Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët – Jolies ténèbres (Beautiful Darkness)

It’s no secret that I love the French and the way they treat comic books. This graphic novel kept being recommended to me by various engines (Goodreads, Amazon) until I couldn’t ignore it anymore. After browsing a few reviews, I was sold. Don’t let the cute art fool you, this is one hell of a dark story!

jolies tenebres

JOLIES TÉNÈBRES
by Fabien Vehlmann

English title: Beautiful Darkness
Published by: Dupuis, 20019
Hardcover: 96 pages
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: He’s coming! He’s coming!

Kerascoët’s and Fabien Vehlmann’s unsettling and gorgeous anti-fairy tale is a searing condemnation of our vast capacity for evil writ tiny. Join princess Aurora and her friends as they journey to civilization’s heart of darkness in a bleak allegory about surviving the human experience.  The sweet faces and bright leaves of Kerascoët’s delicate watercolors serve to highlight the evil that dwells beneath Vehlmann’s story as pettiness, greed, and jealousy take over.  Beautiful Darkness is a harrowing look behind the routine politeness and meaningless kindness of civilized society.

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beautiful darkness“Anti-fairytale” is the most accurate description I can think of, so well done, blurb-writers.  With a cover like that (or the English one, pictured on the right), and warnings about this story’s darkness, it isn’t hard to imagine that the larger of the two characters pictured is probably a human body. This suspicion turns into fact after only a handful of pages – and that’s when the real horror begins.

Aurore had just invited Hector for tea when suddenly reddish goo drops down on them and Aurore barely makes it out of her home – the now dead girl’s body –  onto dry land. She ends up next to the corpse of her former apartment (if you can call it that) along with many of her friends and acquaintances, all of whom look like dolls and puppets and things from a child’s toy collection – or a child’s imagination… Together, they try to build up their civilization from scratch, collecting food, building shacks, and keeping good manners alive.

All of this sounds very cute and the drawings and colors give the same impression. The decision to write a story in such stark contrast to its art was a brilliant one if you ask me, as it hits all the more home when these creatures cannibalize each other, send someone to certain death, or watch others succumb to illness without so much as batting an eye. To give you but one example of the seriously dark twists, have a look at this hungry ballerina trying to get some food by pretending to be a baby bird:

jolies tenebres birds

There are scenes far worse than this, believe me. As the young girl’s corpse decays and the seasons change, fewer and fewer of the little pixies are left. But this isn’t merely a collection of cute little creatures dying left and right (though it is that too), it’s the story of Aurore, the good-hearted girl at the center of everything. Despite her best efforts to build a society, to keep everyone fed, to be fair, and to establish friendly relations with the neighbouring woodland creatures, she has to learn that life sometimes just sucks and stabs you in the back whenever you’re not looking.

Starting as a lovely, innocent, even naive young girl, she ends up as a princess of revenge. Although I liked her best of all, the other  characters are worth mentioning too. Take the guy who seems to do lots of work but secretly “delegates” every job to some other poor soul. Or the pretty princess whose selfishness threatens to kill half the population. Or the disfigured cast-out whose fate just makes me want to cry. Also, the baby everybody seems to have forgotten. The birds, hedgehogs, bats, and ants are the opposite of what you’d find in a Disney movie. Not only do they refuse to sing, they will gladly gobble you up if you cross their path. Not to forget about other human-sized folk that might live nearby… The characters in this story show just how quickly people are willing to turn on each other in a difficult situation, how fast we devolve to base survival insticts, how easily we’re willing to kill.

jolies tenebres aurore

Beautiful Darkness can be read as a series of terrible events, or as the brutal coming-of-age tale of one young fairy tale creature. An interesting theory is that the dead girl’s personality literally spilled out of her after dying, and that the little pixies represent aspects of who the girl was – her naive dreams, her romantic hopes, her secret cruelties… But whether you read it in little chunks or devour the entire book in one sitting (I dare you not to!), it is exactly the anti-fairytale it promised to be. And as I still tremble with horror, I already catch myself eyeing the book to pick it up and give it another go.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Absolutely excellent!

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FTF Book Review: Vivian Vande Velde – The Rumpelstiltskin Problem

Yeah yeah, Fairy Tale Frenzy is over but I still owe you a couple of reviews.  This little book of alternate versions of Rumpelstiltskin can be read in one sitting and so was very well suited for my current busy schedule (consisting of work, work, and to even things out, some more work).

rumpelstiltskin problemTHE RUMPELSTILTSKIN PROBLEM
by Vivian Vande Velde

Published by: Harcourt, 2000
Ebook: 128 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Once upon a time, before pizzarias or Taco Bells, there was a troll named Rumpelstiltskin who began to wonder what a human baby would taste like.

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Fairy Tales Retold

  • Rumpelstiltskin

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Have you ever wondered just what was going on when that odd little man with the long name stepped up and volunteered to spin straw into gold for the miller’s daughter? If you stop and think about it, there are some very peculiar and rather hard-to-explain components to the story.
Vivian Vande Velde has wondered too, and she’s come up with these six alternative versions of the old legend. A bevy of miller’s daughters confront their perilous situation in very different ways — sometimes comic, sometimes scary. Most of the time, it’s the daughter who gets off safely, but sometimes, amazingly, Rumpelstiltskin himself wins the day. And in one tale, it is the king who cleverly escapes a quite unexpected fate.

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It’s true that Rumpelstiltskin has quite a few problems. As a child, I may have wondered about why he wanted the miller’s daughter’s firstborn child, but I never paused to think about all the other oddities the tale presents. In the author’s note, Vivian Vande Velde casually counts up all the things that are wrong with the fairy tale. And believe you me, there is very little that’s not wrong with it.

Some of the more striking questions are: Why would the miller say his daughter can spin straw into gold, knowing full well she can’t? Why would Rumpelstiltskin – who can spin straw into gold – accept a gold ring or necklace as payment? What possessed the miller’s daughter to promise him her firstborn child? And what’s with the king, letting the girl spin gold for three nights, immediately marrying her after that, and then never expecting her to spin gold again? It just doesn’t make any sense!

Irumpelstiltskin problem2n six little alternative versions, Vivian Vande Velde explores ideas that make the story a little less ridiculous and more believable, sometimes keeping the magic, sometimes finding perfectly mundane reasons for what happens. You get a Rumpelstiltskin who wants to eat a human baby, just to see what it tastes like. You get a domovoi who just wants his house to be in order, a female Rumpelstiltskin hungry for love, a Rumpelstiltskin who is a pretty elf, and you even get a story or two with no Rumpelstiltskin at all.

