Tanith Lee – White as Snow

Wow, this book was such a downer! I had thought Robin Hobb puts her characters through hell but Fitz’ fate is almost comfortable compared to what Tanith Lee does to her version of Snow White and the evil stepmother. This was one of the first books I read this year but writing about it turned out to be harder than expected.

white as snowWHITE AS SNOW
by Tanith Lee

Published by: Tor, 2000
Ebook: 320 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Once upon a time, in winter, there was a mirror.

Once upon a time there was a mirror. . . .

So begins this dark, unusual retelling of the story of Snow White by the writer reviewers have called “the Angela Carter of the fantasy field”—a whole novel based on a beloved story, turning it into a dark and sensual drama full of myth and magic.
Arpazia is the aging queen who paces the halls of a warlord’s palace. Cold as winter, she has only one passion—for the mysterious hunter who courts the outlawed old gods of the woodland. Coira is the princess raised in the shadow of her mother’s hatred. Avoided by both her parents and half forgotten by her father’s court, she grows into womanhood alone . . . until the mirror speaks, and blood is spilled, and the forest claims her.
The tragic myth of the goddess Demeter and her daughter, Persephone, stolen by the king of the underworld, is woven together with the tale of Snow White to create a powerful story of mothers and daughters and the blood that binds them together, for good or ill. Black queen. White maid. Royal huntsman. Seven little folk who live in the forest. Come inside, sit by the fire, and listen to this fairy tale as you’ve never heard it told before.

Once upon a time there was a mirror, and a girl as white as snow. . . .

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Tanith Lee doesn’t mess around, does she? I had never read anything by her and didn’t know what to expect. One chapter in, I knew I had fallen into a dark, terrifying version of “Snow White” – one that is as far from Disney as you can get. We follow Arpazia, still a girl at the beginning of the story, on her journey to become the evil stepmother obsessed with her own beauty and jealous of her own daughter.

White as Snow retells the story of Snow White but mixes in Greek mythology, a combination that works surprisingly well. It explores feminist issues, adds a hint of Persephone and Hades, but all with a distinctly dark, sinister tone. The story begins with 14-year-old Arpazia who is captured and raped by the conqueror Draco. From this horrible event springs her daughter Candacis, nicknamed Coira, this story’s Snow White. Arpazia is easily the most tragic character in this story and nobody can fault her for despising the child that was conceived in a terrible, violent deed. From that moment on, Arpazia lives as if entranced. She is traumatized by the events of her childhood (and her adult life, for that matter) and despite becoming queen, the only happiness she finds is with the forest king Klymeno – or Orion – with whom she has a love affair.

Coira grows up unloved among servants and seems just as removed from the world and as cold-hearted as her mother. Both women are fascinating characters, even if it’s hard to call them likable. Because of their distance and lack of emotion it was hard to identify with them (not that I wanted to!). I watched them more like figures on a stage rather than putting myself into their skin – which was probably the author’s intent. The violence, distance, and hatred that these two have to live through is not something I’d want to experience – Arpazia and Coira deal with the trauma in their own way, but each removes herself from others emotionally. If you haven’t guessed by now – this is an utterly depressing, dark book that shows barely a glimpse of hope until the very end.

white as snow detail

What interested me most were other aspects of the novel. The juxtaposition of Arpazia and Coira – old and young, ugly and beautiful, the hating and the hated – and the way fairy tale elements have been incorporated into the story were simply stunning. Even the seven dwarves show up, although they are not all male and none of them really likes Coira. The more you advance in the story, the more Greek mythology takes center stage, especially when Coira meets “the king of the underworld”, a man (not very subtly) named Hadz. He, in turn, aptly names her Persephah.

Which leads me to another interesting idea. A lot of characters use more than one name, depending on the role they play or who they’re dealing with. Candacis/Coira/Persephah is just the most obivous example. Arpazia calls herself Lilca at one point, Klymeno/Orion is another one. The dwarves all have “stage names” and we only learn Stormy’s true name (which is also from Greek mythology and very, very fitting).

It is difficult to say whether I liked this book. My kneejerk reaction is: Yes! It was excellently written, passes the Bechdel Test many times and generally focuses on the female characters and their development. On the other, the readers are confronted with a lot of rape, psychological and physical violence, so that I have to correct myself and say: No! I did not like that! This is a book that gives you a bad feeling in your stomach but at the same time enthralls you with its ideas and the mash-up of mythology and fairy tale. “Snow White” may be its basis but the novel deals with issues that the Grimm brothers probably didn’t care much about. A woman’s role, especially when she loses her beauty by committing the crime of ageing, the balance between old beliefs and new religion, the love (or lack thereof) between mother and daughter. Tanith Lee doesn’t tell her readers what to think or how to feel about these issues, she simply confronts them with characters who have been through hell and whose personality is a clear product of their past. I just couldn’t hate Arpazia for pushing her daughter away. Yet I felt for the girl who so desperately wanted a mother’s love.

The big symbol of this fairy tale is and always will be the mirror. White as Snow features that mirror but whether it is truly magical or Arpazia is slowly gliding into madness is never explained. But mirrors in general play a big part, both real and symbolic. Arpazia looks at Coira and believes to see herself when she was young. Coira thinks that Hadz is the male mirror image of herself. The novel is full of symbols and references that connect it to its fairy tale origins. White snow, red blood and black trees appear over and over, of course.

After a few hundred pages of darkness and depression, it was a relief to get a somewhat hopeful ending. I will definitely try more books in Tor’s Fairy Tale series but I very much doubt I will re-read White as Snow. It was too hopeless and the two protagonists too distant. This was a good book, no doubt, one that questions the tropes of the fairy tale, one that explores how the female characters came to be who they are, but it is by no means an enjoyable book. Going from bad to worse, from one horrible event to the next, watching these characters on an endless downward-spiral of violence and destroyed hopes, made this into the opposite of a comfort read. I like it when authors show fairy tales for the dark things they are, but I must admit White as Snow may have been a little too dark, a bit too bleak and hopeless for me.

MY RATING: 7/10  –  Very good

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2 thoughts on “Tanith Lee – White as Snow

  1. jazzfeathers says:

    You know, I’ve just bought White as Snow… and now I don’t know whether I want to read it…

    I read many of Tanith Lee’s stories years ago, during my teen years. I liked her a lot, in spite of her darkness and her occasional weirdness. I’ve always like the way she could handle ‘old matters’ in a new way. And I loved her symbolism.
    I can’t remember when I last read one of her stories, but it’s well over ten years. So now I wonder whether I’d like her still, as much as I did, or if it’s just this story that is so hopeless.

    Thanks so much for the review 🙂

    Like

    • Nadine says:

      Oh it’s a good book. The writing was gorgeous and it’s just like you say – full of symbols. I’m sure I didn’t catch half of the references to mythology but the ones I did catch were fantastically done.
      It’s just not a happy read. At all. So maybe if you read a fun, light book right after, it will be okay. Like watching a Disney movie after a horror film. 🙂

      Like

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