My three-year-old is obsessed with Disney Princesses and her favourite is Rapunzel. This means I have to launder her Rapunzel shirt at least twice a w...moreMy three-year-old is obsessed with Disney Princesses and her favourite is Rapunzel. This means I have to launder her Rapunzel shirt at least twice a week and we've seen Tangled in both Dutch and English at least fifteen times. Luckily enough, I rather like the story of Rapunzel and Tangled is a pretty fun film – don't get me started on the Pocahontas phase she had earlier this year – so when I was offered a review copy of Bitter Greens I was readily primed on the subject matter and inclined to say yes. Add to that this ringing endorsement by CW Gortner, whose The Queen's Vow I'd just really enjoyed, and I was jumping out the gate. However, I got far more than just a retelling of Rapunzel in Bitter Greens, I got a glimpse of the intriguing life of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, one of the first female writers of literary fairy tales, and the glittering court of Louis XIV, the Sun King of France and a look at 16th-century Venice through the eyes of both an innocent and a jade. An intricate story within a story, a curious blend of historical fiction and true fairy-elements. And it has to be mentioned, all of this is delivered by Allison & Busby in a stunning package. It's a beautifully put together book, with gorgeous cover art, black flyleaves, a black ribbon and yellow ends in the spine.
Like the plait in which Margherita is forced to keep her endless lengths of hair, the story consists of three strands that intertwine to form a stronger, more elegant whole. The base strand, the one we start with and the one that the others twine about is that of the story of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, a French noblewoman banished from the court to a convent by King Louis XIV. Not a natural beauty like the many mistresses the king goes through at court and like her mistress, the Marquise de Montespan, Louis' Maîtresse-en-Titre, the official royal mistress, she had to gain her position at court by other means. Instead of her looks, she uses her wits to get ahead, becoming a celebrated member of the Parisian salons and a well-known author of novels about historical figures. However, Charlotte-Rose was part of a court where one could be licentious and scandalous, but never be seen as such, so once she has too much scandal attached to her name, the king exiles her to the convent of Gercy-en-Brie, where she encounters Sœur Seraphina, a nun who tells her the tale we've come to know and love as Rapunzel. I really enjoyed Charlotte-Rose's tale, as she is a wonderfully complex character, headstrong and independent, but aware of the dangers of her life and always looking for love and acceptance in the wrong arms. Her three ill-fated love affairs show how much the women of her age were dependent on making a good match so they could at least appear respectable and how easily these arrangements could be broken off if one of the respective parties' families didn't approve. I loved her wonderfully acerbic observations about the members of the court, but at the same time she shows she has a good heart when she helps the Duchesse de Fontanges even if it might be against her best interests. Charlotte-Rose also shows us the tawdriness beneath the glitter and glamour of the Sun King's court, letting the reader see behind the curtain of the stunning palace of Versailles. Having visited there several times, it's hard to imagine that those pristine and grand halls were in fact as crowded as they are described in the book. Then again, it's easy to imagine how cold and drafty it could be as well!
The second strand is the story of Margherita, or Petrosinella as La Strega calls her, who is taken by the witch Selena Leonelli in exchange for her father's hands when La Strega catches him stealing greens from her walled garden. She is the Rapunzel as we know her, the one in the tower, with the long, long hair and the prince and the singing. But before Margherita gets to that tower, we see her getting torn away from her family and being raised until maidenhood in one of the foundling hospitals of Venice, where she becomes one of their most gifted choir singers. I found this look at Venetian semi-monastic life fascinating, as it shows how much being shut away in a convent, willing or not, was part of a woman's life, whether maiden, mother, or crone. We see it happen to Margherita, to Charlotte-Rose, and even earlier in the story to Charlotte-Rose's mother. Several of the king's discarded mistresses ended up in convents after they fell out of favour and it was a common practice to ship off younger or unmarriageable daughters to a convent, to both lose a mouth to feed and to create some goodwill with the church. It is only when Margherita is taken from the Pietà and locked away in a mysterious tower that the book takes a turn for the fantastical, as it turns out that the courtesan known as La Strega Bella, the beautiful witch, truly is a sorceress. Though even once locked in the tower, much of what happens can be explained away by simple ignorance on Margherita's part and some form of mental imbalance on the part of Selena. I found the sections dealing with Margherita's attempts at discovering a way out of the tower and the discoveries she makes, about the tower, about herself and about La Strega, fascinating. Margherita's innocence stretches so far that once she's discovered by the prince and falls in love with, after which the inevitable happens, she doesn't even realise that she's fallen with child. The resolution of her story is similar to the one found in the traditional Grimm version, which is in turn based on Charlotte-Rose's Persinette. It is indeed a truly happily ever after for our Margherita, but it's a happily ever after of her own making.
