Fairy Tales · Fantasy

Beauty, Poison, and Charm

by: Sarah Pinborough (no image because it’s three books.)

This is a 3-books series I picked up at the library – actually I picked up the first one and then went back for the next two – and read over the Christmas holidays.  They’re retellings of fairy tales, and while at first glance, I thought they were stand-alones, they’re actually a series that do go in a specific order.  I luckily picked up the first one first and then figured out the order by reading the blurbs.  They don’t actually have an order listed and they were all published in the same year – but they go, in order: Beauty, Poison, then Charm.

I really enjoyed them.  They are incredibly quick reads, all three books are very short, and they’re written in true fairy tale format, so, until the third book, there’s relatively little in terms of complex characters or anything but the most simplistic character developments.  They’re also written fairly simplistically (probably late-elementary to middle school level), but they are definitely adult material; if your kiddos read these be prepared for some awkward questions about sex and violence – both separately and combined for pleasure.

Each book retells one of the major Western fairy tales: Beauty is”Sleeping Beauty”, Poison is “Snow White”, and Charm is “Cinderella.”  There are other, equally well-known fairy tales woven throughout. It was fun to piece together which fairy tales were being told and how they all connected to each other, so I won’t spoil any more of them.

The books follow the adventures of an unnamed huntsman, whose job it is to keep an unnamed prince alive as he’s set out on a “please grow the eff up” adventure by his parents.  Pinborough is really selective about who gets named in this story and who is referred to solely by their profession.  It’s interesting to think about as you read, especially since there’s a deliberate gendered element to the names.

Pinborough is also selective about which characters are developed and how.  Fairy tales written in the classic style can definitely get away with flat characters – a wicked witch just needs to be a wicked witch; a brave prince need only be brave and charming – and Pinborough lets some characters stand just as they are meant to be.  Others, however, are developed more and the development of the character directly reflects both their complacency in, and understanding of, the fairy tale in which they play a role in.

Pinborough uses the characters to criticize and deconstruct the notion of a happy ending and to argue that agency in our lives comes from not perfect character or great beauty, but from a complex and flawed character tempered by life experiences. (Or, if you’re male and royal, from privilege you were born with and do not necessarily deserve.)  Indeed, the most likable character is also the one whose flaws I both related to and was sympathetic of – a very teenaged Cinderella.  Cinderella is, Ella Enchanted aside, my least favorite princess, so I loved that this rewriting forced her out of the “passive, good girl get rewarded” and into someone who was quite real and faced with the choice and consequences of active or passive behavior.

The ideas of true love and romantic relationships are also briefly, but critically, examined.  I won’t go into those notions because it could very easily spoil the book, but Pinborough takes a rather feminist (and much appreciated) lens to the gendered aspect at play here, examining what it means to be a woman, who cannot inherit the throne and must depend on a man for survival, looking for love.

You’re probably waiting for me to get to the sex stuff but honestly, though it was relevant to the plot and thematically connected to the agency of the characters, there wasn’t all that much of it.  When it was there, however it was explicit and, in Beauty, for lack of better word, depraved, in a very intentional way.

Though quite short, and quite simply written, I really enjoyed these novels.  They’re dark and adult, but quick reads and you could easily read them without getting into gender or character analysis.  (That’s my idea of a good time, but yours could be just enjoying the plot line!) There were quite a few twists throughout; they were foreshadowed well enough that I predicted about half of them and with the other half went, “Oh, duh! that makes sense!”

If you’re looking for a quick read that is a little dark and a little twisted*, if you like fairy tales, or if you want a book with some meat for feminist analysis, this is definitely the book for you.  If you’re looking for a cast of relatable characters, happy endings, or prefer prose that’s distinctly adult in style, than, alas, this may not be the book for you.

*I did want to mention that I think this is a hard style to find; this series is very quick and easy to read, but it is not light, fluffy, or appropriate for children.
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Contemporary Literature · Fairy Tales · Fantasy · Fiction

The Emperor of the Eight Islands

emperor
by: Lian Hearn

So I walked into a bookstore looking for a pen and walked out with 2 books, one of them being Emperor of the Eight Islands.  The blurb on the back really intrigued me – it sounded liked a darker sort of fairy tale, but set in a fantasy land based on feudal Japan.

