T. Kingfisher – The Seventh Bride

T. Kingfisher is Ursula Vernon’s pen-name. I first discovered Ursula Vernon through her graphic novel Digger (which I still haven’t managed to buy anywhere but want so much!!!), then I read her absolutely charming short story “Toad Words” and knew I had to try all her fairy tale stuff. I was not disappointed. I believe, T. Kingfisher will become a new author on my auto-buy list.

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THE SEVENTH BRIDE
by T. Kingfisher

Published by: Red Wombat Tea Company, 2014
Ebook: 183 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Her name was Rhea.

Rhea is an ordinary miller’s daughter, engaged to be married under suspicious circumstances to a man not of her choosing. He has unknown powers and a manor house full of mysterious women.
Rhea has a hedgehog. It claims to be ordinary, but normal hedgehogs don’t act like that.
It’s probably not going to be enough.

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Give me a good Bluebeard retelling any day and I’ll be a happy camper. But take Bluebeard and twist it into something new and even more horrible, and I’ll be your fan forever. T. Kingfisher tells the story of Rhea, a 15-year-old miller’s daughter, who enjoys her quiet life, helping in the mill, battling that evil swan that tries to steal her food, and living with her family. Until one day, she is told that she is engaged to Lord Crevan, a powerful rich man to whom the miller family can’t really say no.

I immediately loved the voice of this story and Rhea as a character. The voice is charming, almost like a friend telling you about something that happened to them, and Rhea is wonderfully practical in her ways, unlike so many other heroines, especially ones in fairy tales.

She hadn’t expected to love her husband. That sort of thing almost never happened outside of ballads anyway, and it didn’t really bother her. You married well and you were polite to each other, and if you were lucky, you became relatively good friends because after all, you were both stuck in this together. That was all she’d ever hoped for.

Being a good person and a good daughter, she is still not happy about this marriage but she’ll go through with it. Up until this part, the story reads like a light-hearted fairy tale, one that could easily be enjoyed by kids. But the moment Rhea sets out to visit Lord Crevan’s mansion, that’s when the darkness begins.

I’d go so far as to call this a horror novel because the things Rhea encounters are straight out of nightmares. Some are actual monsters, other things are terrifying for different reasons. However, Rhea goes to Crevan’s mansion and encounters – surprise! – some of his other wives. Her practicality shines through again when she is shocked that a man dares to take more than one wife at the same time. She also quickly finds out that all of the previous wives have lost something to Lord Crevan. Sylvie is blind, Ingath’s throat looks like it was torn out by a wild animal, and Maria the cook… well, it’s not quite clear what Crevan took from her but she is definitely afraid of him.

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What follows is Rhea being Rhea. She tries to figure this whole thing out and is helped by a friendly and possibly magical hedgehog she picked up on the way. As animal companions go, this must be one of my favorites! I’d say they should make a Disney movie of this but they wouldn’t dare – because this is a seriously creepy book. Lord Crevan gives Rhea certain tasks to do to get out of the marriage. This is where that fairy tale feeling comes back.

Rhea is definitely my hero. Not only do I love how… normal she seems, but also that, when faced with horrible situations, she is actually scared to death. She isn’t some superhero who doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything. When she meets a mosnter, she half pees her pants and wonders if she’s gone mad. Then she takes a breath and makes a plan on how not to die right now. It’s terrifying and beautiful at the same time.

Another thing I adored about this not too faithful retelling was that the side characters are fully fleshed out, and the ones that aren’t (because they stay on the sidelines) remain mysterious on purpose. Rhea isn’t on an adventure by herself, she has other women helping her the best they can. In the end, they all have to work together to defeat that monstrous man who has harmed them all in different ways.

