Category: Fairy Tales

The Wicked King (The Folk of the Air #2)

Cover image for The Wicked King by Holly Black by Holly Black

ISBN 9780316310338

 “Power is much easier to acquire than it is to hold on to.

With her young step-brother Oak revealed as an heir of the Greenbriar line, Jude has made her bid for the throne of Faerie, and won, after a fashion. Bound to her will for a year and a day, Prince Cardan now sits on his father’s throne, while Jude pulls his strings. But a year and a day is not enough time for Oak to grow up, and become a King who will be kinder than Balekin, more responsible than Cardan, or less bloodthirsty than Madoc. Now it is a game of chess, as Jude tries to find a way to bind Cardan to her for longer, and Cardan tries to wiggle around the strictures of her edicts. General Madoc seems to be quietly planning his own next move, while Queen Orlagh of the Sea Folk is determined to see Cardan married to her daughter, Nicasia. Power is fleeting, and everyone wants a taste.

The Wicked King opens on Jude as the lonely power behind the throne, alienated from her twin sister, and her adopted family by her betrayal of Madoc at the coronation ceremony during the events of The Cruel Prince. She has seized the Crown, but must keep the fact of her power secret, desperately trying to quell Cardan’s rebellions, and her own feelings for the troubled Prince, who is now High King, if only in name. Faerie has no love for mortals who gain favour and power, and they would love nothing more than a reason to cast her down. While Dane’s geas continues to protect her from enchantment, there are many other ways to extract revenge. She has temporarily seized control, but she can feel the days slipping through her fingers, knowing that she will lose everything if Cardan bides out his year and a day, and becomes High King in fact. Having betrayed her family to gain power, now she must face the question of what she will do in order to keep it.

If you love a dark and twisted faerie tale, it is hard to go wrong with Holly Black. This series is also highly recommended for those who enjoy the trope of enemies to lovers. Cardan’s long hatred and resentment of Jude stems from his hatred of the fact that she, a mortal, has found a place in Faerie, even while he was always rejected by his own father despite being a prince of the blood. Trained from childhood to hate himself by his father’s disdain, he hates himself even more for being attracted to Jude despite her mortality. Meanwhile, Jude knows that she is playing a dangerous game. Mortals who fall in love with the Folk never fair well, as her own mother’s bloody fate constantly reminds her. Her twin sister, Taryn, is playing an equally dangerous game with the conniving and despicable Locke, and though the sisters are estranged, Jude hopes she can somehow protect Taryn, and give her the happily ever after she dreams of.

As one lone, mere mortal in a magical realm, Jude can little hope to control all the many threads and intrigues of Faerie, as various factions try the strength of their new king. But try she must, as Cardan shows little interest in ruling, and she has few allies to call on. Even the Court of Shadows is not to be fully trusted, though Jude must accept their aid. Holly Black takes the reader for a tense ride through the months of Cardan’s vow, and though we know it must end in disaster, she still manages to bring The Wicked King to stunning cliff-hanger that will leave you reaching for The Queen of Nothing, due out in the fall of 2019.

Also by Holly Black:
The Darkest Part of the Forest

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown 

The Iron Trial (with Cassandra Clare)

The Cruel Prince

Cover image for The Cruel Prince by Holly Black by Holly Black

ISBN 978-0-316-31027-7

What they don’t realize is this: Yes, they frighten me, but I have always been scared, since the day I got here. I was raised by the man who murdered my parents, reared in a land of monsters. I live with that fear, let it settle into my bones, and ignore it. If I didn’t pretend not to be scared, I would hide under my owl-down coverlets in Madoc’s estate forever. I would lie there and scream until there was nothing left of me. I refuse to do that. I will not do that.”

Seventeen-year-old Jude and her twin sister, Taryn, are mortals who have lived in Faerie since they were children, raised by the Faerie general who murdered their parents in order to retrieve his daughter, their half-sister Vivi. Despite this violent beginning, Jude longs to find her place in the High Court of King Eldred, and dreams of knighthood and acceptance. However, many of the high fey will never see a mortal as anything more than a servant, to be used and discarded at will. Worst among these is Prince Cardan, youngest of the High King’s sons, who seems to have a special hatred for Jude, and the way she had been raised as if she were part of the Gentry. When the High King announces that he will abdicate his throne, and pass the Blood Crown to one of his six children, Jude is caught up in political intrigues and violent betrayals, and is quickly reminded why the Faerie Court is no place for humans.

The Cruel Prince follows three sisters trying to find their place in the world(s). Though she is the only one who has magic, Vivi longs to return to the human world where she was raised. Jude and Taryn, though they know that Faerie is designed to dazzle mortals, are nevertheless enchanted with it, and dream of finding a way to make it their place forever, rather than somewhere that they live at the grace of the man who killed their parents. Taryn hopes to make a marriage that will secure her a place at court, while Jude hopes to use her talent with a blade win a post in one of the great houses. Each in turn is faced with the question of what price they will pay in order to get what they want.

Through the character of Jude, and her development, Holly Black examines what we are capable of, and how far we will go to get what we want. Jude dreams of being a knight, and wants to declare herself a candidate for selection as such by one of the great houses during the summer tournament. But her adopted father, Madoc, a redcap with violence as his very essence, does not believe that Jude has what it takes to be a knight, despite her skill with a blade. With the obvious and honourable path closed to her, Jude accepts a different bargain, one that reveals an even darker side of the High Court, and reminds Jude why Faerie is a dangerous place for mortals, especially at a time when power is about to change hands.

Though she knows the ways of Faerie, and has been trained as a warrior by the general himself, Jude is at a constant disadvantage. She has no magic of her own, and must constantly be wary of the magic around her. She must wear rowan berries to ward off compulsion, turn her stockings inside out to avoid being led astray, and salt all her food to prevent ensorcellment. She must rely on her wits, and her merely mortal strength to face down those who would put her in her place. And Prince Cardan and his friends seem bent on demonstrating that however at home she feels in Faerie, however well she think she knows the rules, she will always be a mere mortal. It is this very weakness, and her determination not to give into it that makes Jude a compelling narrator.

The Cruel Prince is a twisty and intricately plotted fantasy that takes us deep inside the High Court of Faerie. Holy Black knows just how to hit my expectations enough to keep me satisfied, while simultaneously subverting them enough to keep me intrigued. I am already eagerly awaiting the release of The Wicked King in 2019.

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Also by Holly Black:

The Darkest Part of the Forest

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown 

The Iron Trial 

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

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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.