Category: Fairy Tales

Ash

Cover image for Ash by Malinda Loby Malinda Lo

ISBN 9780316040099

“But even if magic was so rare it was more like myth than reality, the people of that country still loved their fairy tales.”

When Aisling’s mother dies, she is heartbroken. Her father remarries quickly and unexpectedly, bringing his new wife and her two daughters to live with them in the house in Rook Hill, at the edge of the Wood. Then her father dies as well, and Aisling is left alone with her strange new family. Abused by her stepmother, Aisling loses herself in fairy tales, reading and rereading her favourite stories. Defying all caution, she takes long walks in the Wood, hoping to be stolen away by the fairies. But a powerful fairy lord who calls himself Sidhean makes himself her protector, denying her desire. Thus able to pass safely in the Wood, she meets Kaisa, the King’s Huntress. Aisling owes Sidhean for the wishes he has granted her, but with Kaisa in her life, she is suddenly reluctant to pay.

Malinda Lo’s Ash uses many of the elements of the various versions of the Cinderella story, while also incorporating a magical wood, a common set piece in many other fairy tales. Lo’s world-building exceeds what you might normally find in a fairy tale, incorporating the role of the King’s Huntress and fleshing out the kingdom that surrounds the story. And Lo’s fairies have the bite of the older tales, rather than the fluffier friendliness of Cinderella’s Disney godmother. Sidhean has long protected Aisling from the other fairies, telling her it isn’t time, but he seems to constantly struggle with the temptation to take her himself, complicating matters.

By tweaking the traditional narrative, Lo also interrogates the idea of marrying for money. Both Aisling’s father and her stepmother marry with this high on their minds. Aisling’s father because his business is in trouble, and her stepmother because she cannot offer her daughters the advantages she thinks they deserve with only her inheritance to live on. Each is bitterly disappointed and Aisling pays the price. Her oldest step-sister Ana is under tremendous pressure to marry well in order to remedy the situation. There are several interesting exchanges between Aisling and her younger stepsister, Clara, who is caught up in the romantic idea of marrying a prince, serving as reminder to Aisling that some people want the things that hold no appeal for her.

Throughout the tale, Ash explores the theme of home, and how home is not a place, but the people who love you.  Aisling finds herself following the paths of the Wood back to Rook Hill several times to visit her mother’s grave. But of course, her mother isn’t really there, and the house in Rook Hill is empty. It is no longer home without her parents, but nor is Lady Isobel’s house home, because the Quinn family does not love her. This theme is especially apt for a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, since many LGBT people are rejected by their family of origin, and end up making their own family. Aisling’s world does not seem to share this stigma, but nor has her home been a loving one since her mother’s death.

Ash is an understated retelling of Cinderella, made up of a good blend of the traditional fairy tale and Lo’s own reinvention and additions. But it is the sweet, slow-burning romance at the heart of the tale that gives this retelling life.


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All Hallow’s Read: Troll Bridge

Cover image for Troll Bridge by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran Original Story by Neil Gaiman

Adapted by Colleen Doran

ISBN 978-1-50670-008-3

“It is good for children to find themselves facing the elements of a fairy tale. They are well equipped to deal with these.”

A young boy in rural England follows an abandoned train track until he crosses under a bridge. There he meets the troll, who declares that he will eat the boy for daring to enter his domain. But the boy is clever and strikes a bargain with the troll, promising to return to be eaten later, after he has lived more of life. After all, someone who has read books, and flown on airplanes, and seen America must be tastier than a little boy who has done none of these things. But as he grows up, the boy becomes desperate to renege on his bargain.

