The description for The Hidden People by Allison Littlewood is intriguingly ambiguous with regard to genre. Is this a historic mystery? A fantasy? A dark psychological exploration? One can, of course, come to some useful conclusions based on publisher and on bookseller marketing category, but perhaps it would be fun to read it without that advance evidence.
In 1851, within the grand glass arches of London’s Crystal Palace, Albie Mirralls meets his cousin Lizzie for the first—and, as it turns out, last—time. His cousin is from a backward rural village, and Albie expects she will be a simple country girl, but instead he is struck by her inner beauty and by her lovely singing voice, which is beautiful beyond all reckoning. When next he hears of her, many years later, it is to hear news of her death at the hands of her husband, the village shoemaker. Unable to countenance the rumors that surround his younger cousin’s murder—apparently, her husband thought she had been replaced by one of the “fair folk” and so burned her alive—Albie becomes obsessed with bringing his young cousin’s murderer to justice. With his father’s blessing, as well as that of his young wife, Albie heads to the village of Halfoak to investigate his cousin’s murder. When he arrives, he finds a community in the grip of superstition, nearly every member of which believes Lizzie’s husband acted with the best of intentions and in the service of the village. In a village where the rationalism and rule of science of the Industrial Revolution seem to have found little purchase, the answers to the question of what happened to Lizzie and why prove elusive. And the more Albie learns, the less sure he is that there aren’t mysterious powers at work.
Judging a book based on publisher defaults and marketing language is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, when we're looking for a specific type of read, we don't want the equivalent of finding a pickle in our peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But what of books that cross categories in a complex way? The Mystic Marriage is, inevitably, assumed to be a romance, because romance is what Bella Books specializes in, and because the blurb juxtaposes the characters of Serafina and Luzie in the default format for a romance plot. None of the Alpennia books will satisfy a reader looking for a romance-genre plot, despite having romantic arcs.
I always wonder about that, when I see a reader commenting that they felt misled about the nature of the books. Would they have liked the book if they didn't expect a category-romance? Or would they have failed to give the book a try at all in that case? If my books were default (straight) historic fantasy, they wouldn't be marketed with romance trappings but neither would any reader specifically seek them out or bounce off them based on the presence of a romantic arc. Writing about queer women presents a special conundrum. How do you market a book in a way that lets readers know about the focus on those characters without drawing them to mistaken conclusions about the prominence and explicitness of the romantic content?
The Great November Book Release Re-Boot is a month-long project to features books released in November 2016 that may have been overlooked in the aftermath of the US presidential election.