2020 Retellings Challenge – First Quarter Update

I can’t believe a quarter of the year is already over again. It feels like I just made those reading resolutions, endless lists of new publications to watch out for, and checked out other people’s Best-of-2019 lists.
But since we took our big sunny vacation during winter this year, I actually managed to get a lot of reading done, especially for the wonderful 2020 Retellings Challenge hosted by Tracy at Cornerfolds. It was my first time travelling to a warm place when it’s cold at home and I can highly recommend it. It did wonders for my mood, my tan, and of course my reading time. And sipping on a fresh coconut is at least as cool as having a cup of tea while reading a nice book.

What I’ve read

Just like last year and just like with any reading challenge, my chosen books ranged from brilliant to pretty bad with everything in between. I’m making it a little harder for myself this year by not counting books that would technically fit certain prompts. For example, Winterglass (still fantastic!) was a re-read, so I’m not counting it. Sword of Destiny is technically a collection of short stories where only one of them fulfills the prompt (includes mermaids) and I felt that if I counted that book I would kind of be cheating. I’m still listing them here because they are retellings but I’ll pick other books for the bingo squares.

So far, the absolute standout book I read for this challenge was Descendant of the Crane, although I’m not even sure it’s a retelling of something. It’s set in a Chinese-inspired fantasy kingdom and it uses some mythology elements but whether it counts or not, it was an excellent book! Mirrorstrike, the sequel to Winterglass wasn’t as good as the first book but I’m still very much looking forward to the sequel.
I checked off one of the toughest prompts (a book over 500 pages) with Tessa Gratton’s retelling of Shakespeare’s King LearThe Queens of Innis Lear which was pretty amazing. And I finally read Diana Peterfreund’s sci-fi retelling of Jane Austen’s PersuasionFor Darkness Shows the Stars.
What I like about this challenge is that it forces me to read outside my comfort zone – that was very much the case with Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, which is exactly what the title suggests. It was a great book, although very different from what I normally read. I’m so glad to have picked it up as it’s also the first book translated from Arabic that I’ve ever read.
I also really enjoyed the March group read, A Study in Charlotte, which is about the descendants of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. It was different than what I expected but a fun, quick read that made me want to pick up the sequel. And an even quicker read was Keturah and Lord Death, which is kind of Hades and Persephone and kind of 1001 Nights wrapped in a medieval romance. It was really sweet.
An audiobook that started out really well and then sort of meandered on to a mediocre ending was Juliet Marillier’s Beautiful. The only book I read that I would call bad was Kiersten White’s The Guinevere Deception. One bad book and one middling one out of 11 total is a pretty good ratio, I’d say.

My retellings reading plan

As usual, I don’t set myself a specific TBR but I do want to stay on top of this challenge because the Hugo shortlist is about to be announced and that always means reading a lot of works I missed last year. For the Retellings Challenge, I have picked out at least one book for each prompt, just to be prepared, but if I discover something new that fits a prompt, I may just go with that.
I have already started my book for the African myth prompt, Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, during my vacation and I’m absolutely loving it. It’s not an easy book to read, though, and it wants to be savored so I may be “currently reading” this one for a while yet. But if it continues the way it started, it may end up on my favorite books of the year list!

  • Marlon James – Black Leopard, Red Wolf (African myth)
  • E. K. Johnston – A Thousand Nights (1001 nights)
  • Alexa Donne – Brightly Burning (set in space)
  • Julia Ember – The Seafarer’s Kiss (features mermaids)
  • Victoria McCombs – The Storyteller’s Daughter (German fairy tale – Rumpelstiltskin)

General Thoughts on the Challenge

I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy this year’s challenge as much as last year’s because the prompts seemed much more difficult for me. While retellings of fairy tales and Jane Austen are abundant, there isn’t as much to choose from when it comes to Frankenstein or Les Misérables retellings. But with a bit of research and recommendations from other participants, I think this year may turn out to be even more rewarding. Because the prompts challenge me more, I am forced to discover  books I would otherwise not even consider and I’m sure there will be at least one hidden gem among them.

If you’re doing this challenge as well, how is it going for you? Have you discovered a new favorite? Have you been disappointed by an over-hyped book? Let me know in the comments!

Falling in Love With Death: Martine Leavitt – Keturah and Lord Death

This is a fairy tale-esque book I’ve been meaning to read forever. It’s part 1001 Nights, part Hades and Persephone, and part medieval romance. Its simplicity is at the same time what makes it so lovely and also what will probably make it disappear from my memory quite fast.

KETURAH AND LORD DEATH
by Martine Leavitt

Published: Boyds Mill Press, 2006
Ebook: 216 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: “Keturah, tell us a story,” said Naomi, “one of your tales of faërie or magic.”

Keturah, renowned for her storytelling, follows a legendary hart deep into the forest, where she becomes hopelessly lost. Her strength diminishes until, finally, she realizes that death is near—and learns then that death is a young lord, melancholy and stern. She is able to charm Lord Death with a story and gain a reprieve, but he grants her only a day, and within that day she must find true love. A mesmerizing love story, interweaving elements of classic fantasy and high romance.

Keturah lives in a small village that has come into disrepair and wants very little of life. She wants her grandmother to be well, her best friends Beatrice and Gretta to be happy, and a true love for herself. When she gets lost in the wood and almost freezes to death, she meets a tall dark stranger who turns out to be none other than Lord Death himself. Not wanting to die without having experienced love yet, she tells him a story but leaves out the ending, bargaining for another day in which she can prove to Death that she can find her true love and marry him.

So begins the fairy tale of Keturah and Lord Death. Keturah doesn’t mess around but promptly seeks out the village wise woman (read: witch) for a charm to let her know which of the eligible bachelors in town may be Keturah’s own true love. And then go and follow her in her daily business, get to know other characters and see that, to Keturah’s dismay, none of the village boys seems to be her true love, no matter how much she likes them or how much they admire her.