Troll Bridge is a graphic novel based on Neil Gaiman’s 1993 short story of the same title. This new edition from Dark Horse was adapted and illustrated by Colleen Doran. Gaiman’s original story can be found in his short story collection Smoke and Mirrors. It is a dark fairy tale that—in the manner of many Gaiman stories—is about children, but not for them. The boy starts out clever and beguiling, talking the troll out of eating him immediately. But that survival instinct takes a dark turn as he grows up and goes to ever greater lengths to avoid being consumed. The little boy who seems resourceful to escape the troll becomes the kind of teenager who describes his first love in terms that make your skin crawl:  “I fell for her like a suicide from a bridge.”

Doran’s work suits the atmosphere of the tale well, equally capable of capturing the fairy tale and the gothic. Some sections have distinct comic-book style panels, but Doran also incorporates large illustrative spreads that suit the fairy tale vibe. Her troll is grotesque and monstrous, and the colours of the illustrations become progressively darker as the boy grows up and innocence recedes. In fact, this is Doran’s second crack at Troll Bridge; in an interview with Comic Book Resources, Doran discusses making an initial pen-and-ink attempt at it in the 1990s.

A creepy adult fairy tale about a dark coming-of-age, Troll Bridge is a perfect fit for an All Hallow’s Read.

All Hallow’s Read is an initiative by Neil Gaiman to encourage readers to share scary books at Halloween. Learn more at:  http://www.allhallowsread.com/

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Uprooted

Cover image for Uprooted by Naomi Novikby Naomi Novik

ISBN 978-0-8041-7905-8

“Those the walkers carried into the Wood were less lucky. We didn’t know what happened to them, but they came back out sometimes, corrupted in the worst way: smiling and cheerful, unharmed. They seemed almost themselves to anyone who didn’t know them well, and you might spend half a day talking with one of them and never realize anything was wrong, until you found yourself taking up a knife and cutting off your own hand, putting out your own eyes, your own tongue, while they kept talking all the while, smiling, horrible.”

Agnieszka and Kasia have been best friends throughout their childhood in the village of Dvernik, bonded by the fact that they are both Dragon-born girls. Every ten years, the Dragon—the sorcerer who protects the valley from the dark magic of the Wood—takes a seventeen-year-old girl to live with him in the Tower, and both Agnieszka and Kasia will be seventeen the year his next servant is chosen. Everyone knows that it is Kasia, beautiful, and graceful, and competent, who will be chosen. And after ten years, she will emerge from the tower rich and educated, and leave the valley forever. But when the Dragon comes to make his choice, it is not Kasia who attracts his attention.

Uprooted has definite flavours of Beauty and the Beast, where a young woman is taken into the castle of a monster—or in this case a man with a monstrous reputation—and held there alone. The Dragon employs no other servants, and entertains no guests, unless called upon by the Crown, which he is bound to serve. Though it takes her time to admit it to herself, there is a reason Agnieszka attracted the Dragon’s attention despite being less beautiful than Kasia. She is a witch, and magical talent is too valuable in Polnya to be squandered. So expecting a role as servant, Agnieszka instead finds herself apprenticed, and drafted into the war against the Wood.

In most stories, Kasia would have disappeared after Agnieszka was taken, having served her part in the tale. But Uprooted continues to turn on their friendship, even eventually forcing them to confront and move past the hidden resentment that existed between them by virtue of being Dragon-born. While not destined for the life she had expected—riches and education and freedom in exchange for ten years of her youth and unquestioning service—Kasia still has an exceptional path before her, which is entwined with Agnieszka’s.

Uprooted is full of complex characters with individual motivations. Sarkan is determined to hold the Wood at bay, whatever the cost. Prince Marek is determined to somehow save his mother, Queen Hanna, from the Wood, even though she disappeared twenty years ago. Meanwhile his father, the King of Polnya, has his eyes set on a new international alliance that will help protect Polnya against Rosya. The wizards Alosha and Solya are caught up in politics and war due to their lives at court, and the monk-wizard Brother Ballo is consumed by his quest for knowledge. All these warring motivations come to bear on the question of how to fight the Wood, and prevent it from swallowing the valley, or corrupting the kingdom. The Wood is a terrifying arch-villain, but it is the smaller antagonists that add depth to the tale.

