Good Idea, Amateurish Execution: Kalynn Bayron – Cinderella is Dead

A book based on the fairy tale of Cinderella with a queer Black protagonist and a cover this beautiful? Of course, I couldn’t resist. But it teaches me the lesson – yet again – that books can’t be judged by their cover or even by what the synopsis promises. I was all aflame for this story, I wanted to like it so very much, so my disappointment is even greater. Because it’s just not very good.

CINDERELLA IS DEAD
by Kalynn Bayron

Published: Bloomsbury YA, 2020
eBook: 400 pages
Standalone
My rating: 3.5/10

Opening line: Cinderella has been dead for two hundred years.

It’s 200 years since Cinderella found her prince, but the fairytale is over.
Sophia knows the story though, off by heart. Because every girl has to recite it daily, from when she’s tiny until the night she’s sent to the royal ball for choosing. And every girl knows that she has only one chance. For the lives of those not chosen by a man at the ball are forfeited.
But Sophia doesn’t want to be chosen – she’s in love with her best friend, Erin, and hates the idea of being traded like cattle. And when Sophia’s night at the ball goes horribly wrong, she must run for her life. Alone and terrified, she finds herself hiding in Cinderella’s tomb. And there she meets someone who will show her that she has the power to remake her world.

This book starts out so well. 16-year-old Sophia lives in Lille, the capital of the kingdom of Mersailles which is ruled by the King and his ironclad laws. There aren’t many but they are serious. Based on the tale of Cinderella, which happened some 200 years ago, women have no rights, the husband or designated man of the household makes all decisions and can “discipline” his wife and children however he sees fit. How that horrorshow came out of the Cinderella fairytale? I don’t know and neither does anyone in this book, so just accept it and move on. The law also states that, starting at age 16, every young woman has to present herself at the royal ball where she can hope to be chosen by one of the men currently seeking a wife. Men aren’t obliged to go to the ball, they can go if they want and they can choose a 16-year-old wife even if they themselves are much older. If a girl doesn’t get chosen on her first ball, she shames her family. Every girl gets three tries, otherwise she is a forfeit and essentially turned into a slave. Yup, that’s the setup.

Look, everything about this world is already ridiculous but for the sake of the fairy tale I was willing to let it slide. This book, however, has very little in common with any fairy tale as it reads more like the exact cliché YA dystopian novel you’d expect from its world buliding. Sophia is not like other girls (ugh) but at least she has a good reason. Because she is in love with her best friend Erin and they’ve even had somewhat of a secret relationship. You can imagine that this woman-hating totalitarian world does not look kindly on the LGBTQIA+ community. Sophie wants to just run away but Erin is too scared and just wants to do what is expected of her, even if that means denying who she really is and living her entire life under the control of whichever man chooses to marry her.

At the ball, Sophia’s temper (or should I say stupidity) runs away with her and, shortly after, she runs away from the ball and is now on the run from the King and his guards. If they find her, they’ll execute her. Thankfully, she immediately meets another girl and continues her story with her. Secrets about the past are revealed, plans for revolution are made, allies are found, and romance abounds. I honestly cared so little about this book by the end that I feel tempted to just spoil the twists but in the hopes that other people find more joy in this, I’ll leave it at that.

There were so many problems with this novel and they became more and more glaring the further I got. I already mentioned the world building and how it makes absolutely no sense. But even with a huge amount of suspension of desbelief, I couldn’t overlook the book’s many other flaws.
Let’s start with the writing style. I had read on several places on the internet that this was supposed to be a debut novel (which would have made things a little better) but apparently it is not at all. Kalynn Bayron has published several other full-length novels and shorter works. I wouldn’t have guessed it judging from this book. Starting from recapping events from the previous chapter through dialogue, over super cringy conversations, overly dramatic descriptions, and a predictable plot, I would have bet my kidney that this was a first try at writing a novel. It honestly reads like my own very first book which I wrote at the age of 12 – part wish-fulfillment with the super beautiful girl protagonist who saves the world without actually doing much herself, part dramatic, impactful scenes but without the necessary build-up to make them dramatic.