This story is a very simple one but that doesn’t mean it’s easily dismissed. Not only does Keturah have to keep bargaining with Death – by use of unfinished stories – for another day, and another after that, but the way her home town sees her also changes. They accuse her of witchcraft, of having met fairies, of being in league with Death! The only people who always, always stick by Keturah’s side are her grandmother and her two best friends. It seems silly to mention in a tale like this because it really does read like a fairy tale, but the female friendships were truly heartwarming. Beatrice and Gretta not only try their best to help Keturah but even offer up the men they are secretly in love with for her to marry – just so she can escape being taken by Death.

For a book this slim, there’s actually a lot going on. The town expects a visit from the King, there is a threat of plague (how timely…), and a big celebration is coming up, including a cooking contest that Keturah needs to win in order to potentially marry one of the boys in town – men in his family only marry Best Cook because tradition. The fairy tale-like writing style worked pretty well and while not much happens that couldn’t be predicted from the first page, I was never bored.
But it was also the writing style that makes this book a little forgettable. I quite enjoyed it while I read it but it really did feel like reading an old tale that I had read many times before. There were no twists, no real villains, there was just a bunch of essentially good people and beautiful Keturah, who is possibly the best of them all.

The conclusion also doesn’t come as a surprise, and I don’t think it tried to. For us readers, it’s clear from the start who Keturah’s true love is and who she will end up marrying, but watching Keturah herself slowly learn this truth was a lot of fun. Even though I feel bad for the boys who clearly had a crush on her.

If you want a quick read that reminds you of being a child, reading fairy tales in bed, do pick this up. It’s a lovely little story with wonderful characters. And even though I’ll probably forget all their names within the next week, I will remember the feelings this book gave me fondly.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

From a Different Perspective: Juliet Marillier – Beautiful

Whenever I discover a new fairy tale retelling, my ears prick up. In this case, it was also my ears who got to experience said retelling because it’s an Audible Original, meaning it only exists (so far) as an audiobook. I had read one book by Juliet Marillier previously and while I didn’t love it as much as many others did, it convinced me of her storytelling abilities and I knew she had great ideas about how to tell fairy tales in a new and original way.

BEAUTIFUL
by Juliet Marillier

Published: Audible Studios, 2019
Audiobook: 7 hours 18 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 5,5/10

Opening line: There were no mirrors in our house.

With the Nordic fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon as her inspiration, Juliet Marillier weaves a magical story of a young princess’ search for her true self.
Hulde is a queen’s daughter and lives in a palace. But her life is lonely. Growing up atop the glass mountain, she knows only her violent and autocratic mother and a household of terrified servants.
Then a white bear named Rune comes to visit, and Hulde learns what kindness is.
But the queen has a plan for Hulde. When she turns 16, she will wed the most beautiful man in all the world. Hulde has never met her intended husband, and her mother refuses to explain the arrangement. Hulde becomes desperate to find out more and seeks the help of a magic mirror. Perhaps someone is coming to her rescue.
On her wedding day, Hulde’s existence is turned upside down. For the first time she leaves the glass mountain behind, setting out to be as brave as the heroines in her beloved storybook.
The journey will test Hulde to the limit. Can she overcome her fears and take control of her own life?

This audiobook comes in three parts. The first part was fantastic, the second meandered a bit, and the third was a nice, but unsurprising conclusion. That’s the reason I’m not rating this any higher because I love a book that starts out slow and the builds momentum but here, we have the exact reverse happening. Overall, I’d still recommend it but because the beginning was the best part, the story left me feeling mostly meh.

Hulde is a princess who lives in a castle without any mirrors. She is told she is beautiful and will marry the most beautiful prince in all the lands when she turns 16. Her tyrant of a mother has made arrangements. But Hulde has very little to do in her castle. Her days are spent waiting for the few months that her only friend, a polar bear, comes to stay. This white bear called Rune brings not only his friendship but also books. Hulde especially likes the stories that talk about brave heroines who go out into the world and defy the odds.

As I didn’t read any synopsis of this book before I started listening other than “a retelling of East of the Sun, West of the Moon”, it took me quite a while to see what Marillier was doing here, although it’s highly obvious from the start. You see, Hulde is not your average princess but the troll queen’s daughter. That’s right – she’s the villain of the original fairy tale, the girl who is supposed to marry the enchanted prince unless he can lift his curse. Once I figured that out, I was all ablaze! Because Marillier makes Hulde so sympathetic. She is a kind young woman who yearns for friendship and love, who wants to see the world rather than just wait to be married off to a prince. She also disapproves of her mother’s terrible rule and the way she “disciplines” the servants (with a whip, usually). So who are we supposed to root for here? Obviously, the poor prince shouldn’t have to be married off to a person someone else picked for him, but we also want Hulde to be happy and we, the readers, know something she doesn’t. Her friend Rune the bear, is actually that most handsome prince who is supposed to marry her when she turns sixteen.

But Hulde is also clever and eventually figures out what’s going on. Her love for fairy tales and a magic mirror lent a helping hand and Hulde’s kindness and good nature made her do what is right. Which leads me to the second part o the story. Because the fairy tale as we know it is over and Hulde is the new troll queen. But ruling, it turns out, is more difficult than expected, especially since Hulde doesn’t want to be like her mother. She decides to seek out all the troll tribes and unify her people once more. On her way, she finds out that her mother’s lack of leadership has lead to strife within the kingdom which left many people dead, villages destroyed, and Hulde to pick up the pieces.

This was where the story started to become boring for me. Hulde was as kind a protagonist as ever but there just wasn’t much going on. The plot felt forced, the conflict seemed like it was thrown in there last-minute because otherwise, what would Hulde do for the rest of the book. She goes on a journey accompanied by two pet companions (who were adorable!) and two male trolls as a sort of advisors and protectors. While she learns many interesting things about her own people’s culture, there wasn’t anything really driving the story. Hulde became almost too good, too kind to still be interesting.

