I just finished a novel that fits so perfectly into cozy fantasy I can’t believe it took me this long to discover it. At Amberleaf Fair by Phyllis Ann Karr is a short novel published by Ace in the mid-eighties. As far as I know, it hasn’t been reprinted, but it doesn’t cost too much used.
At Amberleaf Fair is nominally the story of Torin, a toymaker in love with a young sorceress who doesn’t return his affections. It quickly hares off in a different direction, though. For one thing, it’s really more of an ensemble novel, with a number of different POVs throughout. For another, it’s actually structured like a mystery, not a romance.
It took me a while to get into the novel, not least because I was expecting something different. Once I caught on, I started enjoying it much more, and it notably came to life around the midway point. The POV I enjoyed the most was that of a judge-for-hire trying to unravel the various odd occurrences at the fair—but then, I’m a mystery lover as well.
That said, there are some persistent issues that blocked me from fully engaging with the story. Fantasy in the mid-eighties was still figuring itself out—the early defining works of post-Tolkien high fantasy were still young (the Shannara series began in 1977, the Belgariad in 1982) and pastiche sword & sorcery was everywhere. Fantasy writers were still sorting out what worked and what didn’t.
At Amberleaf Fair, for example, really brings the neologisms. Nothing is called by its regular English word. Tea is herbwater, wizards are magic-mongers, storytellers are storycrafters. Instead of doors, everyone uses magically stiffened curtains. Money isn’t coins, it’s gems.
It’s all a bit alienating, in my opinion, and it’s the sort of surface-level worldbuilding that doesn’t really add much except confusion. For example, it took me to the very end of the book to realize moneygems are worth more the smaller they are, so you can pay a pebble for something and get multiple large stones in change. (Also, it irked me that one place a new word would be appropriate—the name for money—we don’t get it. Does anyone say “moneybills,” or even just “coins,” instead of dollars and cents?)
There are some neat worldbuilding touches. There’s a whole etiquette around doorcurtains, for example—if they’re hanging loose, it means whoever’s inside is willing to entertain visitors, and people tie them with enchanted cords to keep out folks with bad intentions.
There also seems to be a whole taxonomy of physical diseases caused by negative emotions, most notably “choking glory,” which is caused by pride and can actually kill you. (But again, the focus is off: despite being essential to the plot, this is never really explained, and we’re just left to figure out that pride can be deadly.)
Karr also spends a lot of time on the characters’ mundane thought processes. She always shares their concerns about their goods being stolen, getting paid on time, staying dry in the rain, and so on, then walks us through their reasoning as to how to handle each situation. I actually found this weirdly engaging—it’s realistic to the characters, who are all crafters and merchants, and it elevates the everyday—but I could imagine it boring other readers.
All in all, I would call At Amberleaf Fair a flawed work, but it’s most definitely cozy. The conflicts are all interpersonal, everything’s wrapped up nicely at the end, and the most violent scene in the book involves a mule getting loose and stepping on a present. I can’t recommend it unreservedly, but it’s worth checking out for a peek at an early cozy fantasy.
— Nathaniel Webb