Kerry's Reviews > The Nightingale

The Nightingale by Kara Dalkey
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Aug 02, 10

bookshelves: everything
Read from July 20 to August 02, 2010

Over the course of the last year and a half, I have been reading Terri Windling’s fairy tales series. Each book was written by a different author and retold a different fairy tale, often changing the original tale to form something unique. Some of the books, (like Jane Yolen’s Broar Rose), were brilliant, some were enjoyable and some fell very flat for me. And so, I never know what to expect when I pick up one of these books.

The Nightingale is a retelling of a classic Hans Christian Anderson story. In the original, the Emperor of China discovers a nightingale who sings the sweetest songs he ever heard. At first she is treasured and loved but when the Emperor is given a fantastically jeweled clockwork bird, he rejects the nightingale and drives her from his court. Eventually, he comes to regret this when the mechanical bird breaks and he is left on his deathbed with no one to sing for him. But then the nightingale returns and sings so sweetly she charms death into leaving without the Emperor, saving his life.

In Kara Dalkey’s version, the story takes place in Japan and instead of a literal bird, the “nightingale” in question is a young girl, Uguisu, who plays the flute. Uguisu is being guided by the spirit of one of her ancestors but as she gets closer to the Emperor, she learns that her spirit guise is a malevolent one, bent on vengeance and destruction. Although Uguisu is ordered to submit to the Emperor and is well placed to become Empress if she does, she refuses his advances in order to protect him. Eventually, she is rejected and banished while a foreign courtesan takes her place in the Emperor’s affections. Still the courtesan is not what she seems and Uguisu (and other faithful friends) must risk everything to save their Emperor from death.

I thought the author was very respectful of the original story. There were elements of the book seemed to echo some of Han Christian Anderson’s writing. I was reminded of the Little Mermaid when Uguisu chooses to save her royal lover despite the costs to herself. Also bringing in the malevolent spirit made the Emperor’s illness and possible death more plausible to a modern audience as opposed to in the original story when the Emperor fell ill because he was pining for the Nightingale’s song. I also loved the use of poetry in the book. It really added a lot interest and flavor to the book.

Overall, I would have to say that The Nightingale was definitely one of the better parts of this series and that if you have interest in fairy tale literature, then you might want to check it out.
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