Our third strand in the plait is the story of the book's villain, La Bella Strega, Selena Leonelli. We learn her tragic story; her awful youth on the canals of Venice after her beautiful courtesan mother is brutally raped and abused by her main patron and his servants. She is forced to care for her mother, who has lost the will to live and soon the young Selena is left all alone. She is taken in by their landlady, an old crone called Sibillia, who is a witch and who offers to teach her the arts. Driven by revenge Selena learns all she can, secretly studying the black arts, and afterwards becoming one of the most successful courtesans of Venice. She then meets Tiziano, a young artist better known to us as Titian, and becomes his lover and muse. Seeing her youthful beauty exquisitely reflected in his paintings, she can't bear the thought of becoming old and this is what sets her on the path to Margherita and the tower. While Selena is obviously disturbed and dangerous, at the same time, I couldn't help but feel sorry for her. Knowing what she has seen and endured, her choices, while bad, are understandable. Her pathology, apart from wanting to bathe in virginal blood to stay young, also seems rather bound up in sexual and maternal themes. She keeps Margherita on the border of malnourishment, so as to keep her from going into puberty, and she isolates her so she'll certainly remain a virgin. Another element is Selena's need for Margherita to love her and treat her like a mother, which once the girl becomes too old to actually be her child – both physically and hormonally – without her having to be a crone effectively ends her usefulness to Selena.
This is a book of threes: three points of view; maiden, mother, crone; virgin, prostitute, saint; three significant relationships for Charlotte-Rose; and a mantra of three truths that ground Margherita in her sanity; three strands that make a stronger whole, a plait that connects Selena from the early 1500's to Charlotte-Rose in the late 1600's. Beyond a book with strong stories and themes, Bitter Greens is also a compelling read. I loved losing myself in its pages and Forsyth's wonderful writing. The book is one of the most powerful fairy-tale retellings I've read and I can't wait to read more books by Forsyth. Whether you're a fan of historical fiction, fantasy or fairy-tale retellings, this book delivers for fans of all three. I can't recommend it highly enough.
The Goddess's Choice is a retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale The Princess on the Glass Hilland while I hadn't heard of the story before, I do love...moreThe Goddess's Choice is a retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale The Princess on the Glass Hill and while I hadn't heard of the story before, I do love fairy-tale retellings, so it was interesting to see how Jamie Marchant incorporated the fairy-tale elements in The Goddess's Choice. She succeeds quite well and apart from some problems with the writing and some quibbles with characterization, the book is a largely successful narrative, which managed to charm and entertain me for most of its pages.
For most of the book, this would have made a great YA read; it's only the last few chapters where there are some explicit sexual scenes that make it more suited for an (new) adult audience. I thought that was rather a shame as the story deals largely with themes that define YA: finding one's identity, fighting for your right to make your own decisions, that being Other doesn't equate being evil etc. experienced by protagonists that are teens themselves at age sixteen. While I personally wouldn't mind an older teen, i.e. 17+, reading it – they see far more smutty and less heart-felt things on TV these days – I realise many parents wouldn't approve of their child reading such scenes, so I hesitate to qualify it as a YA book.