I loved every single way Vande Velde turned this story on its head. Mostly, the miller’s daughter isn’t half as stupid as she is in the Grimms’ tale, but sometimes I rooted more for Rumpelstiltskin than for the humans. In the very last version, it is the king who deserves our empathy and needs to outsmart those around him. The author still keeps a distinct fairy tale-ness to her versions (repetition, the number three, magic, and so on), but she updates the characters to smart, logically thinking people with reasons behind their actions.

The language is modern and colloquial. The backflap says “reading level 10+” and I’d say that’s a fair assessment. Children can read this easily, because as fairy tales should, the writing is simple and feels like somebody telling you a quick story before tucking you in at night. That’s why I also believe this would be a great book for reading out loud. The narrator begins each story with “Once upon a time, before bread was plastic-wrapped and sold in supermarkets, there lived a miller named Otto and his daughter, Christina.” or something in that order. It sets the scene to the distant and unknown fairy tale past, but it also grounds the stories in the present.

My favorite part, though, was the sense of humor. It’s clean and family friendly but at times so insightful as to make me chuckle out loud. The hungry Rumpelstiltskin from the first story “A Fairy Tale in Bad Taste” for example, is desperately trying to buy a baby for cooking – without much success at first:

Rumpelstiltskin could not find a single merchant selling baby. The closes he came was a woman who countered by volunteering to sell him her teenager, but even then Rumpelstiltskin doubted it was an entirely serious offer.

Vande Velde also ends her tales in great closing lines which I won’t quote here – at least three of them made me laugh. She knows how to make sure her readers gobble up her words (there aren’t that many, to begin with) and close her book with a big fat smile on their faces.

This little collection may not do outrageously innovative things with narrative, language, or setting. But it makes an old fairy tale, whose true meaning has apparently been lost over the ages, a little more understandable. It adds internal logic to a world of magic and makes each ending all the more satisfying for it.

RATING: 7,5/10  –  Very good

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  1. A Fairy Tale in Bad Taste
  2. Straw Into Gold
  3. The Domovoi
  4. Papa Rumpelstiltskin
  5. Ms. Rumpelstiltskin
  6. As Good as Gold

Sarah Pinborough – Beauty

Goodbye, fairy tale retellings. Hello, crazy meltingpot of awesome! Ostentatiously, this is Sarah Pinborough’s take on Sleeping Beauty, but in actuality it’s  a mix of all sorts of fairytales. Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, Rumpelstiltskin, and Rapunzel are just the ones I picked up on. Still, I can’t complain. My lust for fairy tales has been satisfied and I am ready to move on to space ships again.

beauty pinboroughBEAUTY
by Sarah Pinborough

Published by: Gollancz, 2013
Hardcover: 208 pages
Series: Tales from the Kingdoms #3
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: It was a warm spring and the king and queen took their breakfast on the balcomy outside their private apartments, enjoying the fresh air without the burden of any sort of protocol.

Beauty is a beautifully illustrated retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story which takes all the elements of the classic fairytale that we love (the handsome prince, the ancient curse, the sleeping girl and, of course, the haunting castle) and puts a modern spin on the characters, their motives and their desires. It’s fun, contemporary, sexy, and perfect for fans of ONCE UPON A TIME, GRIMM, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN and more.

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Dear book blurb writers. Now hold on just a second! Comparing Pinborough’s books to Once Upon a Time or – worse! – Snow White and the Huntsman (yeah, I tortured myself with that shit) is a huge insult. Once Upon A Time is fluffy and silly and caters to the Disney-generation for season one, then turns to crap in season two. Snow White and the Huntsman, apart from the atrocious acting on the part of whatsherface-twilight-girl, is a badly-told, boring story that has next to nothing in common with the original. There. Rant over.

In Pinborough’s version of Sleeping Beauty, we return to that despicable prince from the previous two books but we also travel back in time (see, I don’t even need a TARDIS to do it). Before he fell in love with the poisoned Snow White, the prince was restless and his parents decided he needed an adventure. Legends from the neighbouring kingdom have reached the palace. The capital is surrounded completely by a dense forest and nobody has entered the city in almost a hundred years. So prince and huntsman/bodyguard trek over to said kingdom and pick up a girl in a red cloak on the way. Petra just wanted to bring some food to her granny’s house, but secretly, she is entranced by the howling of the wolves that roam the forest nearby.

Long story short, the trio arrives at the citybeauty2, everybody’s asleep, the prince kisses Beauty and off we go. This is where it starts getting awesome. Because as familiar as the set-up sounds, the curse, the kingdom, Beauty herself, and the reasons for her enchantment are nothing like what you’d expect. The first two books were pretty sexy, this one adds a layer of creepiness to it all. There is one scene in particular that includes quite graphic descriptions of an orgy. I read this on a train ride and never have I been so grateful that people don’t know what it is I’m consuming when I read. All they see is a girl reading a book.

As much as I still love Pinborough’s portrayal of characters, her language and ideas, I do have some gripes with number 3 in the Tales from the Kingdoms. I enjoy messed-up fairy tales and crossovers, but there was really no reason for Red Riding Hood or the wolf to show up. They didn’t add to the story, they felt stuck in for the sake of another fairy tale. Rumpelstilstkin was a nice addition and he fits so neatly into this story, I’m surprised nobody else has come up with it yet. Sarah Pinborough also sets up some ideas for future novellas in the series (Fingers crossed! I definitely want more.). But for a 200-page book, it dragged along a bit, especially in the beginning. There were frequent shifts in perspective between the huntsman (sigh), the prince (ugh), and Petra (Red Riding Hood). For such a short story, one POV character or two are really enough.

So this was my least favorite in the series but still one of the better retellings I’ve read. See? It’s so simple. Don’t make your fairy tale retellings into mushy, tame, YA romances. Take all the darkness and the grit and the sex and the blood from actual fairy tales, put a feminist spin on them, make the lovely prince a bumbling idiot, and you have a fantastic modern fairy story.

If the author does decide to write more stories in the same vein, sign me up. After all, we still haven’t read about Rapunzel or the Goose Girl or – gasp – Bluebeard! I’ll read a Sarah Pinborough Bluebeard any day.

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Sarah Pinborough – Charm

So yeah… I admit I picked up Pinborough’s novellas because they are blissfully short and I wanted to reach my Goodreads reading challenge goal for the year. Call me a cheat, I don’t even care. These stories are awesome and I’m eating them up. I should also warn you: I have done my very best to express myself through words only here, but there comes a point when I find myself needing gifs to help me along. Because reasons!

charmCHARM
by Sarah Pinborough

Published by: Gollancz, 2013
Hardcover: 224 pages
Series: Tales from the Kingdoms #2
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: Winter had come early.