I started Uprooted listening to the audiobook, narrated by Julia Emelin, a Russian-born voice actress.  It took me a while to settle into the accent she used to perform the book, but within an hour I was absolutely hooked into the tale. I was enjoying the story so much three quarters of the way through, that I decided to go ahead and buy the paperback before I reached the end. Fortunately, it did not disappoint! This is a dark, lushly imagined fantasy that hits all the sweet-spots for a fairy tale retelling. I’m tempted to pick it back up and start again from the beginning.

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Cover image for The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly BlackThe Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman

The Darkest Part of the Forest

Cover image for The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black by Holly Black

ISBN 978-0-316-21307-3

Tourists, the locals would say, a sneer in their voices. And they still did. Because everyone believed—everyone had to believe—that tourists did stupid things that got them killed. And if someone from Fairfold very occasionally went missing, too, well they must have been acting like a tourist. They should have known better. The people of Fairfold came to think of the Folk as inevitable, a natural hazard like hailstorms or getting swept out to sea by a riptide. It was a strange kind of double consciousness.”

For as long as the people of Fairfold can remember, the horned boy has slept in a glass coffin, deep in the woods. Nothing anyone says or does can wake him, though bad things are known to happen to those who deface his resting place. As children, siblings Hazel and Ben played around the coffin, making up stories about the prince who lay sleeping inside of it, both half in love with him. Neither ever dreamed for a moment that he could hear them, or that he would ever wake up. The humans of Fairfold, and the Fae who live in the woods around their town have long had an accord, but the strange things that have always happened in Fairfold have begun to be stranger, and more dangerous. Then one morning, the horned boy is gone from his coffin, and the long peace between human and Fae is shattered in an instant. Old promises and debts are called in, stoking simmering feuds and ancient resentments to life. Hazel is recalled to childhood dreams of knighthood, slaying monsters and protecting the weak, while Ben must grapple with the faerie boon his mother accidentally won for him, which has proved as much a curse as a gift. And Jack, the changeling who lives among the people of Fairfold, and Ben’s best friend, finds himself caught between his human life and his Fae heritage.

The Darkest Part of the Forest is an eerie fairy tale that builds on recognizable elements of traditional lore while also incorporating a contemporary setting and modern concerns. Black also has her own unique twists, such as a human woman who demanded the return of her child from the Fae, and then had the temerity to keep the fairy child as well, raising them as twins. Fairfold is, on the surface, a seemingly normal American town with a quaint New England feel, but as the story progresses, its more unusual aspects become ever more prominent. The town has a seductive mythos and a well-developed mood that sends a shiver down the spine.

The Darkest Part of the Forest benefits from a deep back-story, the flash-backs to which only occasionally cause the pacing to lag (indeed the acknowledgements hint that Black struggled with how to make this complex plotting work). Layers of supressed memories and half-forgotten promises litter Ben and Hazel’s less-than-idyllic childhood, and their habit of keeping secrets and trying to protect one another serves them ill when they most need to be a team. Things that have long gone unspoken between them begin tumbling out into the open at inopportune moments, forcing them to reckon with what has driven them apart. Their complex relationship is one of the strongest aspects of the story.

Thematically, Black examines dreams and the bargains we make to achieve them, and the ills we are willing to overlook in the trade. The people of Fairfold have long tried to pretend that their unusual home is normal, and that they are safe if they just obey the rules. But in many ways they are not safe so much as they are habituated to the danger, and they rationalize their own safety by finding fault with the victims that are taken in their stead. The awakening of the horned boy forces them to reckon, however reluctantly, with the drawbacks inherent in the bargain they have made by living in a magical place. For Hazel and Ben, their fictional prince from stories spun in childhood becomes overlaid with the all too real and possibly dangerous supernatural being that awakens from his resting place.

