Beauty and the Really Nice Beast: Brigid Kemmerer – A Curse so Dark and Lonely

Oh, how wonderful is the sense of relief when you fear that you are stumbling into a sterotype-laden YA insta-romance and it turns out you discovered something beautiful and original. Brigid Kemmerer’s retelling of Beauty and the Beast may not be perfect, but it did a great job at subverting most of the tropes that retellings and YA romances tend to use.

A CURSE SO DARK AND LONELY
by Brigid Kemmerer

Published by: Bloomsbury YA, 2019
Hardcover: 496 pages
Series: A Curse so Dark and Lonely #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: There is blood under my fingernails.

Fall in love, break the curse. 
It once seemed so easy to Prince Rhen, the heir to Emberfall. Cursed by a powerful enchantress to repeat the autumn of his eighteenth year over and over, he knew he could be saved if a girl fell for him. But that was before he learned that at the end of each autumn, he would turn into a vicious beast hell-bent on destruction. That was before he destroyed his castle, his family, and every last shred of hope.
Nothing has ever been easy for Harper Lacy. With her father long gone, her mother dying, and her brother barely holding their family together while constantly underestimating her because of her cerebral palsy, she learned to be tough enough to survive. But when she tries to save someone else on the streets of Washington, DC, she’s instead somehow sucked into Rhen’s cursed world.

Break the curse, save the kingdom. 
A prince? A monster? A curse? Harper doesn’t know where she is or what to believe. But as she spends time with Rhen in this enchanted land, she begins to understand what’s at stake. And as Rhen realizes Harper is not just another girl to charm, his hope comes flooding back. But powerful forces are standing against Emberfall . . . and it will take more than a broken curse to save Harper, Rhen, and his people from utter ruin.

This could have gone so very wrong. It could have been just another tale of a pretty girl and an arrogant prince who is reformed by her love, set in a shiny castle with or without magical servants. And while A Curse so Dark and Lonely ticks all the boxes it needs to be a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, it has such a nice layer of originality to it. And, most important, it has characters that stand out, that aren’t just cardboard cutouts saying “prince” and “beauty”.

Harper lives in DC and is snatched away by a strange man who wanted to kidnap another girl, but Harper intervened and now she’s the lucky gal who gets to find out there are other worlds than hers. She arrives at the castle, is introduced to Prince Rhen and his loyal guardsman Grey, and she also learns pretty soon what is going on. There is a curse on Rhen – one of the things I liked most in this book! – that makes him relive the same season until he manages to fall in love with a girl and have her return that love. There is a Groundhog Day vibe about Rhen, the total despair of having tried everything, having killed himself in numerous ways, only to wake up to the same hell again and again. I thought as curses go, this one is much more terrifying than the original, because it makes Rhen hope over and over again that this time, really this time will be different and he’ll break the curse. He gets no closure, no way to accept that he’ll live as a beast and come to terms with it. He can’t even kill himself to end it all.

I loved Rhen as a character, even more than I loved Harper. The one thing that annoyed the shit out of me though was that Harper is the perfect cliché of the “special girl” who is “not like the others”. I mean COME ON! Rhen has tried his luck breaking the curse with over 300 girls, yet Harper is the only one to stand out? Not only is it highly unlikely that she is the very first to talk back, try to escape, want to go home and nothing to do with him and his castle – but what bothered me even more was that those “other girls” are presented as somehow less worthy or valuable because they enjoyed dressing up in the beautiful gowns provided by the castle, or eating the delicious food. I don’t believe for a second that 300 girls taken from our modern world would all just sit down meekly and play dress-up all day and even if they did, that doesn’t make them in any way less than Harper. Liking stereotypically girly things is not bad! Stop writing fiction where only girls who are “not like the others” are the good ones who get the fairy tale ending.
To me, Haper’s actions were not special at all – they were relatable! Sure, she may be braver than your average girl and that’s great, but what she does or plans to do is not special at all, it’s logical and understandable.

Let’s stick with Harper for a moment and the other things I enjoyed about this book. The pros far outweigh the cons for me, so I am willing to forgive the author for putting down girly girls. Harper is also a wonderfully proactive protagonist. Instead of sitting around waiting for Rhen to dictated her day, she gets up and gets shit done! It may not always be the right shit or even smart shit but at least she does stuff. Harper is the kind of girl who may think to herself while she’s stuck in this magical world, she may as well make herself useful and spend her day doing good and learning things. She also finds out very soon what Rhen has to do to break the curse (because it’s never a big secret) and although she’s convinced it’s not going to happen because she finds Rhen arrogant, she is aware of it.