Charm is a beautifully illustrated re-telling of the Cinderella story which takes all the much-loved elements of the classic fairytale (the handsome prince, the fairy godmother, the enchanted mouse, the beautiful girl and, of course, the iconic balls) and puts a modern spin on the characters, their motives and their desires. This is fun, contemporary, sexy, and perfect for fans of ONCE UPON A TIME, GRIMM, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN and more. This edition contains 15 original pen and ink illustrations by Les Edwards

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Wishes do come true. As Cinderella wished to go the the ball, fall in love with the prince, and live as his princess in the castle, so did I wish that these fairy tale novellas were connected through more than just their Grimm originals. And they are! Remember that Huntsman from Poison? Or the despicable prince? They’re back.

Charm begins exactly the way you would expect a Cinderella retelling to begin. Cinderella is the poor, common girl doing all the housework while her step-mother and sisters galivant around in pretty dresses. But from the very beginning, this Cinderella felt like a real young woman. She is prone to self-pity (which doesn’t exactly make her likable, but all the more relatable) and she has desires like everybody else. Just because you are degraded to a scullery maid doesn’t mean you wouldn’t like to have sex with handsome men, right?

hot in here

That said, this story was quite a bit sexier than its predecessor. Cinderella knows exactly what she wants and while she can’t have the prince ravish her in real life, she is an expert in dreaming about him and helping herself… ahem. This isn’t 50 shades of fairy tales (thank the gods!) but there are a handful of scenes that managed to make me blush a little.

Officially, this is a new version of Cinderella, but it is interconnected with so many other fairy tales. That witch in the gingerbread house? Still eating children. Cinderella’s buddy, Buttons? He’s actually Robin Hood. But never mind any of the cameos. This book – like Poison – was all about the Huntsman for me. If I have one weakness when it comes to stories, it’s couples that OBVIOUSLY want to do it but spend all of their time fighting. Call it a kink or whatever, I just can’t resist it. The bickering, the shouting, the slap slap kiss… yep, sign me up, please.

catch-and-release-slap-o
Let me try and regain some semblance of control.
What fairy tales have always done (never mind which version you heard, it’s true for all of them) is tell stories of awful things happening to women and children. Sarah Pinborough still has awful things happen to women and children, but she gives all her characters a personality and, with it, a choice. Cinderella is pigheaded and naive and oblivious to the pain she inflicts on others. She wants to marry the prince because she fell in love with his picture. When she realises that he neither can nor wants to give her what she wants (emotionally and sexually), that irritating brute of a huntsman suddenly doesn’t seem like such a bad choice anymore. And the one thing that sets these novellas apart from other fairy tale retellings? That silly girl actually goes after what she wants!

It’s so refreshing to read about an empowered female. Disney ruined my entire generation with their princesses and how true love just falls into their laps – sometimes literally. Sarah Pinborough’s characters are different. With the possible exception of the prince, everybody is fairly certain of their own needs, and most characters aren’t ashamed to go out and do something about it. And thank you a thousand times for saying it’s okay for a girl to sleep with her friend even if she’s not in love with him!

Now the rambling about sex and relationships is out of the way, let me tell you about the ending. I won’t spoil it (though I desperately want to) but Sarah Pinborough manages to deliver a happily ever after of sorts, despite all the gloom and disappointment I have come to expect. Snow White’s story is resolved in a surprising, yet totally satisfying way. There I was, reading the last pages with my gloomy face on, when suddenly THINGS HAPPEN and characters realize certain truths about themselves, and when I closed the book, gloomy face had turned into silly happy face.

doctor who happy

Seeing as I’m already halfway through the third book, you’ll be hearing about Beauty fairly soon. It promises more of the Huntsman, the prince, some Red Riding Hood and Rumpelstiltskin, all mixed in with Sleeping Beauty.

So yes. Read these.

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Sarah Pinborough – Poison

I completely slid into this book without meaning to. I was browsing my shelves and picked this up because – honestly, look at that cover! Okay, I thought, I’ll just read the first page. Yeah right… It amuses me how reading challenges work on your mind, sometimes. All year, I’ve been looking for new women SFF writers to read. I’ve finished that Worlds Without End challenge a while ago (even read more than the challenge “required”) but my book buying has changed during this year and going for a book written by a female author I’d never read before has become a habit.

poisonPOISON
by Sarah Pinborough

Published by: Gollancz, 2013
Hardcover: 202 pages
Series: Tales from the Kingdoms #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: “She’s too old for that nickname,” the queen said.

A beautiful, sexy, contemporary retelling of the classic Snow White fairy tale, illustrated by Les Edwards.
Poison is a beautifully illustrated retelling of the Snow White story which takes all the elements of the classic fairy tale that we love (the handsome prince, the jealous queen, the beautiful girl and, of course, the poisoning) and puts a modern spin on the characters, their motives and their desires. It’s fun, contemporary, sexy, and perfect for fans of Once Upon a Time, Grimm, Snow White and the Huntsman and more.

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I don’t know what it is about Snow White that’s always bothered me. It has never been my favorite fairytale (The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen… now those I can get behind), maybe because I never really understood the evil queen. Not being the most beautiful creature in the kingdom seems a petty reason for such drastic measures. Then again, the quest for beauty is a very real thing in all our lives. We are taught from childhood that being beautiful is important, it makes life easier for you, people will like you more when you’re conventionally pretty. Maybe that’s what has always made me so uncomfortable when reading this particular fairy tale.

This is the first book by Sarah Pinborough I’ve read. It won’t be the last. Her version of Snow White sticks pretty closely to the Grimm Brothers’ tale, but she does give the evil queen some redeeming qualities. More importantly, she gives the naturally flat characters of the fairy tale personality. Snow White is gorgeous, of course, but she’s also free spirited, likes to drink and dance and play tricks on people. She’s like the girl next door, hanging out with the guys (dwarves, in this case), and just happens to be stunningly beautiful.

The queen is in many ways her opposite, and in others, just a lost soul. Her marriage is one of convenience, of duty. Where Snow White is earthy, dark-haired, and full-figured, Lilith the queen is icy blonde, ethereal and waifish. At first, she is jealous of Snow White not just because she is more beautiful (after all, Lilith may just be a lot of people’s type) but because she is  beloved by everyone she meets. Her easygoing nature, her open mind, the happiness that oozes out of her every fiber, that’s what makes Snow White so irrisistible. The queen wants some of that. And if she can’t have it, she’ll take being feared by her people over being loved.

Men would do a lot for beauty, that’s what Lilith learned in that time. Beauty had a magic all of its own.

This version of the fairy tale deviates in only a few, but key elements. The Huntsman gets a little bit of back story and a personality that made me value him immensely as a character. He is no mere pawn in the queen’s game, he has an agenda of his own, he has rules he lives by, and he is also a man with urges like anyone else. You see what I’m getting at. This is sold as a fairy tale for adults (even though fairy tales have never been only for children) because it contains some sexy time.