There were several elements in the writing that bothered me throughout the book. To start with in at least the earliest chapters of the book there is a lot of repetition of the statement that Robbie is considered a demon due to his looks, he's Mediterranean-looking as opposed to the rest of the villagers' Scandinavian looks. It's made clear that not only do the villagers and his family think so, Robbie half believes it himself. Unfortunately, this is repeated so often in those early pages that I quickly tired of hearing about it and it lost its impact. Of course, the reasons why blond/blue-eyed people have to be the norm, and brunette/brown-eyed people different is a whole different discussion, but in the context of this being a retelling of a Norwegian tale, it might just be defaulting to Scandinavian characteristics. A different version of an annoying repetition was some people's speech patterns. For example, Samantha's secretary Blaine keeps appending 'so to speak' after his sentences which, while life-like as we all know people use filler words like that, becomes really annoying. And lastly, there were the naming conventions. While most of our characters have regular, if not all common, names – such as Samantha, Robbie, Blaine, Gildas, Leigh, and Fergal – the naming conventions for the foreigners encountered in the book are awful. They seem to utilise all the how-not-to-make-up-names-rules, except for using apostrophes. For example, we encounter a trader named Slthethkkne who has a sister named Sphrnztegviza. Both of them have shortened use names, Slathek and Sphry, which are a little better, but the first time I encountered these names my eyes almost popped out of my head trying to make sense of them.
Fortunately in comparison, our protagonists have rather mundane names: Robbie and Samantha. I found both of them likeable and well-developed; though in my opinion Samantha was the stronger of the two as Robbie had some leaps in his development which happened off-screen. This is inevitable, as Robbie has the longer journey to make, but at times the leaps he made didn't feel proportionate. Robbie goes from doubting himself and his nature to being confident and self-assured enough to win his princess. I did love his story arc and his romance with Samantha, which was suitably fairy-tale like. Samantha on the other hand starts off as a strong-willed girl, who knows what she wants; she just has to fight to be allowed to make her own choices. In addition, she has to find out her true nature and the consequences of her powers. They are aided by an interesting set of characters, the old herb woman Myst, the afore-mentioned secretary Blaine, the stable master Darhour, and Samantha's personal guards. With the exception of the guards, who while all distinct characters aren't developed in-depth, all these characters have a well-rounded backstory. We might not learn all of it, but they all feel well-rounded.
In addition to the humans, there are several other beings that aid Robbie in particular and which made my inner horse girl squee: talking horses. Other people might not be so enthused by the idea of talking horses, but for me they are still a weak spot and I loved their inclusion here. There are actually two kinds of magical horses in the story. There are the Horsetads, which are magical and wild cousins to our regular horses, rumoured to be descended from the Goddess's own horse and there are the three truly magic horses which show up in Robbie's father's fields. All of them can talk; though it's not quite clear whether they can actually communicate with all humans or whether they can only talk to Robbie due to his gift. In any case, I loved them and thought they were a great mix of the original fairy tale elements and that which were unique to Marchant's world.
Overall, I found The Goddess's Choice to be an interesting retelling of The Princess on The Glass Hill, which succeeded in Marchant's stated goal to give the princess some agency of her own and not just be a bargaining chip in a political game. Marchant weaves the elements into a more complex tale and one that is both exciting and enjoyable. While ostensibly only the first of several books set in Korthlundia, the book stands completely on its own as a finished tale. This is a story that will appeal both to fairy tale aficionados and people who enjoy retellings of older tales.
There will be mentions of elements of the story that might be considered spoilers for those unfamiliar with the Koschei mythos, so if you do not want to be spoiled please either skip ahead to the last paragraph of this review or click away!
