cover image A Strange Country

A Strange Country

Muriel Barbery trans. from the French by Alison Anderson. Europa, $18 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-60945-585-9

In the convoluted follow-up to The Lives of Elves, Barbery pits humans and elves against a common enemy bent on destruction. In an alternate history, it’s 1938, a world war rages, and Spain is mired in civil war. Gen. Alejandro de Yepes and his right-hand man, Maj. Jesús Rocamora, are at de Yepes’s ancestral home, Extremaduro, when a snowstorm begins and three strangers appear on the property without leaving footprints. The three—Petrus, Marcus, and Paulus—are elves, sent to Extremaduro to make an alliance in an attempt to stop Aelius, an elf who is responsible for the war ravaging both the human and the elven worlds. Petrus leads the way over a magical bridge into “the fog” of the elven world, which is disappearing for unclear reasons. Due to the recently discovered notebook of a 16th-century painter, the elves believe Alejandro may be the chosen person to save their world in a battle foretold for the next day. At its best, Barbery’s imaginative tale reads as a mix of J.R.R. Tolkien and Hayao Miyazaki, epic in scope yet grounded by humor. However, the plot is often confusing and gets bogged down by Barbery’s florid scene-setting. Meanwhile, the poetic prose (the elves are big fans of verse) regarding the allegorical nature of the elven fog and climactic finale hint at a deeper message—but what that message is remains frustratingly obscured. Series fans will want to take a look, but the uninitiated need not apply. (Apr.)