The climax felt equally predictable as the ending. Although Hulde didn’t get to marry her promised prince, there is a romantic sub-plot. But where Hulde and Rune’s friendship came to life through Marillier’s storytelling, this actual romance fell completely flat for me. Again, it was obvious from the start how things would turn out, there was no tension, there weren’t any sweet moments, everything just sort of went its predictable little way.

I didn’t find this book to be bad, I had just hoped – after that great beginning – that the author had at least some little twists in store. But the fact that I could have told you exactly how things would end after the first few minutes of part two tells you that this is not the kind of story that surprises you. If you’re okay with that, if you don’t mind seeing what’s coming, and if you enjoy a protagonist who’s maybe a bit too good to be believable, then pick this up. It was a short audiobook that retells one of my favorite fairy tales and I don’t regret having bought it. But in the future, I’ll stick with Marillier’s longer novels.

MY RATING: 5,5/10 – Good-ish

Reading The Witcher: Andrzej Sapkowski – The Last Wish

Happy New Year, Dear Readers! The last book I read in 2019 has now turned into my first review of 2020 and I am so glad that I can start the year with a good one. With the Witcher now on Netflix (haven’t watched it yet but I’m very excited), it was about time I checked out one of those books. I think I may read one more of them before I dive into the TV show because this collection really got me hooked.

THE LAST WISH
by Andrzej Sapkowski

Published by: Orbit, 1993
Ebook: 353 pages
Series: The Witcher #0.5
My rating: 7/10

First line: She came to him towards morning.

Geralt of Rivia is a witcher. A cunning sorcerer. A merciless assassin. And a cold-blooded killer. His sole purpose: to destroy the monsters that plague the world. But not everything monstrous-looking is evil and not everything fair is good… and in every fairy tale there is a grain of truth.
A collection of short stories introducing Geralt of Rivia, to be followed by the first novel in the actual series, The Blood of Elves. Note that, while The Last Wish was published after The Sword of Destiny, the stories contained in The Last Wish take place first chronologically, and many of the individual stories were published before The Sword of Destiny.

I had known about the Witcher for many years and I watched my boyfriend play some of the game (The Witcher III) but I had always planned to read the books before I checked out the games for myself. Now there’s a Netflix show with none other than Henry Cavill (I like him 🙂 ) and that gave me the needed push to finally check out the first – in publication order – of the books. People have warned me that this is more of a short story collection than a novel and that is true but to me it never felt like a collection but rather like looking into Geralt of Rivia’s life at different points in time.

We first meet Geralt just before one of his adventures. As a witcher, his job is to find a monster who plague people, get hired to defeat that monster, and then get the  job done, get paid, and move on to the next village. That doesn’t, however, always mean killing a monster. Sometimes it first means figuring out who the monster even is – and having horns or vampire teeth isn’t always the necessary indicator. From that very first story it becomes clear that Geralt follows  his own code, that his ethics aren’t always the same as other people’s. And although he’s a quiet, thoughtful kind of man who doesn’t speak much (though he is an excellent grunter), I found myself quite liking him right from the start. Between the individual stories, a sort of frame story is set up that we follow as a red thread. I didn’t really find this necessary but it added a nice time layer to the story collection.

There were several things that surprised me. The first one was how dialogue-heavy the book was, especially during the first few stories. There is very little description and Geralt learns most details about his job or the monster-in-question through some other character telling him. This may not be to everyone’s taste but it sure made for a quick read. The other surprise was how heavily fairy tales feature in these stories. I had known before starting this book that it uses fairy tale tropes and sometimes even retells fairy tales, but to meet obvious versions of Beauty and the Beast or Snow White – although with a twist – was still a happy surprise for me. I loved how Sapkowski uses the tropes we all know from these tales and turns them upside down. Suddenly, you get a beast who’s not all that unhappy with his beastly form. And Snow White turned a little bloodthirsty after being almost killed for jealousy… there are more twists to discover that I won’t tell you here, but I was very happy with the direction these stories took.

As for recurring characters, there are few. Dandilion the bard follows along with Geralt on a couple of adventures and Yennefer – a well-known character to people  who played the Witcher games – is mentioned several times. I was super excited to get a story where Geralt and Yennefer met for the first time because although I don’t know how, I have gathered that she will be important later. Despite most characters only being there for one story, and considering the lack  of vivid descriptions, I find it all the more impressive that the world feels like a proper world. I have no idea of the geography or who rules what part of the land but every place Geralt visits feels lived in and believable.

The writing style is the one thing I’m conflicted about. I don’t know how much is due to the translation, how much would have been the same in the original Polish, but even though there wasn’t much description, I found it slightly weird how women were described. Reading about any of the women in these stories gave me major flashbacks to older fantasy books I used to read. Although there aren’t explicit descriptions of boobs, a woman’s body shape  is almost always remarked upon in some way, as is her beauty (or lack thereof). That doesn’t mean that women are reduced to their looks as there are quite a few powerful female characters here, and some of them are beautifully complex in their motives and actions. But I did notice that their bodiees were commented on quite frequently, especially compared to the male characters.

For me, this was an excellent book to end the year with. It wasn’t groundbreaking or particularly beautifully written, but it was highly entertaining, it surprised me with its twists, I really loved Geralt as a character and I will read another Witcher book very soon! If you want something fun that’s a quick read, that uses fairy tale roots to tell a whole new story, then pick this up. It also made me even more excited for the Netflix show because, even after reading just this one book, I feel like I know Geralt and I want to see how Henry Cavill plays this role. So yes, my first review of 2020 is definitely a recommendation.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

An Artist’s Life: Steven Brust – The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars

Terri Windling’s Fairy Tale Series has been on my radar ever since I caught sight of the first of those gorgeous covers (I mean look at the one below!). The only book I’ve read so far was the amazing (if super tough to read White as Snow), so it was time I  tried another one of these retellings. This one takes a (to me) unknown Hungarian folktale and weaves it into a contemporary story. As a fairy tale retelling, I have to say this failed pretty bad, but as a novel in general, I really enjoyed it!