The story is a wonderful retelling of The Death of Koschei the Deathless set in Russia in the first half of the twentieth century. It is a gorgeous mix of myth and history, mixing in several other Russian folk tales and all the political upheaval and cultural change Russia was embroiled in during the first fifty years of the twentieth century. I loved the metaphor of the colours of the birds and the uniforms they change into when they come for Marya's sisters, each mirroring the next step in Russia's revolution, it is an elegant way of alluding to the rapid political changes without giving a history lecture, but for those familiar with it, it's perfectly clear what is happening. Valente retains many traditional fairytale elements – the repetition of certain phrases and actions, things coming in threes, and the quest as a proof of worthiness – but at the same time subverts them by having Marya being the one with agency; she is making the choices, she chooses to go with Ivan, she chooses to go with Koschei, she chooses to accept Baba Yaga's challenges. She chooses to overpower Koschei in the same way he dominated her and reclaim her will. She goes from being a girl waiting for the magic to come for her to a woman creating her own magic.
The characters are wonderful, both those located in Buyan and later in Leningrad. Valente fills her world with many creatures springing from Russian folklore: leshy, vintovniks, domovoi, vila, russalki, magical horses, Baba Yaga and numerous other types of unnamed chyerti. There is a clear break in characters though, there are those of Marya's innocence if you will, Zemlehyed, Naganya, and Lebedeva, who are her friends and who help her prove herself worthy of Koschei, and there are those who come after, Kseniya, Sofiya, and Zvonek. I especially loved Kseniya and Sofiya, as I recognised them from a short story Valente originally published in Clarkesworld, and which I heard on PodCastle, called Urchins, while Swimming. And before and after there are Koschei and Ivan, dark and light, Marya's day husband and her night husband. They're as different as can be, but at the same time frighteningly similar. Marya loves both of them for different reasons and they are both crucial to her development. And always, always there's Marya. She's the heart of the tale and the star. I absolutely loved her. Her development is fantastic and while she isn't always very likeable, she's never boring.
As I've come to expect from Valente, Deathless is written in gorgeous prose. From the fairytale repetitions, to the stately cadence of the sentences, to the wistfulness of its ending, the writing is pitch-perfect. There is so much layering to the narrative, that you could reread this book several times and find new meaning in it every time. There are themes of love, of power, of politics, all boiling down to who rules? Who rules in life, in death, in love, and in power. In Deathless Marya explores both sides of the equation and discovers those you rule, rule you in turn. The only problem for me was the ending, which escaped me. Even after reading it several times, I'm still not sure whether my interpretation of its meaning is the one Valente meant me to make. Then again, that might have been just her intention.
Deathless is a book made for reading aloud, for reading to someone. It is a book made for rereading and finding more to love each time. Valente is a fantastic storyteller who never fails to captivate the imagination and to capture the heart. Deathless has cemented her as a must-read author for me and the book is a shoe-in for my top favourite reads this year. If you've never read any work by Catherynne M. Valente, do yourself a favour and run and get this book. If you have read Valente's work you'll hardly need convincing by me to go and read this gorgeous story.
Beastly is another Liz recommendation. She put it on top of my pile of books in Foyles and said "You need to read this," so I took her at her word. It...moreBeastly is another Liz recommendation. She put it on top of my pile of books in Foyles and said "You need to read this," so I took her at her word. It's a fairytale retelling of Beauty and the Beast, which coincidentally is one of my favourite Disney films! So I was excited to see how Ms Flinn gave shape to her version.
Kyle is a horror, though it's made pretty clear he is like that because he was raised to be. The view we get of Kyle's home life is not a pretty one. He lives with his dad – a self-absorbed news anchor, who is obsessed with appearances – and Magda, their housekeeper. His mum walked out when he was eleven and doesn't really seem to keep in touch. So it is just the three of them and the only way Kyle can get any attention from his dad is by succeeding at rather shallow things; his father is far more pleased when Kyle is the most popular boy in school than when he gets good grades. So it's really not surprising he behaves the way he does.
