form (making the elves supremely shallow). Tiffanie is at times grumpy, rude, and snippy, but even Wendy, who dislikes her, can’t help but admit that Tiffanie isn’t mean-spirited and hasn’t actually done anything unkind to her.

Rather than being one monotype in terms of physical traits, Julian’s treacherous cousin is markedly different in looks and temperament. Julian himself is far more *ahem, human is CLEARLY the wrong word here* normal (?) than you might expect. When Wendy sees the elf prince imprisoned, he is

leaning against the back set of bars, looking desolate, looking — if truth be told — a bit sorry for himself. (p. 237)

Julian’s arm is slashed badly in a knife fight against his cousin, and he emerges from that fight sweating as well as bleeding. Elf princes — fine, half-elf princes — apparently can feel self-pity as well as pain; elf-princeship evidently does not make one supremely competent at self-defence; rather, Julian is more prepared for a public career as a ruler and states-elf than for physical combat. Julian does, however have a fancy self name. Julian is what he goes by in the human world; his name actually is Julwin Y’orick. Which sounds all fancy and properly elfish, and just the sort of name for a faerie.

… Except right after Wendy hears Julian’s name, she begins her acquaintanceship with the spreenie named Larry. Not exactly a mystical name. And Tiffanie is apparently Tiffanie for real. Or else she doesn’t choose to admit to another name, which is completely possible. After all, she does spend years at a time going through high school for the fun of looking being young and popular.

In the human world, Tiffanie looks like a perfect cheerleader. Julian, as an elf, can’t cast spells. The glamour Tiffanie casts on him disguises more than his pointy ears. In the human world, Julian looks like a nerd. He’s nice enough, but far from outgoing:

Julian was new this year, and I’d never really talked to him beyond “Hi” and “Mind if I move this chair to that table?” and “What page did Mrs. McDermott say to turn to?” He’d struck me, back in September, as too tall and too skinny. (p. 21-22)

He was too thin and his hair was thin, too, and a bit scraggly; its lightish brownish blondish color could best be described as faded. And his cheekbones were too prominent and his nose skinny and long. (p. 51)

The glamour doesn’t transform Julian into another being entirely; while passing as human, he appears more or less as himself, only watered-down and washed out. Elves, as Wendy observes, are

tall, slender, and pointy-eared… But there the similarity end[s]. (p. 94-95)

Oh, and if you were expecting everything to turn out perfectly, high fantasy style, think again. Wendy goes on a quest with people she doesn’t necessarily like, and she still doesn’t like all of them by the journey’s end. (Although she does grow up a lot, and *crosses fingers* will be something more approximating friends with a certain witch at school.) She learns something about being a Chosen One (mainly that she isn’t). Vivian Vande Velde keeps to the very best traditions of fantasy by speaking truth, even or especially sad truth — magic is not a cure-all.

“Sometimes bravery and strength and goodness just aren’t enough.” (p. 270)

“Some things are too lost for even magic to bring back.” (p. 271)

The elves, in short, are believable. Likewise the human, witch, spreenie, and canine characters. Likewise the heart behind and within the story.

There was so much to say, and I couldn’t think how to say any of it. I blurted out, “You were so brave.” Because that, of all qualities, is the hardest to fake.

She gave a dismissive snort. “You, too.”

“No.” I shook my head for emphasis. Me? Maybe to someone outside I might have looked like I did one or two gutsy things, but it wasn’t because I was brave, it was because I was backed into a situation and wasn’t smart enough to think of anything that could be done differently.

Eleni took hold of my chin and she forced me to look directly into her eyes, though I was trying to avoid this, because my eyes were suddenly wet. She said, “You fight the things you can fight. The rest you have to let go. That’s all anyone can do.” (p. 267)


*VVV nails, in my opinion, that baffling complex childhood loyalty to the parent who abandons, and the simultaneous dependence on and resistance to the parent  who stayed, and the love for and suppressed (and overt) anger expressed by the abandoned child to any and all parents and parental figures.

**Spreenies are, to quote Wendy, flying “little… blue… whatevers” (p. 105) about the size of chipmunks. Think of the Nac Mac Feegles of Discworld, only with more petty, pointless mischief and less organization and actual culture.

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