THE SUN, THE MOON, AND THE STARS
by Steven Brust

Published by: Ace, 1987
Hardcover: 210 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First line: You want to know what good is? I’ll tell you what good is.

Once upon a time there was a kingdom that lived in darkness, for the sun, the moon and the stars were hidden in a box, and that box was hidden in a sow’s belly, and that sow was hidden in a troll’s cave, and that cave was hidden at the end of the world.
Once upon a time there was a studio of artists who feared they were doomed to obscurity, for though they worked and they worked, no one was interested in the paintings that stood in racks along their studio walls.
Steven Brust’s fantasy novel The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars is a tale of two quests, of two young men who are reaching for the moon. And the sun. And the stars.

Greg is a struggling artist who shares a studio with some of his artist friends and still hopes tfor a break through, who wants so badly to create a masterpiece, a painting that will mean something. Until then, however, all he can do is pursue his art and hope for the best.

This novel was interesting first of all because of its structure. Each chapter is divided into several sub-chapters. The first deals with Greg’s past (his time at university, how he got to know his girlfriend, how he first met his friends, etc.), the second is about the present. Greg does karate and art. He spends most of his time in the studio and, at the beginning of this book, starts a new project on a large canvas, lovingly called “the Monster”. The other sub-chapters talk about how Greg approaches his new painting, about art in general, and – not to forget – about the Hunarian fairy tale Greg tells his friends. You may have guessed that this is the titular “The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars”.

As a huge fan of fairy tales, I was quite surprised that I found myself more drawn to Greg’s life in the 80ies and his musings about art than about the fairy tale he tells. The story of Csucskari and his two brothers who set out into the world to restore light to the sky was nice enough, but it didn’t really capture me the way Greg’s struggles did. You see, he and his four friends share their studio and it’s getting pretty hard raising rent, also due to the fact that most of them don’t really sell any paintings. They paint and draw and sketch because it’s what they love to do but during this novel, they all ask themselves what’s the point. Shouldn’t they just quit? Get a day job with a secure income? Maybe waste their potential?

There isn’t even a lot of plot in this book. Greg and his friends are thinking about doing an art show, so they can get their paintings out into the world. But mostly, the story deals with their relationship with each other and with art. Greg talks a lot about what he wants to achieve, about techniques and light sources and I am making it sound super boring right now, but it totally isn’t!! I don’t paint at all, although I did just do my very first painting with acrylics (an art class I got as a gift) and it was a lot  of fun and also way harder than I expected. But even without any real knowledge about art history or craft, I found everything Greg had to say about it interesting. His troubles can be easily translated into any other art, be it writing, or dancing, or martial arts. He talks about hours of practice, about using what you were taught at school, about how ideas may come easily sometimes and sometimes just won’t come at all. Even if you’re not artistic in any way, I’m sure you will be able to relate because everything Greg struggles with is utterly human.

What I didn’t get was how the fairy tale was supposed to fit into the narrative. Sure, Greg has Hungarian roots and he tells his friends folk tales sometimes, which is why we get to read “The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars” but it really had nothing to do with the main story. I guess if you put some effort into it, you can kind of see parallels between Csucskari’s quest and Greg’s search for meaning in his art and also the evolution of his new painting. But the connection isn’t really tangible. I enjoyed the fairy tale as such, especially because it was one I hadn’t read before, but I don’t think I’ll remember it for very long.

As for the characters, they are an interesting lot. I read several reviews that said Greg was a pretentious douchebag, and yeah, I guess to some degree he is. But I never had any trouble sympathising with him. The other characters remain rather pale, but as a group, the five artists felt real and believable. They critique each other’s art – sometimes that leads to them being pissed at each other, but it also makes them better at what they do. They chat among themselves, they dream together, they worry together, they fight and they make up. The present day passages are very dialogue-heavy so the characters come across mostly through what they say or choose not to say. Otherwise, we really only focus on Greg.

This book was not what I expected, especially as a fairy tale retelling. But I found it immensely entertaining, I learned a lot about painting and about art in general, and while I think the connection between fairy tale and real life was minimal at best, I’d recommend this to anyone who is involved in the arts and maybe wants to create something themselves. If nothing else, the book will make you feel understood and less alone.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

A Real Little Mermaid Retelling: Esther Dalseno – Drown

I had the hardest time finding an indie book for the Retellings Challenge for several reasons. Number one, I admit it, I am biased and book covers do have an impact on me. So if I see a cover that looks like someone threw it together with Word Art, I don’t want to read that book, no matter how amazing the text may be. Plus, it’s really hard to find recommendations when you’ve already read the most “hyped” indie retellings. But I did find something (with a gorgeous cover, no less) that turned out to be really, really good!

DROWN
by Esther Dalseno

Published by: Little Birds Books, 2015
eBook: 260 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First line: It was destined to fail because it was an artificial species.

Seven emotionless princesses.
Three ghostly sirens.
A beautiful, malicious witch haunted by memories.
A handsome, self-mutilating prince.
Belonging to a race that is mostly animal with little humanity, a world obsessed with beauty where morality holds no sway, a little mermaid escapes to the ocean’s surface. Discovering music, a magnificent palace of glass and limestone, and a troubled human prince, she is driven by love to consult the elusive sea-witch who secretly dominates the entire species of merfolk. Upon paying an enormous price for her humanity, the little mermaid begins a new life, uncovering secrets of sexuality and the Immortal Soul. As a deadly virus threatens to contaminate the bloodstreams of the whole merfolk race, the little mermaid must choose between the lives of her people, the man she loves, or herself.
A complete reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale, this is a magical-realist fable that captures the essence of sacrifice and the price of humanity.

Many fairy tale retellings use the original tale and give it more depth by putting them in a different setting or time period, by giving the protagonists a job other than “prince” or “miller’s daughter” and by giving them a backstory and personality. That’s what I love so much about retellings – that you can discover something new about a tale you generally already know. So reading about an android Cinderella or a Beauty who is also a gardener is something I enjoy but that doesn’t mean it’s the only good way to retell an old story.