Beastly is far more about the Beast than anything else. It has really small main cast; for all intents and purposes, it's just Kyle, Will, Magda and the girl who'll be his Beauty for most of the book. Though his dad and his "girlfriend" Sloan make some pretty impressive appearances as well. Impressive in how awful they are. Sloan reminded me of Glee's Quinn before she got nice. She's completely mercenary and all about the reputation and popularity, not love. That would be my one complaint though, that both of these villainous characters are rather static—they start out being awful people and they remain awful people, they're pretty one dimensional in their characterisation, they don't even become more awful toward the end of the book.
The book covers two years quickly, which makes Kyle's transformation plausible. It makes it easy for the reader to believe that Kyle has truly become a better person through thought, personal growth and character development, even if this is initiated by the curse laid on him, instead of being magicked into a delightful and loving boy. It also gives the author the room to slowly develop the relationship between Kyle and his Beauty without having to resort to the so-oft bemoaned insta-love, that is a stock-in-trade for many YA novels. I loved how Kyle worked at wooing his girl and her slow and hesitant response. It made me root for him, in a way I think I wouldn't have if it had been insta-love on both their parts.
Interspersed between chapters of Beastly were chat transcripts for chats held in a support group for people that have been magically transformed. I totally loved the chat transcripts, they were very funny and established magic as omni-present – though hidden – in the world of the novel. I'd love to read the stories of the other characters!
Beastly is a lovely little book and a fast read, I read it over the course of a day or so. Alex Flinn is another discovery, an author whose previous books I'll search out at some point and whose new works I'll keep an eye out for. If you're a fan of fairy tales and their retellings or enjoy a good YA romance, Beastly is a book you should be sure to check out.(less)
In 2004 Mercedes Lackey started a new series called the Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms. It's a series of books set in a universe ruled by the Trad...moreIn 2004 Mercedes Lackey started a new series called the Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms. It's a series of books set in a universe ruled by the Tradition, the force that drives fairy tales. Unlike her Elemental Masters series, which are rather more straight up fairy tale retellings, the stories set in the Five Hundred Kingdoms are very tongue in cheek. Lackey obviously has a lot of fun creating them and shows that humorous writing is a skill she definitely possesses. Where the earlier books mostly concentrated on one particular trope or fairy tale, The Sleeping Beauty, despite the title, is a fun mash-up of several fairy tales. It was quite funny and drew several out-loud chuckles while reading.
As these books are published by LUNA books, a Harlequin imprint, obviously romance plays a large part in them. In The Sleeping Beauty, we have not one, but two serious contenders for Rosa's hand, though it's never in doubt with whom Rosamund will end up at the end of the tale—or rather I never doubted, who she'd end up with. Despite it being partly a romance, don't expect any heaving bosoms, fluttering eyelids or other such staples, as this isn't that kind of romance. Rosa is by no means your normal wishy-washy princess. She's quite the feminist; she doesn't need a prince to do her dirty work, thank you very much. This becomes pretty clear once she gets kidnapped by the dwarves and she pulls herself together and decides to make her escape, even if she isn't quite sure how. And it's re-enforced when she's taken by the bad guys and nearly manages to escape on her own. As such, she a strong female character, which I really liked. She's backed up by another strong female: her country's Fairy Godmother. I really liked Godmother Lily, who takes a far more pro-active role than we're used to in traditional fairy tales, actively interfering in how the Tradition plays out and at times giving it a great, good shove in the direction she wants it to go.
However strong the females in this story, the boys hold their own. Yes, some of the princes and adventures that show up for the tournament to win Rosamund's hand are rather two dimensional and very, very much archetypal fairy tale heroes, but that's the point. They're being made fun off. Our heroes on the other hand, Siegfried and Leopold, can hold their own against the ladies. I liked the juxtaposition between the two. Siegfried, at first glance, seems to be your typical sword-flinging Northland barbarian, but there is an unexpected depth to him and he is fleeing his own Destiny as the Tradition would have it, which leads to some hilarious scenes. Leopold, however, is the standard younger son of a small kingdom, witty and urbane, seemingly only looking to marry into power and wealth, but looks can be deceiving. I loved the final resolution of their tale, not just who ends up with Rosa, but also how the other finds love.