This supposed arrogance that Harper always sees in Rhen was another thing I didn’t quite get. There is no moment where he comes across as anything but kind and worried for his people, maybe a bit reserved and careful with strangers, but never ever arrogant or mean. I fear that the writing is to blame for this disconnect between what is said and what is shown in the story. The writing in general  was simplistic and at times annoyingly repetitive. I stopped counting the moments when characters were “just a breath away from touching” or when Rhen put a strand of loose hair behind Harper’s ear. I have nothing against these moments, against the tension they create, but using the exact same words to describe them makes them feel a lot less special.
And again, the writer does a good job showing us what happens and what the characters feel. But somehow, the characters themselves tell us things are totally different from what we just read ourselves. There is no reason for Harper to dislike Rhen at all other than that it’s convenient for a Beauty and the Beast kind of plot.

Another bonus point for this book: Harper has cerebral palsy and for me, this was the first time reading about a character like her. As Harper states herself, she is rather lucky and her life isn’t too restricted. Other people with cerebral palsy can have difficulty talking or suffer  involuntary muscle contractions, yet others can live without much restriction and simply have a limb or two that doesn’t grow the way it should. Harper falls into the latter category. She walks with a bit of a limp because one of her legs is affected.
I was unsure for the longest time on how I felt about this. On the one hand, I would have liked to read about a heroine with a disability that actually prevents her from doing a lot of things we able-bodied people take for granted. Because there aren’t enough protagonists like that and because I’d really like to learn more about it and put myself in someone else’s shoes through fiction. So giving Harper nothing but a slight limp felt like a cop-out. On the other hand, who the hell am I to say how disabled the disabled protagonist is supposed to be? And I definitely think it is better to include a disabled heroine like Harper  than not to write about disability at all.
So, after stewing over this for a while, I am really happy that I got to read about a girl with cerebral palsy. Especially because Harper doesn’t let it hold her back. She climbs things, she rides horses, she runs when she thinks she needs to – never once thinking that there is anything she can’t do because of her leg. Her agency is a delight to read and I wish more YA protagonists were like her!

The plot was quite enjoyable, mostly due to Harper taking action, although I felt that certain things at the end were a little convenient. I can’t say anything withouth spoiling but there was one instance where the author took the easy way out because anything else would have been really difficult to write (I get it, I wouldn’t want to have to think my way out of this), but it still felt reather cheap. As for the plot twist – it definitely came as a surprise but it felt very much like a quick way to set up a series rather than telling a standalone story. I have no idea if Brigid Kemmerer already has a plan as to where the series is going. If she does, I’ll be happy to follow her characters and find out what’s in store for them (I have grown quite fond of Harper, Rhen and Grey), but if there is no plan other than “write a sequel” I worry that the next book won’t be anywhere near as good as this one was.

There’s only one way to find out, so I’ll definitely be reading A Heart so Fierce and Broken (set to release in early 2020). Despite my nitpicks, this book was a lot of fun to read, the romance worked pretty well and I’m just so happy to have a protagonist with agency and a cast of characters with personality for a change. Well done.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Great but not perfect: Naomi Novik – Spinning Silver

Like many other readers, I adored Naomi Novik’s first foray into fairy tale territory in the shape of her novel Uprooted. While not an actual sequel, Spinning Silver is the spiritual successor to that book and so had quite a lot to live up to. It wasn’t as amazing as Uprooted and there were some problems for me that could easily have been fixed, but it was still a great book overall. Not-so-good for Naomi Novik still means worlds above many other authors, after all.

SPINNING SILVER
by Naomi Novik

Published by: Del Rey, 2018
Hardcover: 466 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard.

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father’s inability to collect his debts has left his family on the edge of poverty—until Miryem takes matters into her own hands. Hardening her heart, the young woman sets out to claim what is owed and soon gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold.
When an ill-advised boast draws the attention of the king of the Staryk—grim fey creatures who seem more ice than flesh—Miryem’s fate, and that of two kingdoms, will be forever altered. Set an impossible challenge by the nameless king, Miryem unwittingly spins a web that draws in a peasant girl, Wanda, and the unhappy daughter of a local lord who plots to wed his child to the dashing young tsar.
But Tsar Mirnatius is not what he seems. And the secret he hides threatens to consume the lands of humans and Staryk alike. Torn between deadly choices, Miryem and her two unlikely allies embark on a desperate quest that will take them to the limits of sacrifice, power, and love.
Channeling the vibrant heart of myth and fairy tale, Spinning Silver weaves a multilayered, magical tapestry that readers will want to return to again and again.

If you’ve read the short story of the same name, collected in The Starlit Wood, then you’ll know exactly how this novel begins. Miryem, the daughter of a rather useless moneylender, takes matters into her own hands. After all, her father may be very good at lending money, but he is rubbish at collecting it – which leaves him and his family in poverty while others thrive with the money he lent them. Miryem will not stand for this unfairness, especially since her mother has taken sick. The way she hardens her heart to the people who owe her father money, the way she gets better and better at her job, it was just so incredibly fun to read. Because you know, as the reader, that although Miryem grows cold and hard, she is still a loving person.