I was positively surprised by the depiction of the prince. Being in a coma and marrying the first pretty guy that comes your way has always seemed ridiculous. Sarah Pinborough shows us just how insane it is. The prince, an arrogant boy, really, who only wants beautiful and precious things to own, who wants to be master over his wife, is shocked when he finds out that she has a mind of her own. I loathed him from the get go.

He was married. He would unite the kingdoms. His father would have steel in the land and keep his enemies at bay, and he and Snow White would live happily ever after and produce fit and healthy heirs. Not too soon, he hoped. He’d seen how quickly women’s bodies changed after childbirth and he wanted to enjoy his wife’s for as long as possible before they settled into domesticity and he went back to relieving himself with a mistress.

But what really made this book stand out as a fairy tale retelling was the language. This is a very short book at barely 200 pages, and in order to achieve some impact with it, every sentence has to be in place, has to elicit some emotional reaction. They did. Whether it’s descriptions of Snow White, Lilith’s desperate thoughts, even the sex scenes, they created an atmosphere that immerses you in the story and makes you forget the world around you.

This is the first book in a series (three volumes are out so far) and it is obvious that the author intended to connect them somehow. The Huntsman, for example, owns a pair of diamond slippers (we never get to hear their story), the prince has just come back from an adventure that left him with a scar but we never learn what happened exactly. The queen’s great-grandmother lives in a house made of candy… ring a bell? Or three? I loved the hints at other fairy tales and I can’t wait to discover whether the next volume, Charm, continues in this vein.

A few words need to be said about the ending. You will not find the type of happily ever after you’ve come to know from fairy tales. This is a dark story, one where bad things happen to good people, where things are left unresolved. As a standalone, it was brilliant, but as I’m writing this, I catch myself hoping to find out what happened next to Snow White, the Huntsman, the dwarves and the prince in the next instalment. Even if I don’t, Sarah Pinborough has a new fan.

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Jodi Lynn Anderson – Tiger Lily

I feel like such an idiot. I’ve been reading this book for the past few days and now is the first time I notice that the flower on the cover is actually a girl in a dress… there you have it, internet. Sometimes, I’m just a bit dumb. But instead of covers, let’s talk stories – this one was far from what I expected. But it worked in its own way and even left me with a bit of a book hangover.

tiger lilyTIGER LILY
by Jodi Lynn Anderson

Published by: Harper Collins, 2012
ebook: 292 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: She stands on the cliff, near the old crumbling stone house.

Before Peter Pan belonged to Wendy, he belonged to the girl with the crow feather in her hair. . . .
Fifteen-year-old Tiger Lily doesn’t believe in love stories or happy endings. Then she meets the alluring teenage Peter Pan in the forbidden woods of Neverland and immediately falls under his spell.
Peter is unlike anyone she’s ever known. Impetuous and brave, he both scares and enthralls her. As the leader of the Lost Boys, the most fearsome of Neverland’s inhabitants, Peter is an unthinkable match for Tiger Lily. Soon, she is risking everything—her family, her future—to be with him. When she is faced with marriage to a terrible man in her own tribe, she must choose between the life she’s always known and running away to an uncertain future with Peter.
With enemies threatening to tear them apart, the lovers seem doomed. But it’s the arrival of Wendy Darling, an English girl who’s everything Tiger Lily is not, that leads Tiger Lily to discover that the most dangerous enemies can live inside even the most loyal and loving heart.

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Neverland is a wonderful place. Not just for visiting and revisiting the original Peter Pan, but also because it offers endless possibilities for new stories. Jodi Lynn Anderson chose a much-neglected character as her protagonist. Tiger Lily never did get much attention, neither in the Disney movie, nor any other adaptations I’ve seen (there was this one anime show I watched as a kid and I remember she did show up on a regular basis… can’t for the life of me remember what it was called, exactly.). Tiger Lily may be the focus of this story but its narrator is another familiar creature from Neverland – Tinkerbell, the fairy.

Here is where things should have started to put me off. Tinkerbell is a very simple character – as J.M. Barrie explains, fairies are so small that there is only room in them for one emotion at any given time. And Tink tends to fill up with jealousy, or adoration for Peter. Anderson’s Tink, on the other hand, is a complex person. She can hold several, even opposing, feelings within herself, and her love for Peter does not keep her from loving Tiger Lily as well – even as she watches them fall in love and has to reconcile herself with the fact that Peter will never look at her the way he does at Tiger Lily. In fact, although she is nothing like the original character I know and love, Tink was at least as interesting as Tiger Lily and quietly grew on me over the course of the novel.

But Tink isn’t the only one that seems like she has nothing to do with Barrie’s original creation. Both Peter and Hook get doused with a proper dose of reality. I won’t give anything away, let’s just say I was very surprised to find that the only things magical in this story are fairies and mermaids. There is nothing of Barrie’s playfulness in Anderson’s language or plot. Instead, the author focuses on the melancholy themes that come with the territory. Tiger Lily is supposed to marry Giant, a brutish man of her tribe, when she meets Peter Pan. It takes a while but they end up falling in love and Tiger Lily is torn between two worlds. Except that isn’t true – there are even more problems weighing on that one girl’s mind. The pirates are out to kill Peter, and one of the Englishmen that sometimes come to Neverland is trying to convert her entire village to Christianity.

Through these problems, several themes come up that could have been explored more. But then it would have been a very different book. For example, we get a proper psychopath in Reginal Smee, and I wouldn’t have minded reading an entire book about him. Or Phillip, the Englishman that Tiger Lily saves after his ship wrecked on Neverland’s shores, who is a symbol for colonialism and tries to lead the “savage” Sky Eater tribe on their path to Heaven. I’m not sure if I really would have enjoyed seeing all these sub-plots fleshed out more. The author did a pretty good job in making her readers think, but doesn’t stray from her focal point – a young girl’s coming-of-age.

tiger lily quote¹For a quiet little book like this, I have surprisingly much to say. There were so many things that I should have hated but didn’t: Tink being the way she is, Wendy being described as a silly, pampered idiot (although I guess, Tink does have a point there), and Hook being so very un-Hook-ish. But within the setting of this story, it all worked out. This isn’t an adventure story, it isn’t about children fighting pirates, and facing danger, and chasing after the Neverbird. This is a story about people, relationships, and how fragile they are.