The blurb on this one is a pretty accurate representation of the book! I really enjoyed the book – I’ve mentioned this a few dozen times before, I’m sure, but I love fairy tales of all sorts. I liked especially that it was set in a Japanese-based society; I feel like that drew me in more than it would have if it was set in a European-based one, simply for the novelty and the fun of the world building.

The story follows Kazumaru, the son of a lord who dies having lost a game of Go to tengu (legendary Japanese bird-men.) Kazumaru’s uncle takes over the estates and, in the traditions of fairy tales everywhere, does not want to relinquish his title back to his nephew when Kazumaru comes of age.  The story truly begins when Kazumaru decides to run away and find his own fate in the world, a world being torn apart by a civil war and plots for the throne.

Told in third person, the story shifts frequently from Kazumaru’s point of view to many other characters, though Kazumaru’s actions remain the driving force for the plot.  There’s sorcerers, royalty, mystical beings, magic, grudges, love, destiny, and songs about dragon children. Essentially, all the components for a good fairy tale are incorporated.

Hearn’s writing also lends itself well to the style. It actually reminds me a little bit of Robin McKinley – the same sort of slightly distant, almost impersonal approach to the characters, even as the reader learns their thoughts and feelings.  In an extended fairy tale, where the plot is of utmost importance, this style can work incredibly well and indeed I very much appreciated Hearn’s approach.  All of the human characters were complex and well developed and the non-human ones felt non-human because they were less complex.

Though terrible things happen in the story, I wasn’t necessarily emotionally invested in the actions.  This isn’t a bad thing – I like how it gave me clarity and room to think about what was happening.  It also meant I was less likely to rationalize away a character’s behavior, which, I think, is important to this particular story.  The characters, Kazumaru included, often do both amazing and horrible things and this distance allowed me to step away from the good vs. evil dichotomy and not categorize the characters but instead evaluate each action on its own merit.  Though there is a sense of a divine hand in this story, and from that a clear wrong and right, there isn’t such a sense of moral right and wrong and I loved the way the story made me think about each action to see how I truly felt about it.

I don’t know why, but I was somewhat disappointed to find that this was the beginning of a short series.  Though it does work as a self-contained story, there’s clearly room for the next novel – however, I felt throughout that this was a standalone and I have no idea why! I will be reading the rest of the series though.

Also, this is a book where the first chapter is very indicative of the entirety of the story, so if you’re on the fence, you should be able to tell by just reading a few pages whether it’s the book for you.

If you like plot-driven fantasies and a strong fairy tale vibe, you should definitely give this book a read.  If you’re not into violence or if you want a strong, intimate emotional connection to the main characters, then, alas, this book may not be the one for you.

Have you read it? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Fairy Tales · Teen Fiction · YA

Enchanted

enchanted

by: Alethea Kontis

Blog note: I won a contest over at Ensis Reads, formally Don’t Read! I got this wicked awesome traveling coffee mug (LOVE IT!), and I am going to do a full post with pictures this weekend!

This is the first book in The Woodcutter Sisters series, a book based on the family of Jack and Seven Woodcutter, and featuring modern retellings of European fairy tales – quite a few of them feature in each book.

The woodcutter sisters are seven sisters born to a woodcutter and his wife (naturally).  Each of the girls is named after a different day of the week.  Sunday, our heroine, is the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter – I do love that in this world, that is equally powerful as the seventh son of a seventh son.  Sunday befriends a frog in the woods and thus starts an adventure to change the life of her and her sisters forever.  And yes, this book is based mostly on The Frog Prince, one of my favorite fairy tales.

As a protagonist, I liked Sunday a lot.  She was thoughtful and somewhat dreamy, but she still did things and was very much an active participant in the story.  The frog prince, Rumbold, is also a good character – very flawed but likable.  He spends a lot of time in the story learning to be a man, without having it be the central theme of the story.  I very much appreciate that – I feel like too often a main male character growing into manhood automatically becomes the center of the story.  Here, though, it is an important part without overpowering the story. I didn’t necessarily think he was romantic or dashing or any of the things I like my romantic heroes to be – but I did think he was an interesting character and a good fit for Sunday.