The character I liked even better – although she was completely unnecessary for the entire plot – was Wanda though. She lives with her brothers and their abusive father who, as so many do, owes Miryem’s father money. Wanda sees her chance to get away from her father and starts working for Miryem. She even manages to save up some money for herself without letting her father know. This first act of friendship between Wanda and Miryem (who understands quite well what is going on but doesn’t always say so) made me think this book could actually be as good as Uprooted.

However, there is a third protagonist, Irina, who is also set on her path by her father’s actions. Come to think of it, every one of these girls has to fix things their fathers have broken. Miryem needs to do her father’s job properly, Wanda needs to work to pay her father’s debts, and Irina… well Irina needs to marry the tsar, a man who terrifies her and who may be way more than just an arrogant man – because of her father’s greed.  I liked all three of these girls very, very much. They are quite different but they share resolve and cleverness, something I appreciate much more in a protagonist than pretty looks. None of them are fooled by magic or tricks, and while they may not immediately find a way out of their predicaments, they at least work out a plan and fight for what’s important.

As it turns out, this important thing may be way more than just their individual freedoms. Miryem – who accidentally entered into a bargain with this world’s Rumpelstistkin, a Staryk, a creature of winter and cold, wants to return to the human world. Wanda wants to be free of her father and live a normal life with her brothers, Irina wants to survive whatever lives inside the tsar. Irina and Miryem have to work together to – drumroll – probably save the entire world. What started as a clever retelling of Rumpelstiltskin turns into an epic battle of fire and ice, evil and probably-mostly-evil. It was awesome and the way things are resolved made me cheer!

What I didn’t like and what really diminished the entire story for me were the randomly added viewpoint characters. It starts out with Miryem, Wanda, and Irina alternating chapters. Then suddenly, Irina’s old maid has a viewpoint, Wanda’s brother gets one, but in the middle of chapters so you often don’t know whose head you’re in. These added perspectives unfortunately don’t do anything to further the story and these characters (except maybe Wanda’s brother) are so unimportant that adding their view doesn’t make sense. It really took me out of the book a lot of times and made me almost angry. I don’t care what Irina’s nurse thinks and does – the action is somewhere else, the characters I care for are somewhere else. Get back to Irina and Miryem already!

Another thing I’m unsure about was the romances. There are several, yes, and I kind of really liked one of them (not telling which, though) but I’m unsure about the other. Both relationships start out rather abusive or at least unfriendly. While I could see a slow coming together and growing to know each other with one pair of characters, I felt that the other pair just stayed together for convenience. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked the ending, but I’m just not sure if I should like it.

All things considered, this was a very good book that shows the strength of women fixing problems men created, that puts female friendships front and center, and that has a wonderful layer of epic fantasy world building that I didn’t expect. I hope there will be more fairy tale retellings by Naomi Novik, even though I didn’t love this as much as Uprooted.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good

Twisted and magical: Leigh Bardugo – The Language of Thorns

I didn’t really like Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone, but I absolutely loved the duology set in the same world (Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom), so I decided to give the Grishaverse another go. The second book in the Shadow and Bone Trilogy, Siege and Storm, was much better and made me finally get why there is such a large fandom for these books. Now that the Grisha bug has got me, I needed to delve into that beautiful book of twisted fairy tales set in the Grishaverse – and it was, if possible, even better than the main stories.

THE LANGUAGE OF THORNS
by Leigh Bardugo

Published by: Orion Children’s Books, 2017
Hardcover: 281 pages
Short Story Collection
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: In the year that summer stayed too long, the heat lay upon the prairie with the weight of a corpse.

Travel to a world of dark bargains struck by moonlight, of haunted towns and hungry woods, of talking beasts and gingerbread golems, where a young mermaid’s voice can summon deadly storms and where a river might do a lovestruck boy’s bidding but only for a terrible price.
Inspired by myth, fairy tale, and folklore, #1 New York Times–bestselling author Leigh Bardugo has crafted a deliciously atmospheric collection of short stories filled with betrayals, revenge, sacrifice, and love.
Perfect for new readers and dedicated fans, these tales will transport you to lands both familiar and strange—to a fully realized world of dangerous magic that millions have visited through the novels of the Grishaverse.
This collection of six stories includes three brand-new tales, all of them lavishly illustrated with art that changes with each turn of the page, culminating in six stunning full-spread illustrations as rich in detail as the stories themselves.

This collection of fairy tales set in the Grisha universe contains six stories, some of which are set in Ravka, some of which in other parts of the Grisha world. Most of them are recognisable as well-known fairy tales from our worlds, but because each tale has such a distinct flavor, I’m going to talk about every one of them a little. I didn’t read them in order because I discovered “The Witch of Duva” before this collection came out (and loved it!) and you can pretty much read these tales in whichever order you like. They are not connected, other than by the fact that they’re all set in the Grisha world.