The Sleeping Beauty is another fun Lackey tale, but completely different from her Valdemar novels and her other fantasy work. However, it remains recognisably Lackey. The tale isn't very deep or dark, but it's a perfect read when you need cheering up or just need to lose yourself in a fun, light story. I had fun with it and I'll certainly be back for the next instalment, which is already out, called Beauty and the Werewolf. If you're ever in need of a quick and comfy read, one of the Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms, and The Sleeping Beauty especially, will certainly fit that bill.(less)
For as long as I can remember when asked what my favourite fairytale was, I'd answer with Cinderella. The magic, the 'against the odds'-ness, the roma...moreFor as long as I can remember when asked what my favourite fairytale was, I'd answer with Cinderella. The magic, the 'against the odds'-ness, the romance and the way the stepsisters get their just desserts in the end, I was enchanted by all of it. All of these elements and more were present in Malinda Lo's Ash, a beautiful retelling of Cinderella. I love (retold) fairy tales and Ash is one of the better ones I've read recently. In this version of Cinderella's story, there is no pumpkin, no singing animals and no bippity-boppity-boo. This is not the Disneyfied version of Perrault's tale, but far closer to the much scarier and more sinister version as recorded by the Brothers Grimm. Which makes it all the better in my opinion; a good fairytale should be a little scary, otherwise happily ever after is far less cathartic than it should be and the morality of the tale would be lost.
The way the fairy were worked in was cool; these are the true Sidhe, beautiful, dangerous and treacherous creatures better avoided than sought out. Sidhean is both sinister and comforting in his care for Ash. To me he remained a cypher to the end, mostly because I couldn't decide whether to trust him or not. Ms Lo shows the more vicious side of his nature in flashes, but these flashes give the impression that violence simmers very shallowly underneath the surface of his outwardly cool facade. At the same time, he genuinely seems to care for Ash and is quite protective of her. Wary though I was of the character, I did like him and found him sympathetic.
Less sympathetic, or rather altogether repugnant, are Ash's stepmother and eldest stepsister. It was hard to find redeeming qualities about them, which made them seem rather flat, the stepmother more so than the sister; they had to make Ash's life awful and that is what they did. Ash's youngest stepsister, Clara, at least is somewhat redeemed in the later part of the book, when she starts showing some spirit and shows Ash some kindness. I liked this, as it showed that she is as much a victim as Ash is, albeit in a far different manner.
The true stars of the novel are Ash and Kaisa though, beyond the shadow of a doubt. Ash is a strong character, who retains her spirit, despite of her grief for her parents and the way her stepmother treats her. I love how she almost dares the Fairy to take her, Sidhean calls her reckless because of it, but to me it seemed like that was the only way she could feel alive on her own terms. Kaisa, the King's Huntress, is independent and shows that women can be powerful in their own right. The romantic triangle with Kaisa and Sidhean is interesting, Ash seems torn between to equally powerful personalities. The symbolism of the fact that Ash mostly sees Sidhean at night when it's dark and Kaisa mostly during the day, when it's light, resonated with the fact that the choice between Kaisa and Sidhean is basically a choice between life and death. While I felt sorry for Sidhean, I was rooting for Ash and Kaisa all the way. I loved their slow romance, the way it took until late in the book for Ash to realise that what she feels is love and her conviction that not only is this what she wants, it has given her a way to make it happen.
All the reviews I've read, have talked about the fact that Ash deals with a lesbian romance. So I went in with the expectation that this would be a far larger theme in the novel than it actually was. Instead it just is, Ash falls in love with Kaisa and Kaisa falls in love with Ash. And I loved that. I loved that in this world that could just be, without whispers, problems and anxieties beyond does she love me too? It saddens me though, to think that in reality that is the fairytale. Hopefully one day it won't be.
Ash is a wonderful tale, as enchanting as Perrault and as thrilling as Grimm. Huntress, a prequel to Ash is out next month and I can't wait to find out whether that is as lovely as its predecessor.(less)