Jodi Lynn Anderson manages one amazing feat that so few young adult books do. She creates characters that are vivid but feel like we never truly know them. We see them through Tink’s eyes and although she can pick up on people’s feelings and thoughts, we never get the whole picture. Tiger Lily always remains somewhat of a mystery – and this is where every reader’s imagination gets a chance to fill in the blanks. I’ve mentioned all the major players on this fantasy island, but I must talk about Anderson’s own inventions. Tiger Lily’s father, Tik Tok, was a wonderful addition to the cast. He is the tribe’s shaman who likes to wear women’s clothing and shows infinite patience for his daughter and tribe members. Pine Sap, teased for being unmanly and bad at hunting, is Tiger Lily’s only true friend and one of the few who just love her the way she is. Even Moon Eye, who could be cause for jealousy, is nothing but lovable and shows some amazing and unexpected depth.

There isn’t much dialogue in the book but even without saying much, these characters came to life through Tink’s descriptions, the things she notices and tells us, and the things she omits. Looking back now, I can’t help but feel all warm and fuzzy inside at the thought of Pine Sap and Moon Eye. I don’t have a lot to say about the prose. Sure, descriptions and introspection take center stage over dialogue and action, but again – and don’t ask me how – it just works. This is not what I would call a page turner and yet I finished the book in just a few sittings.

Apart from the characters, a lot of other things deviate from what you may know about Peter Pan. Tiger Lily tells the story of a young girl from the Sky Eater tribe, a story that started well before Wendy ever showed up. But Wendy does appear and we all know how that story goes… only in this case we don’t. For Tiger Lily and Tink, there is no fairy tale ending. But even though it was sad, verging on depressing, the ending was just as appropriate and fitting as was the rest of the story.

So yeah… I’ll never let go of my love for the original tale but, as retellings, spin-offs, prequels or sequels go, this is one of the better ones. If you want a quiet book that is nonetheless a quick read, and if you like explorign alternate versions of Peter Pan, pick this one up.

MY RATING: 7/10  –  Very good

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Terry Pratchett – Witches Abroad

It appears that, despite my reading resolutions, half a dozen ongoing challenges, and recommendations from friends and fellow bloggers, I am making my way through the Discworld series without so much as a pit stop. So it will come as no surprise that, after jumping around in the series rather wildly, I picked up the next (chronological) Witches novel.
When Terry Pratchett says “Witches are abroad”, they literally go abroad. With Granny Weatherwax’s practicality and Nanny Ogg’s immesurable knowledge of how to say things in “foreign”, what could possibly go wrong…?

witches abroad1WITCHES ABROAD
by Terry Pratchett

Published by: Corgi, 2013 (1991)
ISBN: 0552167509
Paperback: 368 pages
Series: Discworld #12
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: This is the Discworld, which travels through space on the back of four elephants which themselves stand on the shell of Great A’Tuin, the sky turtle.

It seemed an easy job . . . After all, how difficult could it be to make sure that a servant girl doesn’t marry a prince?
But for the witches Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick, travelling to the distant city of Genua, things are never that simple. Servant girls have to marry the prince. That’s what life is all about. You can’t fight a Happy Ending. At least — up until now.

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It’s fairy tale time. If you think that Witches are the only female magic-users on the Discworld, you forget a very important branch – fairy godmothers. Young Magrat inherits one late fairy godmother’s wand and the job that comes with it. There is a princess-turned-scullery-maid in Genua who must be kept from marrying the prince. Of course, this is Terry Pratchett, so expect every single fairy tale to be turned on its head, every cliché subverted, and every witch in Granny Weatherwax’s coven to be smart enough to see the bigger picture and realise that a Happy Ending isn’t necessarily what’s in the story book.

This is part travelogue, part mystery, and part crazy fairy tale. When the witches set off on their broomsticks and fly to Genua, there is much fun to be had. Little things like Nanny Ogg’s travel provisions, the fact that she brings Greebo, the cat, along, and Granny’s broomstick trouble make the journey all the more delightful. I was particularly enchanted and amused by Nanny’s ability to speak “foreign” and (more or less) translate words into English. On one of their stops, Granny Weatherwax once more shows her skill in playing cards, this time the famous Cripple Mr. Onion. Also, Nanny Ogg accidentally invents postcards and the little notes she sends home to her son Jason are hilarious. Misspelled words included.

Nanny Ogg sent a num­ber of cards home to her fam­ily, not a sin­gle one of which got back be­fore she did. This is tra­di­tional, and hap­pens every­where in the uni­verse.

witches abroad full cover

Terry Pratchett knows his fairy tales. While this Discworld book focuses mainly on Cinderella, influences of other well-known and not so well-known stories slip into the witches’ adventure. Take Mrs Gogol’s house, for example. You can see it in the (very green!) full cover illustration above. Anyone who’s ever heard of Baba Yaga will recognise that house on chicken’s legs immediately.

But even if you’re not a friend of fairy tales, classic or obscure, there are many more things to amuse and delight. If you’ve ever wondered, for example, if Discoworld had its own Casanova, search no longer. That is all I will say on the subject because he is best enjoyed without bias. I also loved Discworld’s take on racism. There is none. Because the inhabitants are too busy with speciism, nobody cares what color your skin is, just so long as you’re not a goblin. Of course, this is meant to be taken with a grain of salt, but I believe it shows Pratchett’s amazing gift when hiding real-world issues in Discworld without wielding the morality hammer. Sometimes when I read his books I feel that he just gets it.

Another pleasant surprise was that we find out a bit about Granny Weatherwax’s family and her upbringing. She is still a mysterious (and absolutely wonderful) character, but I believe she became much more human in this novel. Nobody needs worry, though. She is still a fond user of “headology” and her success rate remains incredible.

Some­times Ma­grat re­ally won­dered about the oth­ers’ com­mit­ment to witch­craft. Half the time they didn’t seem to bother.
Take med­i­cine, for ex­am­ple … Granny just gave peo­ple a bot­tle of coloured water and told them they felt a lot bet­ter.
And what was so an­noy­ing was that they often did.
Where was the witch­craft in that?

Having read Maskerade first, I had assumed certain things as facts without asking myself where they came from. Here was the genesis of one character’s transformation and it goes to show the author’s talent. I didn’t feel like anything was spoiled. Sure, I knew beforehand what would happen to the character but going back in time felt more like a privilege and a pleasure rather than catching up on a spoiled ending. Well done, Sir Terry!

I am getting to the point where I try (in my head) to rank the Discworld novels I have read so far. Tiffany Aching is still way ahead of anyone else, but Witches Abroad may just be my favorite Witches book yet. Let’s see if Lords and Ladies can kick it off its throne. Did I mention I’m already halfway through that one? What I’m saying is: Read the Discworld books.