As with Black’s previous book, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, The Darkest Part of the Forest stands strongly alone, a well-developed fantasy in a sea of series.

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Boy, Snow, Bird

Cover image for Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemiby Helen Oyeyemi

ISBN 978-1-59463-340-9

“Mirrors see so much. They could help us if they wanted to. In those days I spoke to every mirror in the apartment. I questioned them, told them what to do, but none of them answered me.”

In 1953, twenty-year-old Boy Novak flees her abusive father in New York, landing in the small town of Flax Hill, Massachusetts. Everyone in Flax Hill is an artisan, whereas Boy has no special skills to speak of. She drifts from job to job, and man to man, but keeps coming back to Arturo Whitman, a jewellery maker with a young daughter called Snow. More in love with the idea of being Snow’s mother than with Arturo himself, Boy nevertheless agrees to marry him, becoming the stepmother of a beautiful and sweet-natured girl who is adored by her entire extended family. But when Boy gives birth to her own daughter by Arturo, baby Bird cannot live up to the Whitman’s exacting standards. Suddenly Boy no longer has it in her to love Snow, who she now sees is beloved by her grandparents largely for her particular brand of beauty. Driven apart by this family rift, Boy, her daughter, and her stepdaughter must all face the terrible power of appearances.

Slow-paced but captivating, the first part of Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird is narrated by Boy herself, as she recounts the escape from her abusive father, and settling into her new life in Flax Hill. Events are largely quotidian, but there are occasional strange happenings, particularly when mirrors are involved. This magical element is largely symbolic rather than significant to the development of the plot; the obsession with surface appearances turns out to be a deep one in the Whitman family that Boy marries into. Magical events are never so concrete as to be provable, but they pervade the story nonetheless.

The second section of the story is recounted by thirteen-year-old Bird, who has been raised separately from her half-sister Snow, but retains a powerful curiosity about her. After discovering a letter addressed to her from Snow hidden in her mother’s jewellery box, Bird and Snow begin a covert correspondence eventually culminating in their first meeting since childhood. This section is shifting and slippery, as Bird slides from first person to speaking about herself in the third person, to exchanging letters with her sister.

I expected the final part of the story to rest with Snow, but the narration passes back to Boy instead as the story struggles to regain the momentum it lost in the middle. It is Boy who is tasked with recounting the awkward Thanksgiving dinner that finally breaks open the tensions that have been brewing in the Whitman family for generations. And even Boy, who thought she knew her heritage, is forced to re-examine her assumptions when her best friend, reporter Mia Cabrini, uncovers a long-buried secret about her abusive father. Unfortunately, this final reveal does not fit in well with the rest of the story, and what is intended to provide closure and reunion fractures the story irreparably instead. Oyeyemi draws equivalencies between race and gender here that simply do not stand up to scrutiny, and she handles it with none of the sensitivity and depth she brings to the rest of the story. It is no coincidence that this is also the shortest section of the book; Oyeyemi has simply not done the necessary work to integrate this unexpected twist.

Despite a number of obvious influences and references, Boy, Snow, Bird is only a very loose homage to the tale of Snow White. Boy grapples with her role as the “evil” stepmother to a child who has been taught all her life to believe in an ideal of beauty that excludes Boy’s own daughter. It is less of a retelling and more of an allusion to the question of beauty and vanity that lies at the heart of that story: who is the fairest of them all? Oyeyemi handles these topics masterfully, but falters in the end, leaving this book without the conclusion it deserves.

