Alethea Kontis – Dearest

Well, this was a mess. I have squeed like a little girl about the Woodcutter Sisters series and, naturally, was looking forward to meeting Friday Woodcuter, reading about her romance. I knew what to expect by now. A very child-friendly, very light love story interwoven with a gazillion fairytales and featuring a wonderful loving family. Except this time, it really didn’t work.

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by Alethea Kontis

Published by: HMH Books for Young Readers, 2015
Hardcover: 288 pages
Series: The Woodcutter Sisters #3
My rating: 3/10

First sentence: Conrad slowed his pace, not because he lacked energy, but because the hard calluses on his feet had cracked and started to bleed.

Readers met the Woodcutter sisters (named after the days of the week) in Enchanted and Hero. In this delightful third book, Alethea Kontis weaves together some fine-feathered fairy tales to focus on Friday Woodcutter, the kind and loving seamstress. When Friday stumbles upon seven sleeping brothers in her sister Sunday’s palace, she takes one look at Tristan and knows he’s her future. But the brothers are cursed to be swans by day. Can Friday’s unique magic somehow break the spell?

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Let me preface this rant with a few words: I adore Alethea Kontis and her love for fairy tales is obvious for anyone who follows her on twitter or has watched her Fairy Tale Rants. And I am very sorry about the harsh things I am going to say below. Okay, now that’s out of the way, lemme get going…

Dearest is the third in the Woodcutter Sisters series and deals with the third-youngest daughter, Friday. I always found her to be the most boring sister but her kindness, patience, grace and persistence reminded me of Beth from Little Women. And she’s a Woodcutter, so amazing things were bound to happen to her. When Saturday displaced an ocean in Hero, this magical mishap had serious consequences. I loved that Dearest picks up with these consequences, namely Friday almost drowning.

The suddenly-there ocean also has repercussions on the kingdom at large which leads to the first big problem these books still have. Arilland is now ruled by Sunday and Rumbold, both incredibly young and incredibly inexperienced. So naturally, when the population flocks to the castle for shelter and food, they have no idea what to do about it. So far, so understandable. But then they ask the children if they have any idea how to feed all these people and these children – CHILDREN – have to tell them that there’s an orchard and some onions and all sorts of other edibles all around the castle, ripe for the plucking. The scene I’m referring to was sweet, no doubt, but it made all the adults (or barely-adults) look so stupid, I have no words. The simplicity of these books was charming so far but when a queen, who surely has advisors and knowledgable folk surrounding her, has to ask random kids for help “simple” doesn’t cover it. One could argue that fairy tales use politics in a similar way but that doesn’t make them any more interesting to read about.

So. Friday’s at her sister’s castle. She takes care of the children, turns chores into games, Mary-Poppins-style, and stumbles across a flock of swans (is it flock?) which – surprise – turns into boys at night. I had known this was a retelling of “The Six Swans” so I had been waiting for this moment most eagerly. Except then Kontis does what she’s always been doing, only a gigabillion times worse. Friday sees one of the swan-boys and – poof – they’re in love. Literally in love. Not in lust, not attracted, not slighty crushing on each other – but earth-shattering, sacrificing-everything, fuck-my-family-you-are-my-life-now love. Urgh.

Which was made all the worse by the set of wholly boring and flat characters, none of which I cared about. I had 300 pages of pure tedium on my hands. There came the point where I only continued reading to see the swans’ curse lifted. As curses go, this is one of the harsher ones. The girl can only save her brothers by (1) remaining silent at all times, and (2) picking stinging nettles, making thread, weaving that thread and sewing a shirt for each of her swan-brothers. Only then would they be turned back into humans and she would be allowed to talk again.

But the fairy tale is turned onto its easiest possible setting in that the sister doesn’t have to spin, weave, and sew the shirts alone. She gets help. In fact, the entire castle helps. I’m not saying it isn’t still hard work but, come on (And why her nickname is Rampion – as in Rapunzel – is anyone’s guess). Even with a whole army of people spinning for her, the fairy tale still has some sadness in store. One of the shirts is not completed in time and and so the curse is not fully lifted. One boy has to live with a swan’s wing after being turned human again (in some versions he remains a swan). Which is a bummer. What happens in Dearest? He turns into a fucking angel. Seriously. Man with wings. A full set. Plus two working arms. Needless to say, the swan/boy in question is Tristan, Friday’s newfound but eternal love. I know this is for children but this felt like such a cheap cop-out I kept screaming at the book like a crazy person. It cheapens everything, all the hard work that went into making the shirts. If a piece of cloth turns the brother into an angel, why bother making a full shirt at all? Just throw some nettle-rags at them and there you go. Angel brothers.

Usually, the Woodcutter books focus on one fairy tale but throw in references to many, many others in clever and subtle ways. In Dearest, three of Friday’s charges are called Wendy, John, and Michael. This has no importance for the plot whatsoever, so to me it’s nothing but a gimmick. Peter Pan doesn’t show up (although this might have improved the book). Friday’s magic had the same gimmick-y feel to it, showing up when it’s useful and moving into the background when not. Magic shouldn’t make sense – that’s why it’s called magic – but the internal worldbuilding was just a mess. Puzzle pieces were forced together and if they didn’t fit, they were made to by any means necessary. The author seems to have always picked the easy way to solve a problem instead of surprising her readers. She even went for a literal deus ex machina at the end.

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The biggest strength of these books has always been the Woodcutter family dynamic. Put any three of them into a scene and, usually, fun ensues. In this volume, we get to see Monday and Sunday, although mostly in their capacity as Amazing Beauties or Queenly Queens. Nobody has any personality. Even the evil guy is so evil that he just doesn’t make sense. Take over a kingdom and burn everything to the ground? Then kill most of the population? Well… that doesn’t really work out, does it. Now you own destroyed, burned lands without any people to rule over. I have no problem with a baddie who is evil because he enjoys it. But give them some sense.

Since this has turned into a rant without any structure or sense, let me add that the sheer number of mentions of the word “dearest” is staggering. All of a sudden, characters feel compulsed to call Friday “sister, dearest” or “dearest” or “darling dearest”.  YEAH, I GOT IT OKAY???

I think it’s safe to say that this was the worst book in the series and one of the more terrible YA books in general. I really hope Princess Alethea finds back to her old form and improves her writing (no more insta-love please, no matter how much you tell me it’s Magic or Fate). Dearest was a disappointment of gigantic proportions. It does everything wrong you could have done wrong, taking any darkness or difficulties away from the fairy tale and turning it into a flat, dull, tedious book.

MY RATING: 3/10 – Really Bad!

P.S.: And everybody is beautiful. No normals allowed.

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Other reviews (mostly more favorable than mine):

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