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Literature / Fairest of All

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"Fairest of All" is a 2019 novelette by Ada Hoffmann published in The Future Fire.

Siofra and Mahon are two autistic children born into a medievalist society that believes them to be faerie changelings. Rejected by their families, they are taken as slaves by actual faerie monarchs - Siofra by a King who locks her in a tower above the clouds, Mahon by a Queen who forces him to spend most of his time doing painful and dangerous labor to maintain her jungle cottage. As the children grow older, they become the lovers of their masters, who convince them that they are worthless castoffs who should be grateful. But everything changes when Siofra meets the autistic, nonbinary otter Brogan, the first creature she's ever met who's different from the others in the same way she is.

"Fairest of All" contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Mahon and Siofra both suffer these. First, Mahon's father tries to burn him alive thinking he's a changeling. Later, both his parents simply leave him in the forest and tell him never to return. Similarly, Siofra's mother tried to drown her and later Siofra ran away after being told she wasn't human and to go back where she came from (with the faeries).
  • All of the Other Reindeer: Brogan hasn't suffered the same abuse as Siofra and Mahon, but they are regarded as a terrible, unlikable otter.
  • Ambiguously Absent Parent: Siofra's father is not mentioned at all, making it unclear if he's dead, left her mother, or what.
  • Changeling Tale: Deconstructed and subverted. Mahon and Siofra are both thought to be changelings by their parents as a result of being autistic, with abuse because of it. Both initially believe this and live with (also abusive) fairy folk, but ultimately realize they are indeed human, just different from most. It's clear this is simply a way to explain autistic children by people who don't understand them (as some scholars posit that such tales were for autism and other conditions).
  • Character Tics: Siofra likes rolling round things in her hands, like buttons. If she doesn't have one, her arms flap and flail around. Mahon stares into space and repeats what other people say.
  • Claimed by the Supernatural: Every month, the King cuts open the skin on Siofra's arms and legs to write his name on her bones. He tells her that this is to protect her from other creatures, who can kill her with a touch, but it seems to be really the equivalent of a Slave Brand.
  • Commonality Connection: Siofra first catches Brogan's eye by rocking back and forth in the same way they do. Later, Siofra and Mahon bond not only over their shared personality traits, but also over the fact that they are both humans.
  • Eyes Always Averted: Siofra never makes eye contact - the closest she comes is looking at people's faces.
  • The Fair Folk: Siofra and Mahon were both kidnapped by fairies. They're held as captives and also made their concubines, in both cases unable to leave while treated cruelly. Here fairies are human sized but visibly inhuman, and have birdlike attributes such as talons or wings.
  • Funny Animal: Animals in general seem to be capable of speech and human-like thought in the setting. Brogan, an otter, is the one that appears most but even some ants speak and help out in return for being done a favor in the past (along with a jaguar).
  • I Am What I Am: At the end, Siofra says, "I wonder how many there are, out here. How many people like us, who think they're bad at being human, or bad at being otters, or bad at whatever they are, because no one ever told them they could be good at being us."
  • Muggle in Mage Custody: Siofra and Mahon become slaves (and subsequently lovers) of the fairy King and Queen.
  • Parental Abandonment: Mahon's parents leave him in the forest and tell him never to come home.
  • Polyamory: The three protagonists end up in a happy triad.
  • Really Gets Around: It's mentioned that Siofra sleeps with many different beings, including various funny animals and local nature spirits which appear to include dryads.
  • The Runaway: Siofra's mother tells her to stop crying at the sound of scissors being sharpened, or else go back where she came from. Siofra picks the second option and flees into the forest, where her King finds her.
  • Scars Are Forever: Mahon is covered in burn scars from his father's abuse. His Queen rakes her poison spines over them at night to punish him for his transgressions.
  • Sex Slave: Mahon and Siofra both become slaves of powerful fairy monarchs, which evolves into being their concubines. They're tricked or coerced into staying.
  • Solid Clouds: The clouds below Siofra's tower range from hard as stone to soft as water, but there's no danger of anyone falling through.
  • Title Drop: The King and the Queen demand that Siofra and Mahon call them "fairest of all."
  • Trial Balloon Question: Everyone needs to know their heart's desire in order to get through the portal to a different realm. Brogan asks Siofra what her desire was, and she answers, "Freedom." This disappoints Brogan, whose answer would have been "You," and was hoping Siofra felt the same way about them.
  • Why Couldn't You Be Different?: Mahon's father shoved him in the oven when he was two years old, thinking the faerie would flee up the chimney and his real son would be returned to him. Siofra's mother tried to drown her for similar reasons.