The characters were actually the best part because, first of all, they are distinct and they’re not all perfect. Sophia, of course, is the best of the best and only sees the good in people and never does anything wrong and just wants to save the world and everyone from the evil king. Constance, her love interest, was my favorite. She is feisty and impulsive, sometimes even funny, but definitely her own kind of person. She was the one thing I kept holding on to while reading this. Other than that, we don’t get to know many characters too well. There’s mysterious Amina, there’s Sophia’s best friend and (ex-)lover Erin who conveniently turns into a bitch once Sophia has found a new love interest. Oh, and there was Luke, the young gay man Sophia meets at the very beginning of the book and whom we don’t see again until the very end because even though he was the most interesting person to me as a reader, in this story his only value seemed to have been that he is another gay person in Lille. Once that was established, he was no longer useful for Sophia’s story.

If I’m talking characters, I also have to talk about the villain, King Manford. He is the kind of villain who’s evil just for the sake of being evil. There is a super weaksauce attempt to explain his actions at the end, but it was neither convincing nor even tried to be. I can’t take a character like that serious and I certainly want more from a YA novel than a Bad Guy who’s just bad because reasons. It’s a writer’s job to come up with compelling characters with agency and that includes the antagonist. Manford executes people on a whim, he’s the one enforcing the crazy laws of his kingdom and making sure women don’t have any rights whatsoever. So of course it’s easy for Sophia to fight him. Her plan to kill him won’t haunt her because he is so purely evil that taking a life – even the life of a despicable man – would come with no psychological consequences. That is a sad thing, especially in a book that uses a fairy tale as its basis and pretends to subvert it.

The author generally doesn’t appear to have a lot of confidence in her readers. I can’t imagine why else she’d explain the events of the previous chapter to us, why her characters would have “As you know, Bob” conversations, or why we are told at least one million times how this society works, how bad it is, and how much everyone is suffering. WE GET IT!!! We got it after the first two chapters where you showed us this world. There’s no need to explain it to us again and again in every chapter after that! The writing got worse and worse later in the book. Once Sophia and Constance are together, they turn from young women with a plan to cheesy idiots, exclaiming their love in the most sappy words imaginable. Mind you, the entire story takes place over the course of maybe two weeks.

A good plot can still save a badly written novel. Give me the subversion of the original fairy tale, give me twists and high stake moments, give me battle scenes, and difficult decisions for our protagonist. I wants them! Oh… there’s none of that available in Cinderella is Dead? Well, that’s a bummer.
It starts with Sophia never actually figuring anything out for herself or doing anything of consequence of her own volition. Every situation where she doesn’t follow the rules is forced by someone else’s actions, be they the king’s or someone else’s. When she needs new information, it conveniently is delivered to her. By Constance, by a friendly townsperson, by the super ridiculously convenient fact that she finds something that has been stuck behind a drawer for the last 200 years that NOBODY ELSE HAS FOUND IN ALL THAT TIME!!!!! She can open locks with a hairpin when it’s convenient to the plot, the king’s guards are terrifying but also really dumb when it’s convenient to the plot, and the characters are only in real danger when it’s convenient to the plot. Do you see a pattern here?
I was never, for one second, worried that anything could happen to the protagonists because the potentially dangerous scenes are over so quickly that I didn’t have time to get worked up about them. And the style of this book is just not the kind where you have to fear for anyone. You know evil wil be defeated somehow. In fact, you know pretty early on how it will be defeated, even if Sophia takes ages to finally catch up and get it, too.

Another thing I found a bit strange was how much this world relied on the Disney movie version of Cinderella. That felt so cheap and jarring, especially since it gets mixed up with other versions of the fairy tale. When did Cinderella wear an “iconic blue dress” in the actual fairy tale? Depending on which version you read, her dresses are usually silver or gold. Bayron chose to implement elements such as birds picking out the stepsisters’ eyes and the fairy godmother but then she made a character ask someone else to “bibbidi-bobbidi-boo” something which is just so weird. I’m aware that there is no one original version of any fairy tale but using the Disney movie so heavily just didn’t feel right, especially for this secondary medieval-ish world where Cinderella was an actual person and movies definitely aren’t a thing.