Esther Dalseno went a different route  in her version of The Little Mermaid. None of the characters in this book have names. The little mermaid is just the little mermaid, the sea witch gets no name, and even the prince and his uncle are only called by their title. It’s to the author’s credit that it took me a few chapters to even figure this out because the story flows beautifully right from the start and I didn’t feel like there was anything missing. There are enough original ideas to make up for this traditional way of telling a fairy tale. The prose in general was very good and made it easy for me to fall into the story. The one big gripe I have – and that goes to the list of baises I have against indie books – was the many, many typoes and even grammar mistakes. They got worse and worse toward the end of the book and that’s just not necessairy. A copy editor should have easily found those mistakes and fixed them. They’re not even style problems (which are subjective anyway) but really just spelling mistakes. That’s the only thing that ever took me out of the story. It’s a minor gripe but it bothered me nonetheless.

Now let me tell you why this was such a great book anyway. The little mermaid lives with her six sisters and her father in the underwater palace where they eat delicious food and admire their own beauty. The merpeople are completely emotionless and don’t really do anything, but learning about their species – and the way that the little mermaid just doesn’t seem to fit in – was quite fascinating. We don’t just see them they way they are now but we get a little origin story about how merpeople even came to exist. The same goes for the sea witch’s backstory which is revealed more and more throughout the novel.

The story follows the fairy tale pretty closely – definitely more closely than other retellings I’ve read and when I say “the fairy tale” I don’t mean the Disney version but the one by Hans Christian Andersen. The little mermaid falls in love with the handsome prince but what she wants even more than to be with him is an Immortal Soul! And because she believes that marriage grants you half your partner’s soul, she makes a plan to visit the sea witch and have herself turned human. She gives up her voice for human legs and goes to the palace to win her prince. So far, so predictable. But wait! While the prince may not get a name, he does get a personality. His father has just died and the prince is dealing with severe depression and self-harm. That came out of nowhere for me and gave the otherwise very pale character a lot of depth. In addition to the mermaid’s point of view, we also follow his and while I may not have liked him very much, I appreciated him as a character.

Once the little mermaid has turned human and lives at the palace, the story offers more and more original ideas that diverge from the fairy tale.The prince’s uncle (and king regent), for example, plays an important role. He was in fact the most interesting of all the characters. Servants gossip about how he picks a different maid each week to visit his room at night, yet he seems like a sad, lonely man. The little mermaid is quite scared of him (because she thinks his beard is an animal parasite sticking to his face). Figuring out the uncle’s character, why he is the way he is, and what his plans are for the future, was almost as much fun as following the little mermaid in her quest to marry the prince.

If you’ve read the Andersen fairy tale, you know it doesn’t end happily. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this version has a similar ending. The tone of the book is pretty dark right from the start, so a happy ending would simply not have fit! But even though you may know how the little mermaid’s story ends, you’ll be hooked until the last page to find out what happens to her sisters, her father, the sea witch, and the merpeople in general. I liked how Esther Dalseno mixed a predictable story line (if you know the fairy tale) with her own ideas in order to keep us readers guessing. The whole backstory of the merpeople’s origin and the uncle’s role turned this into a fascinating read. Except for the many spelling errors, I really enjoyed it and would definitely recommend this if you like fairy tale retellings and want to try something published by a very small press. I certainly hope Esther Dalseno publishes more retellings in the future.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

If you’re curious about the type of errors I was moaning about, here are a few examples:

[…] before her could examine them[…]

[…] usually the couple were sick of the sight of each another by one year’s end. […]

[…] he had saw fit to […]

But then again, you’ve been to absorbed to notice.

Again, this doesn’t diminish the quality of the story for me but it is something that’s easily remedied. If I can find these errors while reading the story a single time, a publisher should have been able to see them as well and fix them.

Lesbian Feminist Snow White: Melissa Bashardoust – Girls Made of Snow and Glass

In my everlasting quest to discover new and fresh takes on fairy tales and mythology, I have come across Melissa Bashardoust’s debut novel, which was sold as a lesbian retelling of Snow White. Teh strengths of the novel were definitely the original ideas the author brought to the table. Trying to kind of stick to the fairy tale may have actually hurt this book more than helping it. My overall opinion is both underwhelmed and positively surprised.

GIRLS MADE OF SNOW AND GLASS
by Melissa Bashardoust

Published by: Flatiron Books, 2017
eBook: 384 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6/10

First line: Lynet first saw her in the courtyard. Well, the girl was in the courtyard. Lynet was in a tree.

Frozen meets The Bloody Chamber in this feminist fantasy reimagining of the Snow White fairytale.
At sixteen, Mina’s mother is dead, her magician father is vicious, and her silent heart has never beat with love for anyone has never beat at all, in fact, but shed always thought that fact normal. She never guessed that her father cut out her heart and replaced it with one of glass. When she moves to Whitespring Castle and sees its king for the first time, Mina forms a plan: win the kings heart with her beauty, become queen, and finally know love. The only catch is that shell have to become a stepmother.
Fifteen-year-old Lynet looks just like her late mother, and one day she discovers why: a magician created her out of snow in the dead queens image, at her fathers order. But despite being the dead queen made flesh, Lynet would rather be like her fierce and regal stepmother, Mina. She gets her wish when her father makes Lynet queen of the southern territories, displacing Mina. Now Mina is starting to look at Lynet with something like hatred, and Lynet must decide what to do and who to be to win back the only mother shes ever known or else defeat her once and for all.
Entwining the stories of both Lynet and Mina in the past and present, Girls Made of Snow and Glass traces the relationship of two young women doomed to be rivals from the start. Only one can win all, while the other must lose everything unless both can find a way to reshape themselves and their story.

This is the story of princess Lynet and her stepmother Mina, told through both their perspectives. We are slowly eased into the world of this particular Snow White retelling, as well as to one of the two protagonists. Lynet lives in the castle with her father the king, and nothing weighs on her as much as her father’s pressure for Lynet to be exactly like her dead mother. As she died during childbirth, Lynet never got to know her, but she is told on a daily basis just how much like her she is – same look, same fragility (oh, how she loathes the word!), same spirit.

