You’re probably getting sick of this. But here is another book that deserves all kinds of superlatives and that I can’t shut up about. To my attentive readers, this will come as no surprise at all. Cat Valente has been rocking my reading world since last year but 2013 is particularly Valente-heavy. I just can’t keep my hands (and eyes) off her books. And the amazing, surprising, even unbelievable thing is that every single one of them is brilliant. If I haven’t said it before, I’ll say it here: Catherynne M. Valene is easily my favorite writer.
Published by: Subterranean, 2013
Hardcover: 165 pages
My rating: 8,5/10
First sentence: I accept with equanimity that you will not credit me when I tell you Mr. H married a Crow woman and had a baby with her round about the time he struck his fortune in the good blue, which is how folk used to designate Nevada silver.
From New York Times bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente comes a brilliant reinvention of one the best known fairy tales of all time. In the novella Six-Gun Snow White, Valente transports the title’s heroine to a masterfully evoked Old West where Coyote is just as likely to be found as the seven dwarves.
A plain-spoken, appealing narrator relates the history of her parents—a Nevada silver baron who forced the Crow people to give up one of their most beautiful daughters, Gun That Sings, in marriage to him. With her mother’s death in childbirth, so begins a heroine’s tale equal parts heartbreak and strength. This girl has been born into a world with no place for a half-native, half-white child. After being hidden for years, a very wicked stepmother finally gifts her with the name Snow White, referring to the pale skin she will never have. Filled with fascinating glimpses through the fabled looking glass and a close-up look at hard living in the gritty gun-slinging West, readers will be enchanted by this story at once familiar and entirely new.
I’ll be honest, this time around the style took a little getting used to. This is, however, entirely my own fault. I am still right in the middle of The Orphan’s Tales and my head (and heart) has a lot of trouble letting go of that world. But when this hardback beauty arrived in the mail, there was no way I wasn’t going to devour it, and soon. Especially because I thought, when I bought it, I was just getting the “regular” hardback, not numbered or signed or special in any way (other than being a Cat Valente book and, therefore, inherently special). I was all the more surprised when I opened it and saw this:
Yup. That is mine. All mine. Even my boyfriend squeed with me (because guess who gets to hear even more gushing Valente fangirl rants from me than you guys?). A bit of research showed me that there were only signed copies of this and I, without knowing it, snatched one.
Like I have mentioned before, fairytales were my very first contact with stories, tales that I knew so well I would correct my grandparents when they told me one. Retellings of fairytales are incredibly popular these days which does not mean that they are any good. Most YA retellings (Margo Lanagan totally excluded) simpy set the fairy tale in an different place or make it modern. Valente is cleverer than that. While transporting the story of Snow White into the west, making her father a miner and her mother a Crow woman, already adds an element of interest to the well-known story. Snow White’s childhood is not a happy one and she is reminded constantly – by her name if not anyone else – what she can never be. Beautiful and loved and white. The stepmother lives up to everything you’d expect from Snow White’s evil stepmother and that fact that she wraps her cruelties in a cloak of “love” makes it even worse.
She put jasper and pearl combs in my hair and yanked them so tight I cried – there, now you’re a lady, she said, and I did not know if the comb or the tears did it. She put me in her own corsets like nooses strangling my waist til I was sick, my breath gone and my stomach shoved up into my ribs – there, now you’re civilized, she said, and I did not know if it was the corset or the sickness that did it. She forbade me to eat sweets or any good thing til I got thin as a dog and could hardly stand I was so damn hungry – there, now you’re beautiful, she said and I did not know if it was my dog-bones showing or my crawling in front of her begging for a miserable apple to stop my belly screaming that made me fair.
For myself I thought: this is how you make a human being. A human being is beautiful and sick. A human being glitters and starves.
There are heartbreaking moments of cruelty in this novella, but then there are amazing moments of strength. I couldn’t quite figure out Snow White until the end, I could never be sure how she would decide in a given moment, but I had endless amounts of empathy for the little girl just trying to be loved by her new mother, for the lost woman trying to find a place where she can belong, but never quite fitting in anywhere.
Elements of the original fairytale were incorporated in a clever way. Apples are involved, the stepmother does visit three times, but Snow White is anything but stupid. Her character was nuanced, which made her quite different from the Snow White we may all know (from fairytales or the Disney version) but it also made her a believable person. There is a hunt but it involves guns rather than bow and arrow, and my favorite part was the shape the seven dwarves took in this alternate version. They brought me enormous amounts of happiness but I can’t tell you why without spoiling the fun a little.
This being a novella, there are few characters, but every one of them – even the ones who never get any lines – are three-dimensional. This is something that keeps impressing me. Cat Valente creates atmosphere and an entire personality within a short paragraph. Her style, while experimental and a little different in every book, has a fairytale-esque quality to it that never ceases to engross me. Even if the plot were shit, I could open any of her books and just fall into whatever paragraph my eyes would land on. That’s how beautifully she writes.
My only complaint about this book is that it could have been longer. Especially parts that happened toward the end, Red Deer becoming a character, Snow White sort of bonding with animals, were so powerful that I could have read on and on and on. They were cut short by the ending and I was a little sad about that. The ending as such worked for me, but then so would a completely different one. I consider it a good thing that Valente’s books aren’t about how it all ends, they are about everything that happens from beginning to end, they don’t rely on a big reveal at the end or even a huge climax. They just are. Whenever I read one of her books, I have that feeling of I don’t want this to end.
THE GOOD: Valente paints pictures of wonder and magic in your head, uses words in a way I have never seen before, and tells stories of strong women struggling through life.
THE BAD: I wanted more (or longer) scenes toward the end, more of the women’s village, more of Red Deer.
THE VERDICT: If you like fairytale retellings, mythpunk, or lyrical prose, you’ve come to the right place. This also happens to be a beautiful book (speaking of the cover, binding, paper texture).
RATING: 8,5/10 – More than excellent
You can read an excerpt on Tor.