The plot was good, though the pacing was a little weird.  There was a bit too much going on, even though it’s a fairy long YA novel.  It was partly because Kontis was fairly obviously trying to set up plotlines for all the continuing book in the series, plus introduce other characters which have already had their adventures, like her sister Thursday.  (That was pretty irritating.  Thursday runs off to sea and becomes a pirate captain.  I want to read that story!) Three of Sunday’s siblings have already found their ever after; one of them finds it as a minor side plot in this story.  The writing was quite good, but there was simply too much going on.  I feel like Kontis could have worried less about making sure we understand everything that’s happened or is happening to this family and worried more about tightening up the plot.

The book, however, was engaging and I definitely stayed up late to finish it! A great sign.  Unfortunately, it also wasn’t that memorable.  While I definitely want to read other books in the series, I did have trouble recalling what happened in this book while writing this review. I think part of that is so much happened that my brain kinda gave up on it.

The characters were, as a whole, engaging and interesting but Kontis ran into the same problem with them as she did with the plot; namely, there were too many that she was trying to give too much attention to.  That means some of the characters, like Wednesday, became “tells” and not “shows.”  Sunday tells us a lot about Wednesday but the reader never gets to see her behaving in her odd Wednesday ways, so her particular storyline isn’t very convincing or engaging, even though she’s central to what happens in the story.  On the other hand, I completely fell in love with Saturday and cannot wait to read her book.  The characters that Kontis fully fleshes out are done extremely well and absolutely perfect for a YA novel.

The flaws didn’t prevent me from enjoying the story but I do think a strong red pen could’ve turned this story from a book I really liked to a book I’d rave about.  That makes me a little sad, to be completely truthful, though I’m happy I read it anyway.

If you’re into YA novels with a strong fairy tale influence or if you like ordinary teenage characters who have extraordinary adventures, you should definitely pick this one up! If you don’t like the feeling of being plunged into the middle of a series (I know it’s billed as the first, but it doesn’t feel like it), or if you like your fairy tale retellings with a darker or socially relevant edge, than alack! this may not the book for you.

Fairy Tales · Fantasy

The Fairest of Them All

Image

by: Carolyn Turgeon

First of all, hello from Boston! I’m all moved in to a new apartment and not quite unpacked.  So my blog will resume it’s normal sporadic updates – yay!

I picked up my first book from Boston, Fairest of Them All, while stopping by the university (where I work) bookstore for a fleece jacket, because it’s fairly chilly in my lab.

I needed a book to escape into and this book was perfect for my purposes.  It’s a retelling of both “Rapunzel” and “Snow White”, from Rapunzel’s point of view (first person).  The blurb revolves around the prince and Rapunzel’s relationship; this is a false synopsis.

The prince is, at best, a secondary character and really pales in comparison to Rapunzel and even Snow White.  His character is quickly sketched instead of complex and developed and he mostly serves as a plot device rather than a character in his own right. This works perfectly for the story, however. I love that the fairy tale gets re-imagined completely around Rapunzel, instead of true love.  Rapunzel is, indeed, the active character in the story and it is her and Mother Gothel’s actions that drive and create the plot, rather than Rapunzel’s fate being determined by a witch and a prince.

Rapunzel herself is a fascinating character. I don’t know that I like her – she seems devoid of morals and certainly lacks ethics.  Indeed, though she certainly can be empathetic, due to her particular brand of magic, she seems unable to see how her actions will harm others; she is only able to feel how her actions have harmed others. She is oddly self-aware, though not introspective; she understands she does not have a “great heart” and is not prone towards morality.

Ever since “Tangled” came out and did such a brilliant job of depicting an emotionally abusive relationship between Mother Gothel and Rapunzel, I’ve been fascinated by that relationship.  There are so many directions it could be taken in. Turgeon takes an unexpected approach and because Rapunzel is not self-reflective, leaves much of the interpretation open to the reader. I wish there had been more exploration of that relationship.

Mother Gothel’s moral ambiguity through the story is also very nicely done.  There’s such a disconnect between how she presents herself to Rapunzel and how the rest of the world views her that it really is impossible to see if she’s misunderstood because of a growing movement against magic or if she truly is evil.  Or perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.

I would have liked a little more character development on Rapunzel’s part on the back third of the story and I do feel it ends right as she truly begins to grow up. In terms of plot, the ending makes sense; in terms of character, it almost leaves you hanging.

The plot itself is quick and nicely paced – perhaps a little too busy at the end, but at that point I was so caught up in the story that I didn’t notice until I’d finished.  The writing is good – a tiny bit on the simpler side, which fits in well with the fairy tale aspect.