RATING: 8 –  Excellent

divider1The Witches novels (Discworld):

  1. Equal Ritesgranny and nanny
  2. Wyrd Sisters
  3. Witches Abroad
  4. Lords and Ladies
  5. Maskerade
  6. Carpe Jugulum
  7. Tiffany Aching (sub-series)
    1. The Wee Free Men
    2. A Hat Full of Sky
    3. Wintersmith
    4. I Shall Wear Midnight

Angela Carter – The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

It’s funny how books lead to books and authors lead to authors, sometimes. In this case, a lot of different books and authors I had enjoyed all somehow pointed in the direction of Angela Carter and I firmly wanted to make Nights at the Circus my first read. Then, that reading slump got in the way and I picked the short stories over the novel. So fairytale retellings it was, and I have been shown yet another time how diverse and wide the literary field really is.

bloody chamberTHE BLOOD CHAMBER (and other stories)
by Angela Carter

Published by: Vintage, 2007 (1979)
ISBN: 9780099511090
Paperback: 176 pages

My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: I remember how, that night, I lay awake in the wagon – lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.

From the familiar material of fairy tales and legends – Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, Puss-in-Boots, Beauty and the Beast, vampires and werewolves – Angela Carter has created an absorbing collection of dark, sensual, fantastic stories.

Table of Contents:

The Bloody Chamber
The Courtship of Mr. Lyon
The Tiger’s Bride
Puss-in-Boots
The Erl-King
The Snow Child
The Lady of the House of Love
The Werewolf
The Company of Wolves
Wolf-Alice

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I stumbled across Angela Carter’s name while looking for writers similar to Cat Valente. Carter kept coming up as a prolific author who based her stories on mythology and fairytales, a feminist writer with deeply strange novels – that all sounded taylor-made for me. I was not disappointed. The book blurb promised dark retellings of Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, and – the titular tale – Bluebeard. Ranging in length and style, every story offered something original and most of them kept the promise of being dark and adult.

The Bloody Chamber is the first and longest story in this collection. A young girl marries an older, rich man and is taken to his castle. When leaving for a business trip. the Duke hands over the keys to every single door in the castle, all of which she is allowed to explore – with the exception of one room. Of course, that is the room she goes hunting for and where she makes a terrible discovery…
Two things impressed me immediately. This being my very first book by Angela Carter, I wasn’t quite prepared for her gift with language. The prose is powerful and vivid and conjures up images that create atmosphere. Where other writers spend pages upon pages describing in minute detail a setting or feeling, Carter needs one sentence and no more.

His wedding gift, clasped around my throat. A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.

At first, I simply adored the imagery and atmosphere of the story, but once the heroine finds the bloody chamber, the plot becomes the center of the story and I actually had chills running down my spine, fearing – just like the heroine – for her life. The ending was particularly satisfying because the protagonist does not need any prince to save her life. She is far from helpless but when help is needed, it comes in a rather unexpected shape – at least for a fairytale.

The Courtship of Mr. Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride are both retellings of Beauty and the Beast. They become a lot more interesting in their juxtaposition than they would be each on its own. While the first tale is very straight-forward, featuring a tender, sad, and shy beast slowly winning over the good-hearted Beauty’s heart, the second story is darker. The girl is gambled away by her father and thusly confined to the Beast’s castle. Both stories feature a transformation at the end, but they differ in tone and one of them may not end quite the way Disney envisioned it.

Puss, the Puss in Boots story represented here, was possibly my favorite tale. It is much lighter in tone and theme than the first three stories. What struck me the most was the rhythm of the language. It was poetic, not in the sense that it was flowery or painted elaborate pictures in my mind, but simply in the way that these words wanted to be read out loud. There are no rhymes in the story, it was just Puss’ narration that had a melody all its own.
I also came across this gem of a sentence which demonstrates the overall style very well.

I went about my ablutions, tonguing my arsehole with the impeccable hygienic integrity of cats, one leg stuck in the air like a ham bone; [click here for visuals]

The plot made me giggle as much as did Puss’ narration and his utter cat-ness. Like any good fairytale, it features a villain, a beautiful girl, a love-sick hero, and a couple of cats without whose cleverless their love might never have worked out. Whether it was Puss’ preference for certain architectural styles (because they are easier to climb) or his scheming with the tabby cat, this was a delight to read.

bloody chamber3The Erl-King was my least favorite story, not because it was bad – the language and description are as impressive as ever. But it isn’t really a story. I am quite familiar with the poem Der Erlkönig (everybody reads it in school) and while this strange being, living in the forest, somehow being the forest, was fascinating, I didn’t really recognise the creature from the poem. This tale is clearly sexual in nature with a girl describing how she embraces the Erl-King on the forest floor, his eyes the color of wet moss, his hair full of fallen leaves. But this story doesn’t really have a plot.

The shortest story, only a few pages long, was The Snow Child. At first, I expected something Snow Queen themed but once the husband, who is riding out with his wife, is wishing for a girl as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as a raven’s feather, it became obvious which tale was being retold. Again, I commend Angela Carter for bringing characters to life on just a few pages, on telling a story and giving us an original ending.

While not strictly a fairytale retelling, The Lady of the House of Love is a vampire story, and a melancholy one at that. The Duchess, damned and living lonely in her darkened mansion, despises her bloodlust but succumbs to it nonetheless. Her cycle of bringing young men to her house, seduce them and feed on them, is weighing heavy on her soul (if vampires have souls, that is). When a young, virgin officer arrives at her house, she is blinded by his purity (and his blond hair) and knows him to be the lover the tarot cards predicted. I loved the imagery of this story even more than in The Bloody Chamber. It is the man who is a virgin and whose blood will stain the bedsheets on their “wedding night”, it is the woman, soothing him by saying she won’t hurt him, she will be gentle.
I didn’t even care how the story ended because being submerged in these themes and that setting was a joy. I wouldn’t have minded reading a longer story or even a novel about the sad vampire Duchess and the English officer.

The last three tales all feature werewolves of a kind. The Werewolf retells Little Red Riding Hood, with the girl being on her guard and defending herself against the wolf only to find out what she had truly done at the end. I loved the set-up of the story, set in this harsh, cold country that sprang to life from the pages – and I equally loved the twist at the end. But my favorite werewolf story was The Company of Wolves, another retelling of the same story with the red-scarved girl meeting a hunter instead of a wolf and making a bet that he can reach her grandmother’s house before her if he goes through the woods, instead of staying on the path. The story follows the fairytale to a large degree, even containing “What big eyes you have” and so on. But I bet even the wolf didn’t expect Red Riding Hood to turn the ending on its head in that way. I loved it!
The last story, werewolf or otherwise, was Wolf-Alice. Alice herself is not a werewolf but a human who has been raised, for a while, by wild wolves in the woods. As she is found by humans they try to make her civilized, put her in dresses, wash her – only to cast her out because she is still a wild beast inside. She is sent to the Duke who suffers loneliness because of his own particular affliction.This tale was both heartbreaking and a little anti-climactic, although it does frame the collection beautifully in mentioning a bloody chamber once more when the little wolf-girl first menstruates and doesn’t know what is happening to her.
That said, it is a rare thing to read about menstruation in fiction at all – as if we were still living in the dark ages, when it is something to be hidden and be ashamed of.