Ayama and the Thorn Wood

I loved how much like a fairy tale this felt! It is about a family with two daughters, one pretty and talented, the other… not so much. Because the second daughter, Ayama, is not much to look at and the family want to showcase their beautiful daughter, they make Ayama into a scullery maid who sleeps in the ashes in front of the fireplace (ring a fairy tale bell yet?).
It is also the story of  a king and queen with two sons, one handsome and lovely, the other in the shape of a wolf with terrifying horns. Because the king is so ashamed of this second son, he has a labyrinth built under his castle and imprisons the son there.

When the kingdom, currently at war, suffers damage to their fields and livestock – said to be done by the beast that escaped its labyrinth under the castle – the king asks for a brave soul to delve into the wild forest and slay the beast. Or at least convince it to leave the people and their livelihood alone. After little ceremony, Ayama is sent on this journey and – in a lovely twist – has to save her hide from the beast by telling it stories. I won’t say more about the plot at this point, but the writing is just exquisite. It does read like a fairy tale, but one where the characters aren’t cardboard. The imagery is gorgeous, the ending was as perfect as can be. This is an excellent opening story for the collection and makes you want to read the whole thing in one sitting (which is what I did).

The Too-Clever Fox

This title was actually mentioned in the Shadow and Bone trilogy (in the second book, when Alina meets Sturmhond), so I was eager to find out what the fairy tale had to do with a pirate… sorry, privateer. It is almost a fable, the story of a trickster animal, too clever for his own good. It tells of how Koja, the fox, escapes a series of dire situations through cleverness and wit. But he has to admit, by the end, that even he can be outsmarted.

The Witch of Duva

This is the Grisha version of Hansel and Gretel and the story works so well because as readers, we all go in with a set of expectations. We know Hansel and Gretel, we know certain things that have to happen, we know how the story ends. Now while you may expect Bardugo to put a spin on things and give you an alternate ending, I bet you won’t guess the twist at the end! It’s not only a well-written story, it’s a well-written story with an excellent ending that makes you want to re-read it right away.

Little Knife

This was my least favorite story in the collection, which doesn’t mean it was bad, just not as good as the competition. It’s about a girl so beautiful that everyone – and I mean everyone! – wants to marry her. When her father sees his chance for riches, he sets his daughter’s suitors three impossible tasks, promising whoever manages them, her hand in marriage. There is a prince vying for her favor but there is also a Grisha who seeks the river’s help in accomplishing these tasks. Again, there is a nice twist at the end that I really loved, but the rest of the story fell rather flat in comparison and the characters never get to be more than what you’d get in a fairy tale.

The Soldier Prince

A story based on The Nutcracker and set in Kerch! I have loved The Nutcracker since I was a little girl so I immediately loved where the story was going. It begins with Droesser, a clockmaker, a tinkerer, a man who seemingly brings mechanical things to life. He seeks the favor of a young girl named Clara and gifts her a nutcracker to tell her secrets to.

But the story soon goes in different directions. At first I thought it was about Droesser, then about the dreamy girl Clara, who wishes nothing more than to escape to fantasy worlds with her beloved nutcracker. But it is actually about the nutcracker himself. That’s all I’m willing to say about the plot. The ending manages to be wonderful without a shocking twist, this time, and while it’s one of the longer tales in this collection, it is also a beautifully satisfying one.

When Water Sang Fire

This too is based on a real world fairy tale and when I tell you that the protagonists are mermaids, you’ll know which one. Ulla is different than the others. Where they are beautiful, she is grey and strange. All she has is her amazing voice and her gift for composing and singing music, which is how the sildroher use magic. Through this skill, she makes one friend, the beautiful red-haired Signy and in combining their voices, they catch the eye of the youngest prince, Roffe.

Only the most highly valued sildroher get to accompany the royal family when they go on land to frolick with the humans. They cut their tails to create legs, they dance and dine with humans, they bring gifts and keep the diplomacy between the two species. Ulla and Signy get to go along as Roffe’s friends and, let’s just say, things get a little out of hand. I honestly thought I knew where the story was going, and then it went a completely different way, only making sense again at the end. And I loved every page of it.

The collection

I do have to say a few more things about the collection as a whole and about the book as an object because it is GORGEOUS. Every single page is illustrated, starting with only a small illustration in a corner, which then grows as you turn the pages, adding a little bit every time. Each story also has a beautiful piece of art at the end (some of them spoilery, so beware!) and the font is different colors!!! I’ve added a taste of them in my review but really, you have to see them in person to understand just how beautiful they are. This is an excellent book to gift to someone, especially if they like fairy tales or just pretty books. It will give anyone a taste for more Leigh Bardugo fiction and, if you’re like me, it will make you want to devour all the Grisha books you can find.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

 

Tough yet rewarding: Robin McKinley – Deerskin

When you like fairy tales and their retellings as much as I do, there are some books where you know going in they’re not going to be fun. No matter how well written, no matter how skilled an author is at creating memorable characters, the fairy tale plot simply makes it clear that there will be at least certain scenes that will be difficult to read. Donkeyskin is such a fairy tale and I think it’s no wonder there are so few retellings of it.