I wish Turgeon had spent more time on social critiques of the “fairest of them all” aspect.  She does such an excellent job of setting up rich material for a stark, scathing look at the importance of female beauty in society – but she never really goes anywhere with it. Very sad.  I also hate that both the blurb and the synopsis before the book club questions seem to think this is the story of a prince and a princess and the most important relationship is between Rapunzel and the prince.  In reality, that is the least important relationship and it is annoying that someone(s) seemed to think that the male character of course had to be the most important secondary character in the story.

If you like reimagined fairy tales, feminist takes, or morally ambiguous main characters, you should definitely give this book a try.  If you don’t like instances of rape (though not rape scenes), not-good main characters, or prefer beautiful, complex writing, than perhaps this, alas, is not the book for you.

 

Children's · Fairy Tales · Fantasy

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There

 

 

thegirlwho

 

by: Catherynne M. Valente

When I picked up this book (a whole year ago!) I really wanted to have that magic feeling of discovery I had with the first book in this series. Unfortunately, you can really only discover something once and I didn’t get that “Look what I found!” feeling.  Which is why I put it down for so long.

But I finally picked it back up to finish!  I did indeed enjoy Valente’s second book and I do so enjoy her style – it is an old-fashioned style, slightly formal, that really adds to the magical feel of the book.

In the second book, September returns to Fairyland to find that the magic is all disappearing into Fairyland Below and it’s all due to actions she took in her last Fairyland adventure.  Realizing this, the slightly-more-mature September takes off on a quest to right her wrongs.  She heads down into Fairyland Below, which is populated by shadows who have left their people.  She finds shadow-versions of everyone familiar – and yet, these shadow-versions are not familiar.  She must draw on her strength, intelligence, bravery, and newfound adult compassion to ensure the survival of Fairyland.

As compared to the first book, I think I liked the characters less in this story.  The story was, more so than the last time, a story about September helping herself find herself.  She gets help from many characters throughout the story, but most of them are Merlin-type characters rather than her friends.  I think I missed that interaction.

I did, however, really love September herself.  September is growing up, and by doing so she is losing the heartlessness of childhood and learning to work with compassion and empathy.  She’s still rather young – I believe she’s supposed to be a preteen in this book – so it doesn’t lose the feeling of a children’s book.  Also, there’s a bit more attention paid to September’s life in the real world, which is nice. She’s living during WWI (or WWII? Sorry guys!), and her mom works in a factory while her dad is off fighting at the front.  You can see how her life is affecting her, even while she’s in Fairyland.  I liked Valente’s decision to age her rather than keeping her perpetually young.  September remains one of my favorite child protagonists.

The plot was a tad bit confusing at times and could have been tightened up a tad.  One or two things weren’t quite adequately explained to truly suit my need for understanding (but it is a fantasy book and that happens).  However, it was very fun and well-paced.  Excitement abounds and you’ll hold your breath with September as she struggles to complete her quest.  It’s a great length, too; by the time it’s winding up, you’re exactly at the point where you want to see a happy ending.

The world of Fairyland is always great to visit and I like the Alice in Wonderland literal-ness that Valente invokes when creating it.  Things are as a child thinks they should be there. World-building alone is a great reason to read this book, honestly.  It’s such a fun and magical place to visit.

If you’re looking for a new fairy tale, a new children’s book, or if you’re a fan of magic, Lewis Carroll-style, I would definitely give this book a try!  If you’re really into character relationships and more introspection than adventure, than, sadly, this may not be the book for you.

Children's · Fairy Tales

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making

A short review that I wrote right before I started this blog but never published!
by: Catherynne M. Valente

This book is both amazing and wonderful! It is everything a fairy tale should be – honest, written in a slightly Victorian manner, and full of wondrous creatures.  The book is slightly old-fashioned in the best of ways  – the feeling comes from the slightly formal tone that makes the reader want to sit and listen to a story their favorite teacher (or nanny!) tells.

It’s the story of September, a girl living during WWI, who accepts the chance to go to Fairyland and all the adventures that entails. There’s humor, both for children and adults.  September is a wonderful character – she is decisive and neither saccharine sweet or unbelievably mature. She’s as practical as a 12 yr old can be, cunning enough to be interesting, and, most importantly, in charge of herself.  Best of all, she doesn’t spend the entire time worrying about getting home, but rather endeavors to have adventures and fulfill promises.  I highly recommend this book!