Sarah Pinborough – Poison

I completely slid into this book without meaning to. I was browsing my shelves and picked this up because – honestly, look at that cover! Okay, I thought, I’ll just read the first page. Yeah right… It amuses me how reading challenges work on your mind, sometimes. All year, I’ve been looking for new women SFF writers to read. I’ve finished that Worlds Without End challenge a while ago (even read more than the challenge “required”) but my book buying has changed during this year and going for a book written by a female author I’d never read before has become a habit.

by Sarah Pinborough

Published by: Gollancz, 2013
Hardcover: 202 pages
Series: Tales from the Kingdoms #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: “She’s too old for that nickname,” the queen said.

A beautiful, sexy, contemporary retelling of the classic Snow White fairy tale, illustrated by Les Edwards.
Poison is a beautifully illustrated retelling of the Snow White story which takes all the elements of the classic fairy tale that we love (the handsome prince, the jealous queen, the beautiful girl and, of course, the poisoning) and puts a modern spin on the characters, their motives and their desires. It’s fun, contemporary, sexy, and perfect for fans of Once Upon a Time, Grimm, Snow White and the Huntsman and more.

I don’t know what it is about Snow White that’s always bothered me. It has never been my favorite fairytale (The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen… now those I can get behind), maybe because I never really understood the evil queen. Not being the most beautiful creature in the kingdom seems a petty reason for such drastic measures. Then again, the quest for beauty is a very real thing in all our lives. We are taught from childhood that being beautiful is important, it makes life easier for you, people will like you more when you’re conventionally pretty. Maybe that’s what has always made me so uncomfortable when reading this particular fairy tale.

This is the first book by Sarah Pinborough I’ve read. It won’t be the last. Her version of Snow White sticks pretty closely to the Grimm Brothers’ tale, but she does give the evil queen some redeeming qualities. More importantly, she gives the naturally flat characters of the fairy tale personality. Snow White is gorgeous, of course, but she’s also free spirited, likes to drink and dance and play tricks on people. She’s like the girl next door, hanging out with the guys (dwarves, in this case), and just happens to be stunningly beautiful.

The queen is in many ways her opposite, and in others, just a lost soul. Her marriage is one of convenience, of duty. Where Snow White is earthy, dark-haired, and full-figured, Lilith the queen is icy blonde, ethereal and waifish. At first, she is jealous of Snow White not just because she is more beautiful (after all, Lilith may just be a lot of people’s type) but because she is  beloved by everyone she meets. Her easygoing nature, her open mind, the happiness that oozes out of her every fiber, that’s what makes Snow White so irrisistible. The queen wants some of that. And if she can’t have it, she’ll take being feared by her people over being loved.

Men would do a lot for beauty, that’s what Lilith learned in that time. Beauty had a magic all of its own.

This version of the fairy tale deviates in only a few, but key elements. The Huntsman gets a little bit of back story and a personality that made me value him immensely as a character. He is no mere pawn in the queen’s game, he has an agenda of his own, he has rules he lives by, and he is also a man with urges like anyone else. You see what I’m getting at. This is sold as a fairy tale for adults (even though fairy tales have never been only for children) because it contains some sexy time.

I was positively surprised by the depiction of the prince. Being in a coma and marrying the first pretty guy that comes your way has always seemed ridiculous. Sarah Pinborough shows us just how insane it is. The prince, an arrogant boy, really, who only wants beautiful and precious things to own, who wants to be master over his wife, is shocked when he finds out that she has a mind of her own. I loathed him from the get go.

He was married. He would unite the kingdoms. His father would have steel in the land and keep his enemies at bay, and he and Snow White would live happily ever after and produce fit and healthy heirs. Not too soon, he hoped. He’d seen how quickly women’s bodies changed after childbirth and he wanted to enjoy his wife’s for as long as possible before they settled into domesticity and he went back to relieving himself with a mistress.

But what really made this book stand out as a fairy tale retelling was the language. This is a very short book at barely 200 pages, and in order to achieve some impact with it, every sentence has to be in place, has to elicit some emotional reaction. They did. Whether it’s descriptions of Snow White, Lilith’s desperate thoughts, even the sex scenes, they created an atmosphere that immerses you in the story and makes you forget the world around you.

This is the first book in a series (three volumes are out so far) and it is obvious that the author intended to connect them somehow. The Huntsman, for example, owns a pair of diamond slippers (we never get to hear their story), the prince has just come back from an adventure that left him with a scar but we never learn what happened exactly. The queen’s great-grandmother lives in a house made of candy… ring a bell? Or three? I loved the hints at other fairy tales and I can’t wait to discover whether the next volume, Charm, continues in this vein.

A few words need to be said about the ending. You will not find the type of happily ever after you’ve come to know from fairy tales. This is a dark story, one where bad things happen to good people, where things are left unresolved. As a standalone, it was brilliant, but as I’m writing this, I catch myself hoping to find out what happened next to Snow White, the Huntsman, the dwarves and the prince in the next instalment. Even if I don’t, Sarah Pinborough has a new fan.


One thought on “Sarah Pinborough – Poison

  1. Another book-girl says:

    Hi. You don’t know me at all, I’m not even from Australia. But I just wanted to say that your blog is so awesome. I just found it, and it’s like some hidden treasure or something!


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