DEERSKIN
by Robin McKinley

Published by: Open Road Media, 1993
Ebook: 312 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Many years later she remembered how her parents had looked to her when she was a small child: her father as tall as a tree, and merry and bright and golden, with her beautiful black-haired mother at his side.

Princess Lissla Lissar is the only child of the king and his queen, who was the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms. Everyone loved the splendid king and his matchless queen so much that no one had any attention to spare for the princess, who grew up in seclusion, listening to the tales her nursemaid told about her magnificent parents.
But the queen takes ill of a mysterious wasting disease and on her deathbed extracts a strange promise from her husband: “I want you to promise me . . . you will only marry someone as beautiful as I was.”
The king is crazy with grief at her loss, and slow to regain both his wits and his strength. But on Lissar’s seventeenth birthday, two years after the queen’s death, there is a grand ball, and everyone present looks at the princess in astonishment and whispers to their neighbors, How like her mother she is!
On the day after the ball, the king announces that he is to marry again—and that his bride is the princess Lissla Lissar, his own daughter.
Lissar, physically broken, half mad, and terrified, flees her father’s lust with her one loyal friend, her sighthound, Ash. It is the beginning of winter as they journey into the mountains—and on the night when it begins to snow, they find a tiny, deserted cabin with the makings of a fire ready-laid in the hearth.
Thus begins Lissar’s long, profound, and demanding journey away from treachery and pain and horror, to trust and love and healing.

Lissar is the daughter of the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms. Her nursemaid has told her the story of how her father won her mother many times and it is a truth well fixed in Lissar’s mind as well as the entire kingdom that her mother is simply the most beautiful creature they ever beheld. When she dies, her father the king goes mad with grief and, after a few years, decides to marry again. As Lissar has grown into a young woman, she looks more and more like her mother so – honoring his dying wife’s last wish to only marry another woman if she is as beautiful as herself – the king decides to take Lissar, his own daughter, as his new queen. Trigger Warning: Rape, abuse, incest.

The terror of that fairy tale is hard to describe and Robin McKinley has taken on quite a task in retelling it. Through Lissar’s eyes, the reader experiences just what it might feel like to be this fairy tale heroine, to be chosen by your own father as his new bride. I cannot begin to explain what I felt when the king made this announcement, when he decided to marry his own daughter and share her bed – it was truly the worst part of this book to read and it’s the reason I will never re-read it (although it was an amazing book).

Lissar is a quiet heroine, one without friends except her beloved dog Ash, whom she takes with her when she manages to flee the palace into the cold winter world. Physically and emotionally broken, Lissar meets a sorceress who grants her the gift of time to heal as well as a change in appearance and a magical dress made of deerskin. The following passages read like a dream (or a nightmare) with Lissar somehow surviving a winter alone with her dog in a hut in the woods. Her healing happens slowly and only by pushing away any memories of what happened to her, but after some time, she manages to get a job at the court of another kingdom. She is supposed to try and keep a litter of dogs alive whose mother has died. Nobody believes she can manage but Lissar throws herself into this task as if it were the only thing keeping her alive.

Here, Lissar makes a new life for herself, caring for dogs, even befriending the prince who has as much love for his dogs as Lissar does. But sooner or later, Lissar’s past catches up with her and she has to confront her suppressed memories, has to remember who she is and what has come to pass before her life in the royal kennels.

This is an incredibly difficult book to read because of what it puts Lissar through. But at the same time, it is beautifully written, very slow moving but never boring, and ultimately rewarding. Lissar’s bond with Ash as well as the litter of dogs that everyone thought doomed to die, was just wonderful. The friendship that slowly grows between her and the Prince felt real and believable – there is no insta-romance simply because he’s a prince and, hey, we’re in a fairy tale, so naturally the princess in hiding and the prince must end up together. There is a scene at the very end in which Lissar and Prince Ossin confront the truth, that definitely doesn’t fit the mould of happily-ever-after but is so beautiful and touching because it doesn’t hide the past. Theirs feels like a relationship built on trust and love and acceptance.

I made it sound like there is almost no plot in this book and while it isn’t your action-packed adventure novel, there are some very exciting chapters. Lissar and Ash’s life in the woods come with the threat of wildlife, Lissar’s life the palace bringts its own threats. It was also great watching Lissar turn from a young, quiet girl in a white dress into an almost revered woman called Moonwoman, where before she was simply called Deerskin. The magic McKinley added to this story is exactly as it should be – it has no apparent rules, you don’t know where it comes from or even if it’s real but it gives the story a mythical quality that pushed all my happy-buttons.