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The Sleeper and the Spindle/ Hansel and Gretel

hansel-and-gretel-and-the-sleeperWritten by Neil Gaiman

Illustrated by Chris Riddell/ Lorenzo Mattotti

ISBN 978-1-4088-5964-3/ 978-1-935179-62-7

In the past week, Neil Gaiman has released two new picture books—Hansel and Gretel in the United States, and The Sleeper and the Spindle in the United Kingdom. Neither one is available on the opposite side of the pond yet, but both can be purchased online. Each work reimagines well-known fairy tales, though The Sleeper and the Spindle pulls from more than one source. Gaiman’s retellings are hauntingly well-written, as well as notable for featuring active and resourceful female protagonists. The settings remain medieval, but the context is decidedly more modern; Gaiman gathered inspiration for Hansel and Gretel from his visits to Syrian refugee camps in Jordan. Meanwhile, The Sleeper and the Spindle has drawn attention in the press, which has latched onto this image of the Queen kissing the sleeper to wake her:

 

wake-the-sleeper-chris-riddellDespite this striking illustration, The Sleeper and the Spindle is no lesbian love story; the Queen has a handsome prince waiting to marry her back home, though he is never pictured. This misleading attention is the only respect in which readers may find themselves let down by this story, which is not what early coverage of this title may have led you to believe.

With Gaiman’s strong writing working so seamlessly, in both books it is easy for the art to take centre stage. The Sleeper and the Spindle is illustrated by Chris Riddell, who also did the drawings for the UK edition of Fortunately, the Milk last year (the US edition was illustrated by Skottie Young). However, the mood is entirely different from the zany images Riddell produced for that book. The black and white drawings here are graceful and minutely detailed, subtly accented by shimmering gold highlights.  The story features a young Queen, whose kingdom is endangered by the spreading sleeping sickness that plagues a neighbouring realm, and threatens to spill over into her own land.  Assisted by three dwarves, she passes under the high mountain range that separates the two nations, and sets out to rescue the sleeper from a castle encased in thorns. This epic quest gives Riddell broad scope for his powers, and he more than delivers. Indeed, the entire book is an exquisite work of art, with beautiful end papers, metallic ink accents, and a translucent dust jacket that allows vines and roses to overlay the sleeper on the cover.

into-the-woods-lorenzo-mattottiPainted in lush, dark India ink, Lorenzo Mattotti’s work in Hansel and Gretel is also black and white, and yet could not be more different in style from The Sleeper and the Spindle. Whereas Riddell’s work is delicate and detailed, Mattotti is boldly minimalist, relying on a masterful use of positive and negative space to create his images. There are a number of beautiful double-page spreads in The Sleeper and the Spindle, but in Hansel and Gretel, text and image alternate constantly, so that every illustration is able to take up two full pages. However, even the text-only pages are beautiful, featuring flowering vine motifs in the corners, and bold, red dropped capitals that are the only hint of colour in the entire story. The book’s design has a modern minimalism, but is no less beautiful than its more opulent sibling in its own way.

Like the illustrations, the text of the story is deceptively simply, but the starkness is chilling. The woodcutter’s dilemma is created by war and famine, leaving the man unable to provide for his children. As in the original Grimm’s tale, the woman who advocates for the abandonment of the children is their mother, not their stepmother, making the tale that much more disturbing. However, Gaiman retains the reluctant father, who his persuaded by his wife to do something terrible; in Grimm’s, both parents are complicit in the decision. These narrative choices strike a nice balance, creating a tale that is at once haunting and hopeful.

The Sleeper and the Spindle is the longer and more complex tale, perhaps better suited to a somewhat older audience that has the patience to sit through a lengthier story. But as usual, Gaiman’s works defy easy categorization for age groups, appealing to adults and children alike.

Dreams and Shadows

Cover image for Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargillby C. Robert Cargill

ISBN 978-0-06-219043-7

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher as part of the Harper Voyager Super Reader program.

Monsters are real. Very real. But they’re not just creatures. Monsters are everywhere. They’re people, they’re nightmares. They’re jealous viziers. They are the things that we harbour within ourselves. If you remember one thing, even above remembering me, remember that there is not a monster dreamt that hasn’t once walked within the soul of a man.