Ursula Vernon has a knack for showing different sides of well-known fairy tales – she has proven that in Toad Words. But she is also great at taking a well-known tale and making it her own. I have always preferred retellings that don’t stick too closely to the original. This way, there are new things to discover, new riddles to solve, different ways to defeat evil. The blend of utterly charming voice and terrifying plot also worked surprisingly well. I’m definitely going to read all the other fairy tale retellings by this author.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

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Fairy tale retellings by T. Kingfisher:

  • Toad Words and Other Stories
  • The Seventh Bride (Bluebeard)
  • Bryony and Roses (Beauty and the Beast)
  • The Raven and the Reindeer (The Snow Queen)

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Helen Oyeyemi – Mr. Fox

Even without certain campaigns, Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird never stood a chance of getting a Hugo Award or even a nomination. Nonetheless, I nominated it because I loved it so, so much and that’s what the Hugos are all about! After reading that book, I bought everything else I could find by Oyeyemi. This wasn’t as up my alley as Boy, Snow, Bird but Oyeyemi is still an author I want to follow very closely.

mr foxMR. FOX
by Helen Oyeyemi

Published by: Riverhead Books, 2011
Ebook: 336 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Mary Foxe came by the other day – the last person on earth I was expecting to see.

Fairytale romances end with a wedding. The fairytales that don’t get more complicated. In this book, celebrated writer Mr. Fox can’t stop himself from killing off the heroines of his novels, and neither can his wife, Daphne. It’s not until Mary, his muse, comes to life and transforms him from author into subject that his story begins to unfold differently. Meanwhile, Daphne becomes convinced that her husband is having an affair, and finds her way into Mary and Mr. Fox’s game. And so Mr. Fox is offered a choice: Will it be a life with the girl of his dreams, or a life with an all-too-real woman who delights him more than he cares to admit?

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Mr. Fox is a writer whose imaginary muse Mary Foxe has qualms about the way he tends to kill off his female characters. In a game of story-telling, the two of them weave fairy tales, play with Bluebeard, and explore their relationship. Then Mr. Fox’ wife Daphne joins in and the relationships become more and more complicated.

You can read this book as a short story collection or a fix-up-novel but either way, it’s never quite clear which parts are reality, which are stories, if Mary is real or just a figment of Mr. Fox’ imagination. Some stories are clearly told by one of the protagonists, others could be attributed to any (or none) of them. This mosaic novel is fairly complex – it needed full concentration to follow the plot, if indeed you can call it plot. I enjoy a novel that challenges me but Mr. Fox gave me headaches. Despite the fixed points of St. John Fox, Mary, and Daphne, it was difficult to find a red thread to follow. This did in no way diminish the pleasure gained from reading each short story on its own merits.

Oyeyemi’s language did not disappoint. I knew I’d discovered a new favorite after reading Boy, Snow, Bird. A writer who can weave such beautiful sentences just couldn’t have written a bad book! The style is lyrical, yet on a sentence level not overly drawn out. The complexity of these stories stems more from my attempt to ground them in reality somehow, which I probably shouldn’t even have tried. There is a fairy tale feel to each story, whether it’s the more obviously fantastical ones in which foxes dress in human clothes, or the more realistic ones (without talking animals).

mr fox alternate coverThe most interesting aspect for me was Daphne’s involvement in the strange relationship between writer and muse. At first, she feels threatened by Mary’s presence (who cares if she’s real or imaginary?), and she worries about her marriage to Mr. Fox. Daphne was an intriguing character who didn’t shy away from examining her own motives for marrying Mr. Fox, the way their marriage has gone so far, and the way she sees other women. When Mary and Daphne meet, I expected what TV taught me to expect – namely that the two would fight or bitch or put each other down. What Helen Oyeyemi did instead was pure, refreshing amazingness! In fact, all relationships between the three protagonists take interesting turns and subvert tropes. Especially the ending was  delicious.

What I was missing a bit was the exploration of Mr. Fox’ tendency to kill his female characters. Mary wants him to question his own motives but I didn’t really see this idea developed much further. The problem is that I’m not sure if I simply misunderstood some of the stories, if my language skills let me down and I missed some subtle nuances, or if Oyeyemi really didn’t want to pursue the topic any further. It took me quite a while to read the novel so it’s probably I who is to blame.

All things considered, I still enjoyed the read and will definitely pick up the rest of Oyeyemi’s books. If the next novel is just slightly more straight forward, I’ll be one happy kitten.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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Other reviews:

(note: It appears I’m not the only one confused by this book. Big sigh of relief.)