Again, this book is not for everyone, and it is definitely not fun! But I found it a powerful, beautifully executed fairy tale retelling that I heartily recommend. Few authors would manage to tell such a tale without gratuitous descriptions of the violence or without cheap “solutions” for Lissar’s pain. Robin McKinley managed just that – she wrote a gorgeous tale of pain and healing, of friendship and love, and especially of a bond between a girl and her dog that touched me right to the bone.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

Refreshingly charming: T. Kingfisher – Bryony and Roses

Ursula Vernon aka T. Kingfisher has worked her way into my readerly heart really fast with no intention of leaving again. No matter what story of hers I pick up, they all give me some hours of enjoyment and when I finish them, I am wrapped in a blanket of happiness. Kingfisher’s fairy tale retellings have become something of a go to comfort read for me.

Bryony and Roses
by T. Kingfisher

Published by: Argyll Productions, 2015
Paperback: 216 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: She was going to die because of the rutabagas.

Bryony and her sisters have come down in the world. Their merchant father died trying to reclaim his fortune and left them to eke out a living in a village far from their home in the city.
But when Bryony is caught in a snowstorm and takes refuge in an abandoned manor, she stumbles into a house full of dark enchantments. Is the Beast that lives there her captor, or a fellow prisoner? Is the house her enemy or her ally? And why are roses blooming out of season in the courtyard?
Armed only with gardening shears and her wits, Bryony must untangle the secrets of the house before she—or the Beast—are swallowed by them.

Beauty and the Beast is probably one of the most retold tales out there, but I think it is also one of the most difficult ones to make both interesting and not creepy. Fairy tales are, by their nature, simple stories with characters who don’t have much personality, if any – another difficulty in retelling them. But not for T. Kingfisher, who can do both really dark (see The Seventh Bride, her Bluebeard retelling) and humerous. Bryony and Roses definitely has its dark moments and it doesn’t end the way a Disney movie would either, but all things considered, it is a rather fun book to read and made me chuckle quite a lot.

Bryony is a gardener. She and her sisters live alone and have to make ends meet somehow. It is because of her passion for plants and gardens that Bryony and her horse almost freeze to death, only to stumble upon a – you guessed it – enchanted castle. The corner stones of the fairy tale are all there. The castle magically provides food and clothing, although unlike any other retelling I’ve read before, it seems to have a mind of its own as well. The castle definitely has a taste in clothing and décor because while it’s nice that a place cleans itself up after you mess it up, that doesn’t mean everything has to be cleaned into an explosion of pink. 🙂

Bryony also encounters the beast who is, much to my delight, a really nice beast and not a creepy dude keeping a young girl prisoner in his home. I mean, sure, Bryony kind of has to stay at the castle but the beast is both a nice conversation partner and even tries to help her with setting up a little garden of her own. In this retelling, their friendship and, later, romance, is believable because they are just two people (well one human, one beast) who get along really well and find shared interests.

But as many books, this one stands or falls with its protagonist. Bryony is resourceful and clever and easy to love. Not only is her love for plants infectious, she also figures out very soon that something is not right in the castle, that there must be some kind of curse, and she does all she can to figure it out. No wallowing in self-pity, no missing obivous hints. It’s so refreshing to read about a girl who has both a heart and a brain!

I won’t say much about the conclusion because Kingfisher came up with a wholly original idea as to why the castle and the beast are cursed and what that curse entails. The ending was, just like the rest of the book, lovely. And because I’m telling you so little about it, let me mention Bryony’s sister, who only shows up for a tiny little part but totally stuck in my mind. The fact that she, too, has her own mind and a distinct personality made her immediately loveable, in a matter of pages. It is the mark of a great author to bring characters to life so easily and I’m really sad that I have now read all of Kingfisher’s fairy tale novels.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

FTF Book Review: Lisa Jensen – Alias Hook

I will never tire of Peter Pan and the spin-offs, sequels, prequels, alternate stories, and whatever else it has inspired. The Neverland is a special place and fertile ground for the imagination. Some writers have made brilliant new stories of J.M. Barrie’s play, others riff on the Disney version of Peter Pan. Lisa Jensen gives a voice to the unsung hero of the story, Captain Hook. Let’s be honest. We all have a soft spot for that dark and sinister man, right?

alias hook newALIAS HOOK
by Lisa Jensen

Published by: Thomas Dunne Books, 2014 (2013)
Ebook: 368 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6/10
Review copy provided by the publisher (thank you!)

First sentence: Second star to the right of what?