In the Hill Country outside of Austin, Texas, and just beyond the veil, lies the Limestone Kingdom, the faerie realm ruled by Meinrad, and inhabited by creatures of legend and nightmare. Only supernatural beings live there, but once, for a brief time, two human boys played in those woods. Ewan and Colby have been friends since childhood, for so long that Ewan can’t quite remember how they met. Colby has never forgotten, but he has never told Ewan, either. As adults, Colby is working in a bookstore, constantly grappling with the consequences of a childhood wish come true, and Ewan is trying to make it as a musician, but despite their seemingly normal human lives, the Limestone Kingdom hasn’t truly let them go.

Dreams and Shadows is a difficult novel to describe without dealing in spoilers, because it takes more than a hundred pages for Colby and Ewan to finally meet, and another hundred pages or so before they are adults in present-day Austin, where the plot as described in the cover blurb really begins. Cargill brings together a plethora of familiar and unfamiliar fae, seelie and unseelie alike, to populate the Limestone Kingdom, and also incorporates the Native American Manitou, Coyote, and the Middle Eastern djinn to create a diverse supernatural cast for his world. It takes quite some time to assemble all the players, and get the action going. Above all, Dreams and Shadows requires patience; Cargill is setting up a worthwhile end game, but the pieces seem disparate until the moment before they come together. While this book has the right plot elements to qualify as urban fantasy, the fast pacing so common to the genre is not present here.

While the long term end game of Dreams and Shadows remained unclear until late in the book, the chapter-by-chapter developments were a made a little too obvious by the academic extracts that appeared between chapters, taken from a fictional book entitled A Chronicle of the Dreamfolk by Dr. Thaddeus Ray. Dialogue in one chapter would hint ominously at something called a “tithe,” and then the very next extract would spell out exactly what that was. Although the extracts aided world-building, Cargill frequently gave away the element of surprise in these passages, rather than allowing the mystery to develop and naturally be revealed in the course of the story. The extracts also slowed down this already ponderously paced novel, and while I’m glad I stayed aboard until the very end, and eager to see what Cargill has in store in Queen of the Dark Things, it was only a matter of chance that I didn’t put the book down for good before he got to the good stuff.

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Poison

Poison by Bridget Zinnby Bridget Zinn

ISBN 978-1-4231-3993-5

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Midwinter 2013. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

She didn’t like children at the best of times, and now was certainly nowhere near the best of of times. It was even possibly the worst of times, though Kyra kept thinking she’d hit bottom only to discover that things could still get worse.”

Sixteen-year-old Master Potioner Kyra had made a pretty good life for herself in the Kingdom of Mohr. After defying her parents’ wishes and becoming a potioner’s apprentice at age ten, she quickly mastered her craft. She set up the Master Trio of Potioners, and met her fiancé in the process. But after attempting to assassinate her childhood best friend, the Princess Ariana, Kyra has been forced to go on the run. Her former teachers, business partners and the entire King’s Army are all out to get her. With nowhere left to turn for help, Kyra makes an uneasy bargain with master criminal Arlo Abbaduto, who provides her with the means to track down the princess, who has gone into hiding. Accompanied by her pet pig, Rosie, and a strangely persistent young man named Fred, Kyra sets out to save the Kingdom from certain doom which only she can prevent.

More fairy tale than fantasy, Poison is a whimsical, irreverent romp through a classic magical kingdom. Although the publisher has recommended this novel for grades seven to twelve, I would suggest it for readers at the lower end of that spectrum, as well as upper middle grade readers. While not without its surprises, Poison may be a little too predictable for older teens. Fortunately, Zinn’s saucy and impertinent attitude and her willingness to make fun of the clichés and conventions that make the plot predictable ultimately save it from itself. Despite the potentially dark premise—what if you had to kill your best friend to save the world?—Poison is much more humour than drama. I suspect that The Princess Bride was a strong source of inspiration for this novel. Although it was not my cup of tea, I would recommend it as a fun read for readers in the 10-14 range.

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