Ash by Malinda Lo

“‘Have you ever wanted to be a princess?’ Ash challenged her.

‘That depends,’ Kaisa said.

‘On what?’

‘On whether I would have to marry a prince.'” (pg. 199)

I love fairytale re-tellings, but I find that many of them fall into two camps that make them less rewarding to read: either the author is so faithful to the original story that there is very little mystery and the reader has little new to discover, or the re-telling is so widely divergent from the original story that the reader loses the added depth of meaning that the base of a traditional story can bring to a novel.  Ash is one of the re-tellings I’ve read that manages to walk the fine line between those two extremes, finding ways to make the story fresh and new while expanding and building on the original fairytale’s themes.

Ash was brought up on her mother’s tales of fairies – menacing stories that have horrible consequences for the mortals who get involved in the fairy world.  But her father and her new stepmother have no faith in the old stories, so Ash keeps her worries to herself even as she is slowly getting pulled into a strange sort of friendship with a fairy who seems to be protecting her.  Even though Ash is constantly aware of the fact that the stories never end well for mortals, and that every thing she gains from her fairy protector will make her consequences deeper, she almost seems to court the danger of the fairy stories.  And of course her father dies, and of course she is pressed into service in her stepmother’s house.  But then some thing unexpected happens – over and over again Ash finds herself in the company of Kaisa, the King’s Huntress.  And soon she finds herself seeking out Kaisa’s company.

Malindo Lo creates a lovely and atmospheric world, where the woods are deep and full of magic and the important things are often expressed through fairy stories.  The writing is lyrical and has the feel of a traditional fairy tale, but I did find the pacing a bit off – slow in the first half of the book, and then rushed in the second half.  I found myself wishing that the ending, especially the climactic scene between Ash and the fairy Sidhean, had been fleshed out further and given more time to develop.  This was definitely one of those books where you take a look at how many pages are left and wonder how the story can possibly be resolved before you run out of book.  And while it was resolved, it did leave me wanting a little bit more.

The love between Kaisa and Ash is refreshingly not one in which the characters are swept off their feet.  It grows slowly and naturally, starting with curiosity and awkward conversations and moving into a wonderful slow-burning tension between the two characters.  Also refreshing was the lack of any agonized questioning of Ash’s sexuality – while she sometimes seems surprised to be falling in love with a woman, the different genders of her potential lovers do not seem to play in her decision.  All in all, this was a book that I really enjoyed.  I will be looking forward to more from Malinda Lo.

Malindo Lo on the web.


A Curse Dark As Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce

A Curse Dark As GoldThis is not a simple re-telling.  Rumplestiltskin serves as the barest bones for the tale Elizabeth C. Bunce builds in A Curse Dark As Gold.  She picks at the nagging questions and inconsistencies that are at the heart of the disturbing fairytale – what could possess any person to give up their own child?  why does Rumplestiltskin want the baby?  what is so important about a name? – and finds answers.  She fills in the gaps, and with what she finds in between those gaps she crafts a fully realized story.

On the death of Charlotte Miller’s father, she suddenly becomes responsible for the Stirwaters Mill.  And since the Mill is the livelihood of almost every person who lives in the town of Stirwaters, being responsible for the Mill means being responsible for a lot of people.  Charlotte is a very young woman, but she is resourceful, persistent, and above all, stubborn.  When her sister asks whether the Mill will be closed, Charlotte’s reply is only “‘Is it Sunday?’  I asked, and when she shook her head, I gave my answer: ‘Then we do not close'” (page 6).  She is single-mindedly determined to save the Mill, and the town.  Charlotte is also decidedly lacking in superstition, unlike most of the townspeople in Stirwaters, who whisper about a curse on the Mill.  No male heir has ever lived to inherit Stirwaters, and the Mill seems to have its own mood and desires.  Charlotte’s resistance to acknowledging the Miller curse slowly crumbles in the face of insurmountable evidence as she realizes that she must confront the curse before it destroys her family and her home.

The magic in this story creeps in gradually.  It is tied closely to local tradition and superstition – the corn dollies that are found in every house, the herb bundles delivered by the midwife – but the curse itself is built on the tragic history of the Mill.  I wish I could talk about the curse’s history without giving away the story, but suffice to say that this is a world where actions have true consequences, both in everyday life and in the story’s magic.  Bunce tells the story behind even the most reprehensible characters and their actions.

I did have one major complaint about the book: if the most unbelievable thing in a fantasy novel is the love interest, you may have a problem.  Don’t get me wrong – I loved Randall. He’s sweet!  He’s rich!  He’s supportive of nontraditional gender roles (you know – for the 1700s)!  He wanders into Charlotte’s life at the perfect time!  He’s completely incapable of doing anything wrong!  Yup – didn’t believe him for a second.  I did, however, appreciate that their marriage is far from perfect as it strains under the weight of the many secrets Charlotte keeps from Randall.  It is shown as something you have to work at – even when married to someone as ridiculously accommodating as Randall.

The book’s greatest strength is its setting.  Bunce has clearly done her homework – the details of life and work at the mill are precise, and they provide a wonderful sense of time and place.  I came away from the story with a more clear picture of Stirwaters than of most of the characters.  And that is fitting – the Mill is as important as any character in the book, and it has its own personality and presence.  Sometimes that presence is protecting, and sometimes it is malignant, but it always hangs heavily over Charlotte and her actions.  Even after finishing the book, it is difficult not to feel concern for Stirwaters and its residents.  Early on, Bunce gives a glimpse of the developing industrial revolution when Charlotte visits a steam-powered mill, and it is grim.  This is what lingers over the people of Stirwaters, curse or no curse.  It is a tribute to Bunce’s storytelling that I genuinely care whether the town can survive and thrive in the new world that is being created.

Elizabeth C. Bunce on the web. (Check out her excellent booklists!)

A Curse Dark As Gold on the web.

The Star of Kazan, by Eva Ibbotson

starofkazanA good old fashioned fairy-tale featuring a kind-hearted orphan girl, the pair of gentle Swiss cooks who find and raise her, a trio of nutty professors, and a returning mother who may not be what she seems. Annika spends her days exploring Vienna with her friends, learning to cook exquisite dishes, and dreaming of her long-lost mother. Since she was abandoned in the Alps as a baby, Annika has imagined every possible scenario for her mother’s return. When it finally happens, she is overjoyed to find that her mother is a beautiful and rich landowner who has been desperately searching for her lost child. The only disappointment is that she must leave her dear friends, adopted family, and beloved city to join her mother in an unfamiliar, far-off home. When they arrive, some things about the new home strike Annika as very strange, but her devotion to her new mother make her ignore any misgivings. The reader will share the sense of unease, and will cheer for Annika and the mysteriously stable-boy as they uncover the mystery of what Annika’s mother is really after.

The good people of this story are dedicated and hard-working, and Annika is no exception. She is unable to understand her family’s desire to avoid hard work at all costs, and she shines when she has a difficult task to accomplish. Even when the action is taking place in her mother’s decrepit manor house in the north, Annika’s love for Vienna is central to the story, and the city is lovingly recreated in period detail and contrasted with the stark landscape of Annika’s new home. However, the story really picks up once Annika has uncovered the plot that’s at work and begins plotting her escape. While she unwinds the threads of her mother’s plan, Annika fights her way back to her home and her real family.