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  • Peter Pan

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“Every child knows how the story ends. The wicked pirate captain is flung overboard, caught in the jaws of the monster crocodile who drags him down to a watery grave. But it was not yet my time to die. It’s my fate to be trapped here forever, in a nightmare of childhood fancy, with that infernal, eternal boy.”
Meet Captain James Benjamin Hook, a witty, educated Restoration-era privateer cursed to play villain to a pack of malicious little boys in a pointless war that never ends. But everything changes when Stella Parrish, a forbidden grown woman, dreams her way to the Neverland in defiance of Pan’s rules. From the glamour of the Fairy Revels, to the secret ceremonies of the First Tribes, to the mysterious underwater temple beneath the Mermaid Lagoon, the magical forces of the Neverland open up for Stella as they never have for Hook. And in the pirate captain himself, she begins to see someone far more complex than the storybook villain.
With Stella’s knowledge of folk and fairy tales, she might be Hook’s last chance for redemption and release if they can break his curse before Pan and his warrior boys hunt her down and drag Hook back to their neverending game. Alias Hook by Lisa Jensen is a beautifully and romantically written adult fairy tale.

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Hook is trapped in the Neverland. The cultured and correct but lonely man yearns for nothing more but to finally die. Whether it’s at the hands of the tyrannical boy Peter Pan or through some other means, doesn’t really matter to him. But then he stumbles across a woman – a grown woman – in the Neverland…

Lisa Jensen takes her sweet, sweet time telling the story of how Hook got his life back. There is magic involved, and a prophecy (naturally), Hook needs to come-of-age in a way, despite his immortality and his eternal war with the eternal child. I could sum up the plot in one sentence or I could do it like the author and talk and talk and talk without getting to the point. Lisa Jensen’s strength is her use of language – she writes flowery prose with tons of description, an introspective, thoughtful protagonist, but very little action. I have nothing against a book that moves slowly, that demands to be savored rather than devoured in one quick bite. But the need for plot, for a reason for this story to be told, is still there. And this is where I was disappointed a bit.

Alias Hook started out well enough. It slogged along a bit until Stella Parrish showed up and turned Hook’s head with her modern (comparatively) speech, manners, and ideas. I loved, loved, loved the scene where the two banter over a bottle of wine and I really wish there had been more scenes like it. This book is also supposedly a romance. But apart from the abovementioned snappy banter, there is very little to go on. Hook falls in love with Stella, to a large part because Stella doesn’t mind his missing hand, his scars, or his dark past. Once they are together however, it gets sappy as hell and I rolled my eyes frequently.

alias hook audio coverI can forgive cheesiness for the sake of good old Captain Hook becoming a little more human, a little less cold-hearted. But what I can’t forgive is the very thin plot. We find out why Hook is in the Neverland in the first place, and then, through convenient intervention by fairies, the Indians, and the mermaids are shown the signs of an ancient prophecy that will finally set Hook free – if he reads the signs right and does the right thing at the right time. That’s it. There isn’t much more to it, I’m sad to say. The rest of the nearly 400 pages is filled with description and inner monologue and rehashing of the same things we read in the beginning of the book.

I did like certain aspects of the world-building, however. Pan’s tyrannical rule, for example, is shown through small details, such as his dislike of roses. The Neverland accomodates the boy in everything he wishes, so there are no roses. Another cool spin on the original is the mermaids, the only creatures that Pan is afraid of. We only touch the surface of their story but I was really hooked whenever the mermaids showed up. They did what I always hope for in a fairy tale retelling – they added something new to a well-known and beloved story.

The fact that it took me weeks and weeks to finish the book, reading in small increments only, speaks to its readability. It is not a difficult story to follow but the prose is so thick, so luscious that it can be overwhelming if you read too much of it in one go. This was by no means a bad book, just one that had quite a few flaws. A tighter and faster moving plot and more layered side-characters would have been a good place to start. Nonetheless, I had fun in this Neverland adventure. Recommended to readers with patience or a deep, deep love of Peter Pan.

RATING: 6/10 – Good

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FTF Book Review: Alethea Kontis – Enchanted

My first entry for Fairy Tale Frenzy is a book that swept me off my feet. Despite some reservations and caveats, I wholeheartedly enjoyed this fun romp through the land of fairy tales and ate up the second book right after (review coming very soon).

Alethea Kontis does something that I suspect many other YA authors try to do but fail. Write a story that can be read even by small children (no sex, no swearing, almost no violence) but that is still more than enjoyable to adults.

enchantedENCHANTED
by Alethea Kontis

Published by: Harcourt, 2012
Hardback:
320 pages
Series:
The Woodcutter Sisters #1
My rating:
7.5/10

First sentence: My name is Sunday Woodcutter, and I am doomed to a happy life.

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Fairy Tales Retold

  • The Frog Prince
  • Cinderella
  • and some others that lead into spoiler territory

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Synopsis

It isn’t easy being the rather overlooked and unhappy youngest sibling to sisters named for the other six days of the week. Sunday’s only comfort is writing stories, although what she writes has a terrible tendency to come true.