Mina on the other hand is Lynet’s stepmother and actually gets along really well with her adopted daughter. Some of her chapters are flashbacks to how she came to be queen and I really, really loved those chapters. They show a young girl with an oppressive, scary magician father. Mina is ambitious but she is also driven by fear. She wants to break out of her life and she wants power – because that is what she feels she needs to be safe. So she plays the part perfectly, gains the newly widowed king’s attention, and works her way into his inner circle via his small daughter. I found it fascinating how well Bashardoust managed to write a sympathetic character who is nonetheless using manipulation to get to her goal. Like, I thought I was supposed to hate her. She’s the villain right? Well… not so much. But she’s no goody-two-shoes either. So well done on flawed and believable characters!

The first half of the book has almost nothing to do with the fairy tale Snow White. A new surgeon beings working at the palace – a young girl named Nadia – and Lynet feels immediately drawn to her and strikes up a friendship. It’s not hard to see that this friendship will eventually bloom into a romance, so I was quite disappointed that we get so little development and chemistry between these two characters. There is far more spark between Lynet and Mina and it was their mother/daughter relationship that kept me glued to the pages more than anything else.

Lynet and Mina also are each special in a magical sort of way. The book title is a dead givaway and it’s revealed pretty early on in the book, so I’ll just tell you: Lynet was created out of snow and magic. Mina, whose heart failed when she was still a child, has a magical heart made of glass. These may sound like tropey fantasy add-ons at first, but it has a huge impact on the plot and the protagonists. While Mina has been told all her life that she cannot love and will never be loved, Lynet feels even more that she was just made to be a stand-in for her dead mother. Their personalities have evolved around their magic and I felt that this was also really well done by the author.

I won’t say much about the plot or the villain – they are both super obvious once the plot actually starts. At about the halfway mark, I felt the book lost a lot of its qualities. Inserting all the necessairy Snow White plot points to turn this into a retelling felt rather forced and ruined what would otherwise have been a beautiful character-driven book about a mother and daughter and a world that would pit them against each other. But you get it all: the poison, the stepmother worrying that she’s being replaced by a younger, more beautiful woman, the prince (in this case: princess), and so on.

The weaker points of the novel were definitely the world building. Except for a few mentions here or there about a curse that leaves the castle in eternal winter, about politics (North vs. South), and about university, there wasn’t much there. I also thought that the magic was built up too slowly at first, only to rush in with a bang at the very end. If you give your characters magical abilities, at least throw in some kind of a learning curve… The romance between Lynet and Nadia was just badly done, and I much preferred the more subtle and growing relationship between Mina and the huntsman!

As for the ending: I loved where the characters ended up and how they resolved the problem of succession and rivalry. Everything did fall into place a bit too neatly however, and because the villain of the novel was so over the top evil, and for no discernible reason, it also fell a little flat. Before the big showdown even began, I already knew how everything would be resolved and I prefer at least some element of surprise when it comes to fairy tale retellings.
All that said, I did enjoy what Bashardoust has done with these characters, and while this turned from a really good into a mediocre book, I will definitely check out her upcoming novel Girl, Serpent, Dove.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

2019 Retellings Challenge – Third Quarter Update

Holy smokes, where have all these months disappeared to? I could swear it was July a week ago, but here we are, at the beginning of October (speaking of which, I have to find me some witchy reads for Halloween). The summer months have probably been my best reading months in years, if not ever! I participated in the NEWTs Readathon which meant I first had to catch up on the OWLs readathon. Both of these were crazy months where I got a lot of reading done. I’m happy to announce that among the many books I read were also a few retellings.

What I’ve Read

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker was one of the group reads for this readathon and I absolutely loved it! From the very beginning, this quiet tale of a Golem and a Jinni grabbed me. I enjoyed following them as they found their footing in a new world, within new cultures, and as they became friends. But while this is mostly a quiet story with lots of focus on characters, there is quite an epic ending. I cannot recommend this enough. The language is beautiful, the characters are so engaging, and the story itself had me close to tears several times.

Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread was quite a different experience. It may not be a precise retelling of Hansel and Gretel, but it uses many of the fairy tale’s motifs. Gingerbread is the most obvious ones, but there are also breadcrumbs, houses in forests, and friendships that last through the ages. Most of all, it is the story of a mother and daughter, of how the mother grew to be who she is, why the daughter has turned into who she is and how their past connects them as much as their present. The family relations in this tale get surprisingly complex, but once I found my way into this rather strange story, I was enjoying myself a lot. This will not be everybody’s cup of tea. If you like magical realism (randomly talking dolls, anyone?) then definitely try it, though.

I also finally read The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris. It was pretty much exactly what I had hoped for, expect shorter and with less depth. We follow the story of Loki, from his brith as an Asgardian god to his demise – all narrated by himself, in the arrogant, hilarious manner you’d expect. I loved the narration, the silly nicknames he gave the other gods, the tricks he played on them and especially his relationship with Thor. In fact, I loved it so much that I would have liked more of the same. More chapters of Loki’s exploits, his travels with Thor, his trickery and cleverness. But Harris tells a proper story that leads straight to the end of Asgard. From a proper critic’s standpoint I would probably command her for writing a proper beginning and end, but as I read this simply for enjoyment, I felt a little let down by how things ended. Not that it came as a surprise but it was slightly anticlimactic. However, I will very likely pick up the sequel.

I also read The Ice Puzzle by Catherynne M. Valente – a retelling or reimagining of The Snow Queen from the point of view of different cultures. As this is one of Valente’s earlier works, it pretty much has no plot but tons of gorgeous language and beautiful imagery. This novella was like falling into a dream. Things don’t always make sense, you don’t know who all of the characters are, but you just roll with it. And what unfolds is snippets of a Snow Queen, of a young girl trying to save a boy, of mirror shards and pieces of ice stuck in an eye. I didn’t love this as much as I do Valente’s other work, but it was definitely a new kind of retelling for me.