Now that I’ve got most of the bad stuff out of the way, let met tell you what this book does well or how it at least earned a couple of brownie points. It’s not for the Black queer protagonist – that’s great for representation but it doesn’t make the story the tiniest bit better. But this was an absolutely readable book, probably because the language was so dialogue-heavy and otherwise kept things really simple. There are no big words, no long sentences, no flowery language or heavy descriptions. This was one of the fastest 400 pages I’ve read in a long time.
The far more important bit is that Bayron actually acknowledges that killing the king doesn’t immediately change the world. The rules he’s put into place have been with people for 200 years and they are very well fixed in their minds. Why would men, who currently hold all the power, willingly give that up just because their ruler is gone? It is mentioned several times in the book that killing the king is just the beginning and that there is a lot of work to be done afterwards. I loved that because it made this crazy world just a little bit more believable and it acknowledged that you can’t just start a quick rebellion, kill a ruler, and then live in a utopia where everyone’s happy and accepting of each other. That is important and I’m glad I got to read it in a YA book.
But then, in the very last chapter, there is this one little line that is such a big fat “Fuck you, democracy” to make me re-think my opinion of the protagonists and their motives… I can’t say more without spoiling but I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes.

This entire book felt like a badly thrown together mash of ideas that weren’t thought out properly  at all. Our perfect heroine needs a villain to fight – fine, here’s a cardboard  uber-villain. But there has to be a shocking twist, right? Have you seen The Empire Strikes Back? Why not use something like that, that could be fun. And then evil has to be defeated, of course. Let’s just fill that final “battle” with lots of clichéd dialogue to hide the fact that there’s very little to it, after all.
No matter how I look at it, this just wasn’t a good book. It needed some serious work, some honest editing, and it just needed a better story. If the Cinderella aspect has so little actual impact on anything, why use it at all? Why not make up your own dystopian world and have it make sense? I started out quite liking the ideas and the characters. But the more I read, the more frustrated I got and the less I cared. I don’t know if I’ll give Kalynn Bayron another chance. If this is how she writes her fifth (or whatever) book, then I have little hope for improvement on the next one.

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Pretty bad

Melissa Bashardoust – Girl, Serpent, Thorn

I was drawn to this book for three reasons. One, its title reminds me of Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi which I absolutely adored. Two, it’s a fairy tale retelling of sorts, and three, I had read Bashardoust’s debut novel and thought she had a lot of potential.
Thanks so much to the publisher and NetGalley for the eARC provided. This book comes out on July 7th, so if you’re interested you’ll only have to wait a few more days.

GIRL, SERPENT, THORN
by Melissa Bashardoust

Published: Flatiron Books, 2020
eBook: 336 pages
Standalone
My rating: 3/10

Opening line: Stories always begin the same way: There was and there was not.

There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story.
As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison.
Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming…human or demon. Princess or monster.

I’ve read Melissa Bashardoust’s previous novel Girls Made of Snow and Glass and while I didn’t love everything about it, it showed a lot of potential and made me want to seek out whatever book came next. If I hadn’t known before, I would have thought this was her first novel and Girls Made of Snow and Glass her second one because so many first novel problems were present in Girl, Serpent, Thorn.

This is the story of Soraya, sister to the shah, and cursed with poison running through her veins. Everything she touches dies, so her family keep her locked away and nobody can touch her. Soraya fills her time with stories and gardening. Until her brother the shah returns home with a div prisoner who might know more about Soraya’s curse. I’m sure most people will agree that this is a pretty cool premise. The implications of a young girl, isolated from other people, unable to touch anyone without killing them – that alone already makes for a highly interesting story. What would such a girl’s life be like? How would she deal with being so alone, especially at an age when her one friend is falling in love?
Unfortunately, I may have gone into this book with very wrong expectations. This is not a character exploration, nor even a particularly well done F/F romance. It’s about an unbearably stupid girl fighting an unbearably stupid villain. And all because every single character in this book is too dumb to just communicate and talk normally with each other. Seriously, the entire plot hinges on forced misunderstandings, characters making illogical decisions that no sane person would make, and a romance that exists  because the author tells us, not because the characters actually get to grow close to each other.