When Sunday meets an enchanted frog who asks about her stories, the two become friends. Soon that friendship deepens into something magical. One night Sunday kisses her frog goodbye and leaves, not realizing that her love has transformed him back into Rumbold, the crown prince of Arilland—and a man Sunday’s family despises.

The prince returns to his castle, intent on making Sunday fall in love with him as the man he is, not the frog he was. But Sunday is not so easy to woo. How can she feel such a strange, strong attraction for this prince she barely knows? And what twisted secrets lie hidden in his past – and hers?

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Review

Normally, I would avoid a book with a cover like this. My prejudice against certain Young Adult books – especially the ones involving romance – may not be completely unfounded but it is certainly unfair to a whole range of books. So I jumped over my shadow and picked this up on a whim. I had just read a few stories in my Annotated Classic Fairy Tales and was in just the right mood.

This is ostensibly a retelling of “The Frog Prince” and “Cinderella”, but Alethea Kontis manages to sneak in references to a ton of other fairy tales. Part of the fun was discovering these little easter eggs that, while not adding much to the plot, filled me with glee.

Sunday is the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter. She and her sisters are named after the days of the week which I found a confusing and silly little gimmick, but hey, it’s better than the billionth Cindy Ella, Daniella, Ella, Rella, and what have you. Each of the sisters has a gift (or a curse?) and we are introduced to them all at the very beginning of the book when Sunday tells a frog about her family. She and this frog named Grumble become friends and, after three days – I repeat: THREE days – apparently that friendship has turned into True Love (capital letters, Shrek-and-Fiona-kiss True Love!). Sunday kisses her frog goodbye every day but has to leave so quickly on the third day that she doesn’t notice him turning back into Prince Rumbold, a man her family despises. Because they have a history.

enchanted sundayWhich leads me to the first reason I loved this book. Both Sunday and her prince get a back story. While Sunday spills the beans on her family history right in the first chapter, discovering Rumbold’s past and personality is a slower affair and much more satisfying. It’s a lovely change to have fairy tale characters feel like actual people. Rumbold struggles with remembering who he was before his enchantement but his closest friends stay true to him no matter what and make him all the more likable. They also lightened the mood with their banter whenever Rumbold needed it most. I admit I have a very soft spot in my heart for Rumbold’s buddies.

Sunday’s family seems to be entirely made up of fairy tales. Some sisters, and indeed their parents, fall into their roles easily while others are less transparent. Figuring out who is who and how they would fit into which fairy tale just added to the reading pleasure. I also found it refreshing that most of them behaved like teenagers. Sunday may be a good-hearted young woman but she also has moments of selfishness and angst, she doesn’t always know how to handle her feelings, she is a little naive. All of this makes her relatable to anyone who has been through that teenage period of hormones and insanity. Saturday is the sort of trope-heavy kick-ass sister who chops wood with her father and brother, Friday is basically Beth from Little Women, and Wednesday is the quiet, mopey poet who hides away in her tower room all day. But not all is quite as simple as it seems at first glance. Despite fitting the classic fairy tale bill, this family sticks together and their love for each other – although shown in different ways from different family members – was tangible and gave me a wonderful feeling of coming home after a long trip. This feeling of home and warmth and family is what Alethea Kontis does best. I have, in the meantime, read the second novel in the series, and can happily report that the trend continues. If you don’t fall in love with the Woodcutter family, there is no hope for you, my friends.

I had qualms about the romance because it all happens so fast. Once Rumbold is restored to his human form and the king throws three balls in his honor, however, I slowly started believing in it. Sunday and Rumbold’s “second first meeting” was much more romantic and charming than the brief descriptions of their conversations when he was still a frog. Now, Rumbold is already in love with Sunday, so it isn’t too far fetched for him to fall even more in love with her during the balls. But Sunday, believing her frog friend vanished or dead, falling so quickly for a new man strained my suspension of disbelief.

Despite the almost-insta-love (which should be forgiven in a fairy tale, if nowhere else) I couldn’t put the book down. The writing style ranges from simple to beautifully poetic but it always stays engaging. For someone like me, who prefers dark fairy tale retellings, to be so enthralled in a clean story without any swearing, sex, or violence, is all the more surprising. There is a brief scene in the end involving a bit of blood – villains need to be vanquished after all – but other than that, this book is suitable for children and adults of all ages.

I don’t quite know how it happened but I have fallen in love with the Woodcutters, Prince Rumbold and his friends. The second book, Hero, will focus on Saturday, and the third – coming out in 2015 – on Friday. I hope Alethea Kontis will get to tell each sister’s tale and then add a bonus story for their changeling brother Trix. That kid is too great not to get his own novel.

MY RATING: 7.5 – Very good

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The Woodcutter Sisters:

  1. Enchanted
  2. Hero
  3. Dearest

woodcutter sisters series