I finally finished The Winternight Trilogy with Katherine Arden’s The Winter of the Witch. This was a great book but unfortunately, I started reading it at a bad time. You have to be in the right mood for this in order to fully appreciate it. I put the book away for several months and when I picked it back up, I was exactly as excited as I should have been from the start. It is the conclusion to Vasya’s story. It brings together the elements from the first and second book beautifully and even mixes a lot of real historical events and people into Vasya’s fictional story. Once I got into the atmosphere  of this book again, I loved every page. The Bear and the Nightingale is still my favorite of the trilogy but this was definitely a worthy ending.

Lisa Goldstein’s The Uncertain Places landed on my TBR pile because it won a Mythopoeic Award – a goldmine for retellings of myths, fairytales, and altogether books that I like. Reading it was a strange experience. While I read it, I was quite engaged, I wanted to know what happened and I wanted the characters to figure out how to break the fairy curse at the heart of this story. But whenever I put the book down, I didn’t really want to pick it back up again. I also felt that the most interesting characters weren’t featured enough. Instead, the story is told from one POV, and he was one of the least interesting people in this book. It was a fun read with many nods to fairy tales and fairies in general, but now that I’ve thought about it for a while, I’d rate it only okay.

My favorite retelling of the last few months and probably the whole year was Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer. It retells East of the Sun and West of the Moon with a few changes and one mind-blowing twist. Instead of a polar bear, Echo, our protagonist, has to live with a white wolf in an enchanted castle. The castle itself feels like a character – there are so many rooms to discover and so much magic hidden inside of it. And it has a library… a magical library. Need I say more? I also loved that this story manages to take the heroine’s really, really stupid decision from the original fairy tale and make it feel sensible. The villain was fantastic, the last third of the book went by in a blur of action and adventure, and because I was rooting so much for Echo, that twist at the end completely wrecked me. I’m not ging to say any more about it, just please pick up this book if you like fairy tale retellings. It is a true gem!

And another highly recommended book, this time for graphic novel fans: Neil Gaiman & Colleen Doran – Snow, Glass, Apples. This is Snow White from the stepmother’s perspective, except Snow White isn’t the fairy tale princess we know. Without spoiling, I’ll only say that the roles of villain and heroine are flipped in a very original way. It has all the things you know from the original tale – poisoned apples, mirrors, skin as white as snow – but the way Gaiman turned the story on its head, nothing should work but everything does. All the beats of the original tale fit perfectly into this new version. This is a short comic book but it’s also surprisingly dark. The artwork is gorgeous (if you’re into the style, obviously) and had me so impressed I read the book two times in a row.

Reading plans for the next months

  • Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Gods of Jade and Shadow
    Although this doesn’t fit into any of the slots left on my bingo card, I have started this story featuring Aztect gods. I have been buying Moreno-García’s book for a while, but this is the first one I’m finally going to pick up.
  • Alexa Donne – Brightly Burning
    This is a Jane Eyre retelling set in space. Since I’ve already read The Lunar Chronicles, my options for this bingo slot are slim, but I quite look forward to this. I haven’t read Jane Eyre in a while so I’m quite interested in how this author deals with the story and makes it work in a futuristic setting.
  • Anna-Marie McLemore – Blanca & Roja
    I’ve been meaning to read this for a while now. A retelling of Snow White and Rose Red plus Swan Lake sounds too good to miss. Since it features sisters – with all the love and rivalry that comes with it – I am even more intrigued. And I’ve also never read anything by McLemore but she keeps being recommended, so it’s about time I found out if I like her writing.

General Thoughts

I did not realise I’d read that many retellings. To be honest, I didn’t focus on this challenge at all during the last three months, so it’s a bit of a surprise to me how many retellings crept into my reading. With The Golem and the Jinni I got my first bingo on the Bingo Card, but I’m still planning to fill the entire card so there are still some books left for me to discover. The prompts are getting harder and harder to fulfill. While I do own some books that fit into the remaining categories, I’m not particularly in the mood for some of them at the moment. We’ll see how it goes but I am more motivated than ever to actually pull off my crazy plan.

In all honesty, at the beginning of the year, I thought my goal of reading books for all the prompts was way too ambitious but I like big goals. 🙂 I would have been fine with a single bingo, but now that I’m this close to finishing the entire card, there’s no way I’m stopping.

How’s your reading going? Are you (still) participating in this challenge? Which books can you recommend for my missing bingo slots – I’d really appreciate your recommendations!

A Gorgeous, Creepy Graphic Story: Neil Gaiman & Colleen Doran – Snow, Glass, Apples

A few years ago, I read Neil Gaiman’s short story Snow, Glass, Apples and was completely blown away. It takes the Snow White fairy tale, tells it from the point of view of the evil (?) stepmother and turns it on its head in a unique, original way.

SNOW, GLASS, APPLES
by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran

Published by: Dark Horse, 2019
Hardcover: 64 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First line: I do not know what manner of thing she is.

A chilling fantasy retelling of the Snow White fairy tale by New York Times bestselling creators Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran!
A not-so-evil queen is terrified of her monstrous stepdaughter and determined to repel this creature and save her kingdom from a world where happy endings aren’t so happily ever after.
From the Hugo, Bram Stoker, Locus, World Fantasy, Nebula award-winning, and New York Timesbestselling writer Neil Gaiman (American Gods) comes this graphic novel adaptation by Colleen Doran (Troll Bridge)!

This is the story of a young woman who fell in love with a king. This king has a daughter, a young girl with hair as black as ebony, skin white as snow, and lips red as blood. You know how it goes. Except there is something off about this particular Snow White. I don’t think it’s a spoiler but just to be safe, I won’t tell you what’s up with Snow White. Let’s just say, she’s not the fairy tale princess you’d expect. And the evil queen is actually doing her best to protect her kingdom. Apples are involved as well as a super creepy twist on the prince who wakes up Snow White with a kiss. But that’s all best discovered for yourselves.

