Lisa Goldstein's The Uncertain Places: Grimm fairytale in California vibrates with believable unreality

Lisa Goldstein is a fantasy author like no other; and I mean that in the best way possible. To her fans (like me), Goldstein's fiction is hotly anticipated indeed; so it's a real delight to have had the chance to read an early galley of The Uncertain Places, the first novel published under her byline since 2002 (a pair of novels written under her pseudonym Isabel Glass were published by Tor in the mid-2000s).

The Uncertain Places is the story of two pals, Will and Ben, who, as UC Berkeley undergrads in the turbulent 1960s, fall into company with a quirky family of Napa wine-growers, the Feierabends. As Will and Ben become romantically entangled with the two eldest Feierabend daughters, they quickly perceive that all is not right with the family — on the one hand, they seem to enjoy uncommon good fortune, and on the other, there is some kind of menace and mystery surrounding their sprawling, eccentric winery, where you sometimes hear the crows talking in the woods, or happen on disciplinarian butlers beating cowed servants in the middle of the night — where strange, small handymen all in green turn up just when needed and then melt into the woods.

What follows is clearly in the tradition of the Grimm fairytales, a story of mysteries uncovered, strange (and regrettable) bargains with fairy queens, and warring human fallibility and human nobility. As the family history of the Feierabends unravels, we are drawn through a series of fairytales set in 19th century Germany, Depression-era California, Summer of Love Berkeley, and the greed-is-good 1980s.

Goldstein fearlessly rubs the dreamlike logic of fairytales up against stark realism, and each one makes the other more real. The fairyland we visit from time to time has the perfect mix of terror and beauty, and the story rips along at such a pace that I finished it in a day and a half, at the expense of many prior commitments.

Like all of Goldstein's fantasies, this is a novel that is clearly a part of the genre, but also something quite apart from the bulk of what gets published as fantasy today. Goldstein uses fairy and its bewitchments to rip apart and reassemble the question of wonder: to ask what we pay for our sense of wonder and whether it's worth it. It's a long-awaited return to the field for Goldstein fans, and a great one.

The Uncertain Places