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.