There are several things that made this story work so well for me. On the one hand, the way Gaiman incorporates all the beats of the original fairy tale into a story that is essentially the opposite of the Grimms’ tale. On the other hand, the art itself. It’s a matter of taste, of course, but I can hardly express how much I adored Colleen Doran’s drawing style. Inspired by Harry Clarke, the art is luscious and detailed and there’s plenty to discover. So I read this first for the story itself, following along where the author led me, and then went right back again just to look at the art on each page.

What I found really impressive was that the graphic novel works almost completely without the use of panels. Most pages are full-page artworks like the one above where smaller images blend into other small images. The way the pages are set up, however, makes the reading order totally intuitive. I always knew where the author, artist, and letterer wanted my eyes to go next. That’s something I didn’t expect at first glance, so now I am all the more impressed. I can’t explain why or how, but it works beautifully. And the pages are gorgeous to look at as complete pieces of art as well.

This is the kind of book you can read really quickly but it will stay with you long after you’re finished. Some lines in Gaiman’s story simply stick because they are so well written. With the graphic novel adaptation, the same thing goes for Doran’s images. I have read this book more than a week ago and yet I still vividly remember certain pictures. I had also forgotten just how dark the story goes at certain points and while it’s one thing to read about brutality, it’s quite another to see it depicted – even if it’s in an art style that’s not super realistic.

I should also mention that this is not a story for kids. When I say “twisted fairy tale” I don’t just mean that plot elements get twisted around. I mean actually twisted. There are dark scenes here, some truly disturbing things happen, and the ending is also not for the faint of heart. Although if you’ve read some fairy tales without the added sugar coating, you’ll know what you’re in for.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Pretty amazing!

An Icy Fairy Tale: T. Kingfisher – The Raven and the Reindeer

If you’ve had the pleasure of reading one of T. Kingfisher’s retold fairy tales, I’m sure you’ll have already bought all the rest. But just in case you don’t know the brilliant mind and practical heroines of T. Kingfisher (a pseudonym for Ursula Vernon, creator of Digger), then let me tell you why you should absolutely give her a try.

THE RAVEN AND THE REINDEER
by T. Kingfisher

Published by: Argyll Productions, 2017
Paperback: 224 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Once upon a time, there was a boy born with frost in his eyes and frost in his heart.

When Gerta’s friend Kay is stolen away by the mysterious Snow Queen, it’s up to Gerta to find him. Her journey will take her through a dangerous land of snow and witchcraft, accompanied only by a bandit and a talking raven. Can she win her friend’s release, or will following her heart take her to unexpected places?
A strange, sly retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Snow Queen,” by T. Kingfisher, author of “Bryony and Roses” and “The Seventh Bride.”

The Snow Queen has always been one of my favorite fairy tales, not so much because of the setting or the idea of having a piece of magical glass mirror stuck in your heart or eye, but because it was the one fairy tale I read as a kid where the girl goes out on a proper quest, where she meets witches and robbers, and has to be incredibly brave to save her friend. I also discovered a Finnish movie version that was, to me, utterly perfect. The musical score still breaks my heart and the imagery pops up in my mind whenever someone mentions The Snow Queen. So I’m invested in this story!

I have loved everything T. Kingfisher has written, so I was quite surprised when the beginning of this book didn’t really grab me. It read like a proper fairy tale – but like the bad parts of a fairy tale. Descriptions of plot, characters that are little more than names with maybe one attribute to them, and nothing to create any kind of immersion. The beginning read like the raw material out of which great fairy tale retellings are grown. I wanted to feel the atmosphere, to be told how cold it is in the North, why Gerta loved Kay so much that she’d be willing to go out into the world and save him. And because I trust T. Kingfisher, I kept reading. And I was rewarded.

Although the beginning does drag a little if you don’t want to read a story told just like a fairy tale, it gets better and better the longer Gerta has been on her journey. The stops she makes and the people she meets start to feel less and less like little episodes and more like parts of a whole, bigger story. And by a certain point, we were right back in that well-beloved Kingfisher fairy tale territory that I had hoped for. It just took a little longer this time than in The Seventh Bride or Bryony and Roses.

Gerta does meet some characters from the original fairy tale, but they aren’t exactly the same as you’d expect. She also meets new characters, such as a raven and a reindeer (I know, bit surprise). The way these Nordic myths were incorporated into the reimagined fairy tale was probably my favorite part. I grew to love both raven and reindeer so much that I was sad when the story was over. The reindeer especially offers something new to discover even for crazy fairy tale lovers such as myself – for us, a straight forward retelling can sometimes feel a bit boring because we know everything that’s going to happen. So I always look for the parts that the author added, maybe took from other fairy tales, from myth, from history, or even from pure imagination, to keep me hooked. T. Kingfisher succeeded in that.

But there is another twist on the original tale here, one which most blurbs and synopsis will tell you beforehand, and which I don’t consider a spoiler either. On her travels, Gerta meets a Robber Girl, and in this version, the Robber Girl gets a personality and a mind of her own. And she may just fall in love with our protagonist a little bit… As Kay isn’t all that great to begin with (flying off with the Snow Queen, leaving his Gerta behind. I mean, how cold is that [pun a little intended]), I found it absolutely wonderful and refreshing to see Gerta figure out her own life without the need for Kay. Oh, she’s an amazing friend and definitely wants to save him, but that doesn’t mean she wants to be his girlfriend. Instead, she discovers what she values in people, she sees what it’s like when someone sticks by your side through the bad times as well as the good, and she learns to just love whom she loves.

If you’ve picked up this book and didn’t like the beginning, I urge you to push through it to get to the good bits. Because they are so good they make it all worthwile. I started reading this with a lot of disappointment, thinking Kingfisher had lost her deft hand at rewriting fairy tales with feminist twists, clever heroines, and believable romances. But a little patience did the trick and I was rewarded with another lovely, heartwarming tale of friendship, bravery, magic, and love. And reindeer! Never forget the reindeer.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!