The writing in Bashardoust’s first novel was competent and the characters were interesting and not easily classified as good or evil. Somehow, in this second book of hers, the writing got way worse. Everything lacks a certain subtlety. Pauses in the characters’ speech, for example, are always explained. Actually, everything is always explained. There are moments that would have had much more impact if Bashardoust had let the readers understand them for themselves. And I’m not talking about super difficult-to-interpret things either. Everything is fairly obvious, but I was all the more annoyed at having everything spelled out even though there’s really no reason for it. If you don’t trust your readers to be intelligent enough to get it, that’s just not very flattering.

Let’s talk romance. This is marketed as an F/F romance but apparently, the love triangle is also making a comeback. Because this starts with not quite insta-love (but sort of) and only some of it can be explained. Soraya has been lonely for a long time, so it’s only natural and understandable that she yearns for human contact and that she’d seek out the attention of a handsome young man. Why said young man is immediately infatuated with her, however, is unclear and should at least raise some alarm bells for Soraya!
And while her attraction can be understood, the immediate exclamations of deep emotions cannot. Sure, spill all your lifelong secrets to the guy you just met, even though you’ve been keeping them your entire life… How am I supposed to root for a heroine who behaves that stupidly and puts her trust in a complete stranger just because he tells her she’s pretty? Maybe I’m just too old for this kind of story but I just kept shaking my head and rolling my eyes for the entire first half of the book.

And it’s not just Soraya either. The villain – who has a great back story and could be so incredibly interesting! – is just as gullible and idiotic as Soraya. I also never understood why he’s evil. There’s no shades of grey here, he just does bad stuff because reasons. It’s just not fun to root for a dumb protagonist who’s fighting against an equally dumb villain, although at least the odds are somewhat evened out by the fact they neither of them seems to be using their brain. I won’t tell you exactly what happens because I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone, but let me give you a few vague examples.
Soraya immediately puts all her trust (something she hasn’t done ever!) in the guy she just met because he deeply loves her and thus is obviously trustworthy. Not only does she tell him about her curse but she also spills some other family secrets that are vital to keep her family safe!
Later in the book, Soraya tries to trick the villain by agreeing with him. It’s the most obvious, unbelievable trick in the universe and any villain worth his salt would not fall for it. Except here, he does.
And let’s not forget Soraya’s most glorious moment of stupidity when she accidentally lets someone know another secret by misspeaking. Girl, take half a second to think before you speak!! Seriously!

If the characters had otherwise been interesting, I might have overlooked those glaring problems. But they are all flat. Cardboard flat. Everyone gets one characteristic, one problem they’re dealing with and that’s it. The characters’ emotional response to anything that happens is just way overdone. Soraya holds back angry tears when telling a story that she’s heard and told over and over for many years? If we’re supposed to understand that she’s angry about it, make it less melodramatic, please. The same goes for the romantic moments. Everything felt just sooooo over the top. One smouldering look and Soraya’s skin prickles, it just felt completely ridiculous.  There were several of these instances and I kept getting the feeling that this is the author trying to make her readers emotional. It doesn’t work that way! You make us like and care about your characters and then bad or romantic or exciting things happen to them and we feel things. Don’t just tell us Soraya cried and expect us to feel sad along with her when we have no basis to understand her.

I admit I started reading this book when I was also reading Deeplight by Frances Hardinge and the difference in writing style and sheer skill became all the more apparent. I don’t know if I would have liked this better if I hadn’t been reading one of the best YA books ever at the same time but I’m pretty sure my reaction to the writing would have been mostly the same. I don’t like stupid characters without any nuance to them, no matter how interesting the setting may be.

Ah, let’s take a moment to discuss setting and world-building. There has been a high demand for fantasy set outside the tropey medieval Europe stuff that used to be everywhere, and I am more than happy that publishing is doing pretty great when it comes to that. We get all sorts of stories set in places all over the world – real and fictional – inspired by underrepresented mythologies, fairy tales, histories, and people. So of course I was excited to read a Persian-inspired fairy tale retelling. But it takes more to build a fictional place than just throwing in some fancy words or making your characters wear certain clothes. That’s only skin-deep and I have come to expect more of YA!
At no point did I really feel like I was in a specific setting. The palace may go by a Persion-inspired name but the way it’s described, it could have been any old castle. Other than that, we get a mountain and a forest setting. So fine, if the actual place and the climate don’t feature in the book very much, that’s okay. Then at least show us where we are through politics. Again, Soraya’s brother Sorush may have been called shah instead of king but essentially, that’s how he is presented. Politics are never even really mentioned and while that wasn’t super necessary for Soraya’s personal story, there are hints of div politics. The divs are just described as this supernatural species of beings who attack and kill humans. We don’t know exactly why humans and divs are at war. We do learn that divs aren’t all alike, that there are factions among them and they they don’t necessarily get along. Which would have been a cool addition to a really thin plot. But by the end of the book, we know exactly as much as we do at the beginning. So definitely don’t expect anything like City of Brass level political intrigue.

I don’t know the reasons behind the choices made with this novel. Is it a misguided belief that deeper world-building will put off readers? Do authors and/or publishers think kids wouldn’t get it? Was it just laziness because for an immersive world that feels real, you’d have to do a lot of research, hire sensitivity readers (especially when writing about a culture not your own), and put in a lot of work? From the afterwork I gathered that the author did some research but other than names, we don’t get to see the fruit of that labor. In the end, I honestly don’t care why the world building is so thin. If the end product remains shallow, that’s the version the publisher decided was going to go out into the world and that’s all we readers get. And I’m not particularly happy with what I got here.

Now that the most glaring problems are out of the way, let’s look at the actual story. Because, boy, does it have problems of its own. The first half of the book – and I’m pretty sure it’s almost exactly in the middle – reads like a first draft. The entire first half is basically the set up for the real plot. And I don’t mean the part that you read in the synopsis – that’s the set up for the set up. Soraya’s skin is poisonous and anything she touches, she kills. So her royal family has hidden her away. She moves through secret corridors, rarely interacts with humans other than her mother, and yearns for friendship and love and human touch. So far, so intriguing. Then that whole insta-love-but-not-really-thing happens followed by a series of super dumb decisions,and bad writing.
In the second half of the book, however, the story finally finds its footing and becomes interesting. I’m not saying it’s great but at least by that point, I actually wanted to get back to the book to see what would happen next. Until Soraya’s next act of supreme stupidity at least.

I’ve already ranted about the characters but I want to say that they are not all bad. The most interesting ones just aren’t the protagonist. Soraya’s mother, for example, would have made one hell of a heroine. Parvaneh, the imprisoned parik (a type of div) Soraya wants to question about her curse, also turns out to be more than first meets the eye. It’s a shame that Soraya herself is so flat. Her only defining quality is that she’s cursed, wants to get uncursed and thinks of herself as a monster. It’s a good premise. I like characters who are torn, who have to find their place in the world, but if that’s their only thing and they behave stupidly most of the time, then that’s just not enough.

You will not be surprised that I didn’t really like this book. During the second half, we at least get some interesting scenes and a few moments of excitement. Although that is quenched pretty quickly by Soraya being dumb, the villain being dumb, or the plot being super convenient. The ending left me feeling annoyed and asking myself what the hell I’d been reading and WHY. If the whole point of the story is for Soraya to accept her otherness and to live with who she is, that’s great but please wrap it in a good story.
I spent almost all of the time reading this book rolling  my eyes, waiting for something thrilling to happen, and asking myself when the actual romance part would start. Sadly, this was super disappointing. For the little spark of good ideas (villain backstory, hinted at div politics, great mother character) I’m giving this book a few brownie points. But if this hadn’t been a review copy, I would have DNFd it long before the 50% mark.

MY RATING: 3/10 – Pretty bad

A Feminist Little Mermaid: Julia Ember – The Seafarer’s Kiss

I like The Little Mermaid in all its variations. The original tragic story, the Disney version, many retellings I’ve read, and some villain origin stories. This book is kind of a mix of them all. It retells the fairy tale but with a mythology twist, an f/f romance, and a good balance between tragic and happy.