In the end, I found something to love in every one of these stories, most obviously the fantastic language. Carter may not spend a lot of time describing her characters’ surroundings, but by throwing in French or Italian words and phrases, manages to create a sense of place without long expositions. Whether we are in France, in some undefined North country, dealing with Italian nobles or a Romanian Duchess, the atmosphere was graspable and real. Now that I’ve had my sample platter, I am more than ready to read a full Angela Carter Novel. I can’t wait to see what she does when she has more pages at her disposal for character development. I can only imagine it will be quite brilliant.

Catherynne M. Valente – Six-Gun Snow White

You’re probably getting sick of this. But here is another book that deserves all kinds of superlatives and that I can’t shut up about. To my attentive readers, this will come as no surprise at all. Cat Valente has been rocking my reading world since last year but 2013 is particularly Valente-heavy. I just can’t keep my hands (and eyes) off her books. And the amazing, surprising, even unbelievable thing is that every single one of them is brilliant. If I haven’t said it before, I’ll say it here: Catherynne M. Valene is easily my favorite writer.

six gun snow whiteSIX-GUN SNOW WHITE
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Subterranean, 2013
ISBN: 9781596065529
Hardcover: 165 pages
Standalone

My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: I accept with equanimity that you will not credit me when I tell you Mr. H married a Crow woman and had a baby with her round about the time he struck his fortune in the good blue, which is how folk used to designate Nevada silver.

From New York Times bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente comes a brilliant reinvention of one the best known fairy tales of all time. In the novella Six-Gun Snow White, Valente transports the title’s heroine to a masterfully evoked Old West where Coyote is just as likely to be found as the seven dwarves.

A plain-spoken, appealing narrator relates the history of her parents—a Nevada silver baron who forced the Crow people to give up one of their most beautiful daughters, Gun That Sings, in marriage to him. With her mother’s death in childbirth, so begins a heroine’s tale equal parts heartbreak and strength. This girl has been born into a world with no place for a half-native, half-white child. After being hidden for years, a very wicked stepmother finally gifts her with the name Snow White, referring to the pale skin she will never have. Filled with fascinating glimpses through the fabled looking glass and a close-up look at hard living in the gritty gun-slinging West, readers will be enchanted by this story at once familiar and entirely new.

dividerI’ll be honest, this time around the style took a little getting used to. This is, however, entirely my own fault. I am still right in the middle of The Orphan’s Tales and my head (and heart) has a lot of trouble letting go of that world. But when this hardback beauty arrived in the mail, there was no way I wasn’t going to devour it, and soon. Especially because I thought, when I bought it, I was just getting the “regular” hardback, not numbered or signed or special in any way (other than being a Cat Valente book and, therefore, inherently special). I was all the more surprised when I opened it and saw this:

IMG_1260

Yup. That is mine. All mine. Even my boyfriend squeed with me (because guess who gets to hear even more gushing Valente fangirl rants from me than you guys?). A bit of research showed me that there were only signed copies of this and I, without knowing it, snatched one.

Like I have mentioned before, fairytales were my very first contact with stories, tales that I knew so well I would correct my grandparents when they told me one. Retellings of fairytales are incredibly popular these days which does not mean that they are any good. Most YA retellings (Margo Lanagan totally excluded) simpy set the fairy tale in an different place or make it modern. Valente is cleverer than that. While transporting the story of Snow White into the west, making her father a miner and her mother a Crow woman, already adds an element of interest to the well-known story. Snow White’s childhood is not a happy one and she is reminded constantly – by her name if not anyone else – what she can never be. Beautiful and loved and white. The stepmother lives up to everything you’d expect from Snow White’s evil stepmother and that fact that she wraps her cruelties in a cloak of “love” makes it even worse.

She put jasper and pearl combs in my hair and yanked them so tight I cried – there, now you’re a lady, she said, and I did not know if the comb or the tears did it. She put me in her own corsets like nooses strangling my waist til I was sick, my breath gone and my stomach shoved up into my ribs – there, now you’re civilized, she said, and I did not know if it was the corset or the sickness that did it. She forbade me to eat sweets or any good thing til I got thin as a dog and could hardly stand I was so damn hungry – there, now you’re beautiful, she said and I did not know if it was my dog-bones showing or my crawling in front of her begging for a miserable apple to stop my belly screaming that made me fair.

For myself I thought: this is how you make a human being. A human being is beautiful and sick. A human being glitters and starves.

There are heartbreaking moments of cruelty in this novella, but then there are amazing moments of strength. I couldn’t quite figure out Snow White until the end, I could never be sure how she would decide in a given moment, but I had endless amounts of empathy for the little girl just trying to be loved by her new mother, for the lost woman trying to find a place where she can belong, but never quite fitting in anywhere.

Elements of the original fairytale were incorporated in a clever way. Apples are involved, the stepmother does visit three times, but Snow White is anything but stupid. Her character was nuanced, which made her quite different from the Snow White we may all know (from fairytales or the Disney version) but it also made her a believable person. There is a hunt but it involves guns rather than bow and arrow, and my favorite part was the shape the seven dwarves took in this alternate version. They brought me enormous amounts of happiness but I can’t tell you why without spoiling the fun a little.

This being a novella, there are few characters, but every one of them – even the ones who never get any lines – are three-dimensional. This is something that keeps impressing me. Cat Valente creates atmosphere and an entire personality within a short paragraph. Her style, while experimental and a little different in every book, has a fairytale-esque quality to it that never ceases to engross me. Even if the plot were shit, I could open any of her books and just fall into whatever paragraph my eyes would land on. That’s how beautifully she writes.

My only complaint about this book is that it could have been longer. Especially parts that happened toward the end, Red Deer becoming a character, Snow White sort of bonding with animals, were so powerful that I could have read on and on and on. They were cut short by the ending and I was a little sad about that. The ending as such worked for me, but then so would a completely different one. I consider it a good thing that Valente’s books aren’t about how it all ends, they are about everything that happens from beginning to end, they don’t rely on a big reveal at the end or even a huge climax. They just are. Whenever I read one of her books, I have that feeling of I don’t want this to end.