THE SEAFARER’S KISS
by Julia Ember

Published: Duet Books, 2017
Ebook: 214 pages
Series: The Seafarer’s Kiss #1
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: The amethyst dagger called to me from inside the drowned man’s chest. The purple hilt gleamed in the light filtering through the rotted floorboards of the ship’s deck.

Having long-wondered what lives beyond the ice shelf, nineteen-year-old mermaid Ersel learns of the life she wants when she rescues and befriends Ragna, a shield-maiden stranded on the mermen’s glacier. But when Ersel’s childhood friend and suitor catches them together, he gives Ersel a choice: say goodbye to Ragna or face justice at the hands of the glacier’s brutal king.

Determined to forge a different fate, Ersel seeks help from Loki. But such deals are never as one expects, and the outcome sees her exiled from the only home and protection she’s known. To save herself from perishing in the barren, underwater wasteland and be reunited with the human she’s come to love, Ersel must try to outsmart the God of Lies.

Ersel is a little mermaid but she is different from the others. While other girls do their best to keep their bodies healthy for the big test that will determine their fertility and so their status in the merpeople society, Ersel spends her time exploring human artifacts, looking through sunk ships, and talking to her only friend Havamal. But one day, she meets an actual alive human girl on top of the glacier and – after some initial scepticism on both sides – befriends her. Ragna has survived a shipwreck and needs any help Ersel can give her just to survive the next few days.

This story starts out pretty much as you’d expect a retelling of The Little Mermaid to start, although Ersel is not a princess, just one regular mermaid among many, and they are all ruled over by a brutal king who makes iron-clad laws. Whoever disobeys pays dearly by having some of their scales removed (so essentialy torture) or being exiled. And with the merpeople population dwindling, a young mermaid’s fate is above all to produce children whether she wants to or not. It’s for the good of the people, after all.
But Ersel has nightmares about being given to some merman just to be his brood mare. She’s heard tales of women who are kept locked away and whose only purpose in life is creating more merpeople. They have no chance of seeing the sun, no friends, nobody who would dare help them.

It was this bit of world building that made this retelling slightly more interesting than I would otherwise have been. The characters and plot are all rather superficial, we never get to know anyone really well, the world isn’t particularly fleshed out, and the plot is predictable to some degree. But the tidbits of information Julia Ember does give us on her version of merpeople society kept me interested and reading. When Norse mythology came into the mix, I wasn’t particularly pleased (it makes no sense to me for merpeople to adopt the same religion as humans would) but it leads to a really nice twist around the middle of the book.

We all know how the story goes. The little mermaid wants to be human, visits a scary underwater witch, and bargains away her voice to get a chance at true love. Well, all of that is true, except the witch is actually Loki and he stays true to his nature, tricking people wherever he can. I won’t tell you more, but I was giddily pleased when I read the part where Ersel bargains with him and what comes out of that transaction. It’s not what I expected and I love being surprised!

The second half of the book is where we veer off the beaten fairy tale track and Ember’s own ideas are front and center. I loved certain aspects of this but they also felt like last-minute add ons that were thrown in so there would be more of a story. A bit of foreshadowing wouldn’t have hurt for some of the things that become important later in the book. I also liked that Ersel has to deal with the consequences of her actions, although there, too, I would have liked a bit more depth. It’s easy to say that Ersel sympathises with a character but it would be so much better if we, the readers, could have known that character well enough to sympathise with them too! For the things the book is trying to do, it was simply too short. With a bit more time spent on character development and world building, this could have been much better.

All of that said, I did enjoy reading this book. Instead of a teenage girl pining after some prince (well, shield maiden in this case), Ersel knows that there are bigger problems in her world. Sure, she’d love to go and explore the world with her new-found love, but merpeople society is seriously messed up and she feels that she should do something about it. It’s also about finding her place in the world and among her friends, about accepting who you are and who you can be. For a quick read and anyone who likes retellings, I recommend picking this up.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

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