 

THE GOOD: Valente paints pictures of wonder and magic in your head, uses words in a way I have never seen before, and tells stories of strong women struggling through life.
THE BAD: I wanted more (or longer) scenes toward the end, more of the women’s village, more of Red Deer.
THE VERDICT: If you like fairytale retellings, mythpunk, or lyrical prose, you’ve come to the right place. This also happens to be a beautiful book (speaking of the cover, binding, paper texture).

RATING: 8,5/10  – More than excellent

You can read an excerpt on Tor.

Catherynne M. Valente – In the Night Garden

Do you remember how, in The Neverending Story, Michael Ende would start telling us about a side character, only to drop his or her story with the sentence “but that is another story, and shall be told another time”? The Orphan’s Tales is what happens when you don’t stop, when each character gets to tell their story, and when all these stories are intricately and beautifully entwined to form a breathtaking whole.

night gardenIN THE NIGHT GARDEN
by Catherynne M. Valente

Illustrated by: Michael Kaluta
Published by: Spectra, 2006
ISBN: 0553384031
Paperback: 483 pages
Series: The Orphan’s Tales #1

My rating: 9,5/10

First sentence: Once there was a child whose face was like the new moon shining on cypress trees and the feathers of waterbirds.

Secreted away in a garden, a lonely girl spins stories to warm a curious prince: peculiar feats and unspeakable fates that loop through each other and back again to meet in the tapestry of her voice. Inked on her eyelids, each twisting, tattooed tale is a piece in the puzzle of the girl’s own hidden history.
And what tales she tells! Tales of shape-shifting witches and wild horsewomen, heron kings and beast princesses, snake gods, dog monks, and living stars each story more strange and fantastic than the one that came before. From ill-tempered mermaid to fastidious Beast, nothing is ever quite what it seems in these ever-shifting tales even, and especially, their teller.
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My love for anything penned by Catherynne M. Valente knows no end. After the amazing and hearbreaking Deathless, I needed a recuperation period, if you will, some time to find back into the real world. Entering her books is like diving into a dream that you don’t want to wake up from. It was no different with In the Night Garden, and although Valente’s trademark lyrical style can be found within these pages, they tell stories vastly different from anything I’d read before.

The first thing any reader will notice is the structure of this tale. Nestled within the frame story – a girl telling a boy stories, secretly and at night – are more stories, which, in turn, contain yet more stories told by a wide and diverse range of characters. It is easy to think of it as a matryoshka doll, but the more I read, the more I understood that this complex and intricate structure resembles a tapestry much more than Russian nesting dolls. We follow one, or two, or five strings of story at a time, tie them off at the end, and begin a new set of stories. It becomes apparent to the attentive reader that these seemingly unrelated strings are interwoven, however, and that the very first tale has some connection to the very last. No matter the difference in time or setting, in some way, these stories are just part of one larger tale, and discovering the connections gave me endless amounts of pleasure.

Her voice was a whisper thick as wet wool.

The girl’s stories vary in setting and cast but each paint an incredibly rich environment, peopled by creatures that – no matter how otherworldly – feel utterly vibrant and alive. Among these pages, you meet foxgirls and the Marsh King, Stars and priestesses, a Black Papess and griffin. I would say there are hundreds of side characters but because every single character is given their own voice and gets to tell their own story, they are all protagonists. Some tales are heartbreaking, some end well, most don’t really end at all but leave room for imagination of things to come.

Seeing as there are so many different characters, I am stunned by Valente’s ability to give them each their own voice. While the Prince’s tale follows the tropes of a quest adventure, the Leucrotta’s story is wonderfully humorous and turns these tropes upside down. Depending on whether you are reading a polar bear’s story or that of a magyr (do not call her a mermaid, she will get angry!), their register and vocabulary varies, as does their tone. I find it hard to believe that all of these creatures stem from the mind of one woman.

“[…] mainly I’m King because I said I was, and nobody said any different. But this pier is as good as any throne room, and there are riches in every cage and pot. That’s how kings are made, my brush-tailed girl – they pick a place, shove a stick in it, call themselves King and wait to see if someone gets angry about it.”

And the praise continues. Rarely, if ever, have I read a book with such a diverse cast of characters. They come in all shapes and colors (literally) and from different parts of the world.  We meet characters with alabaster skin and hair like gold, a shipful of monsters, a people with skin like onyx, a seafaring satyr the color of trees, a foxgirl whose feet were bound when she was a child… I developed a particularly soft spot for the monsters. The Leucrotta was introduced in a way that led me to expect what the fantasy genre has taught me. Monsters bad, sword-wielding princes good. But even and especially the monsters get a voice in this story and I couldn’t help but fall in love with the Leucrotta and its sense of humor.

“Didn’t your mother teach you to be kind to monsters who completely fail to gobble you up?”

It must also be mentioned that, other than most modern fantasy books, this is a story celebrating women. Whether it is humans or monsters, women are shown in all their facets. If you Bechdel-test this book, I would pass a hundred times over. What I loved most about the women was probably the fact that there is more to them than being a beautiful princess or a goddess or what have you. Some of them are ugly, some of them are old, some are deformed and outcast, some are just plain lost souls, looking for a home.

No one cares for the likes of us freaks, but a whole stinking heap of us never caused the trouble of one Wizard in an ever-damned tower.

This loveletter to storytelling has enchanted me for the better part of a week. Drawing from folklore and mythology, Valente creates her own universe of myth and magic, mixing recognisable elements with more obscure or completely fabricated ones. Her lush, poetic language never fails to draw pictures brimming with life, and if it were for me, the Greek Gods can pack their bags. I’d rather go back to the night garden.

As you may have guessed, like the boy listening to the girl in the garden, I can’t possibly think of stopping now. As full as I am of stories that I will never forget, this is only the beginning…

THE GOOD: Amazing stories told by diverse characters, full of mythology and magic. A complex structure that will keep you on your toes. A world of wonder!
THE BAD: I suppose the structure is not for everyone. You do have to remind yourself whose head you are in whenever you put the book away and pick it back up.
THE VERDICT: This is what fantasy should be. Original, beautifully told stories, that open the readers’ minds and show just what one can do with ones imagination.

RATING: 9,5/10  – Close to perfection

BONUS: The illustrations by Michael Kaluta are gorgeous and I hope to see more of them in the second volume.

SECOND BONUS: If you are a Cat Valente fan, you have surely heard of S.J. Tucker. I bought her album “For the Girl in the Garden” to listen to while reading the book and I highly recommend it to people who enjoy music with their books. Not only do these songs evoke the atmosphere of the stories brilliantly, S.J. Tucker also reads little snippets of the book, incorporates the plot into her lyrics and overall made my reading experience even better.

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The Orphan’s Tales

  1. In the Night Gardenorphans tales
  2. In the Cities of Coin and Spice

Second opinions: