Reading the Hugos 2020: Lodestar (Not-a-Hugo)

Before we head on the Best Novel, let’s have a look at another favorite category of mine, the Lodestar. My thoughts and ballots for the other categories can be found here (the ones below the Lodestar will go live on the following Mondays):

This was a category in which I had more catching up to do than expected. I read a fair share of YA but apparently, I missed out on a lot of great books last year. I’d like to thank my fellow Hugo nominators for having read and nominated them. Because if they hadn’t been finalists, I might never have picked up some of them. I even discovered one that will make it to my best-of-the-year list. And who wants to miss out on great books? That’s right, nobody!

The Finalists for the Lodestar (Best YA/MG Book)

I didn’t think this would be so hard, guys! There are some seriously great books on this list and I am both happy about it but would also have liked ranking them to be easier.

The Wicked King by Holly Black does that amazing thing where the middle novel of a trilogy is actually the best. The world is set up, the characters are established, now it’s time to up the stakes and move the relationships along. And that’s just what she does. This was such a page turner, I think I devoured the book in two days. But it also managed to convince me of the very flawed, somewhat messed up relationship at the heart of the story. The romantic couple is not one you root for from the start – in fact, at the end of the first book, I hoped there wouldn’t be any romance at all. Boy, did I change my mind! As much as I adore this story, I am aware of its flaws and I consider it more of a guilty pleasure.

I went into Naomi Kritzer’s Catfishing on CatNet with low expectations. I just wasn’t sure that the author could pull this off. Well, shame on me, because Kritzer not only wrote one of the most endearing AI characters I’ve ever read but also managed to make CatNet feel vibrant and alive, she peopled it with lovable diverse characters, and threw a super exciting plot with a mystery into the mix. The only thing that didn’t stand out to me was the romance, but then again, I like books where the romance isn’t the main focus, so that’s not really a bad thing. I found myself deeply caring for the characters in this book – real and artificial – and that’s usually the reason a book sticks with me.

T. Kingfisher is one of my favorite authors and I always adore her plucky, practical heroines. In Minor Mage, the protagonist is a young boy who is – as the title suggests – only a very minor mage who knows all of three spells. But in order to save his village he sets out on a journey, accompanied only by his armadillo friend. He meets new people, escapes death several times, and even learns some new minor magic. This is an adorable and heart-warming adventure story and I loved it so much. But it lacked some of the emotional impact of its competitors. It was a fantastic book and it did make me feel things but as a shorter book aimed more at the middle grade age group, it looks like it won’t make the very top of my ballot. Trust me, nobody is more surprised at this than myself!

The only previous Frances Hardinge book I’d read was Fly by Night which impressed me deeply with its original world building and great multi-faceted characters. For some reason, I never continued the series and never picked up another Hardinge book (although I keep buying them). I was so excited to get into Deeplight and Hardinge didn’t disappoint. Set in the Myriad, a series of islands, everyone lives and breathes the ocean. Sometimes quite literally. Because the ocean used to have gods in it which are now dead. But their relics remain. Deep sea diving, submarines, diving bells and bathyspheres are what this is all about. It’s also about Hark, a young con man whose best friend Jelt usually gets them into trouble.
This book was just pure joy! I have raved about all its aspects in my review, but I’m still not quite over how perfect an adventure it was. Unlike some of the other finalists, this is also one of those books that can work for many age groups because it just has so much to offer. 34-year-old me enjoyed the character development and relationships the most (plus many other things), but it could also be read just as a straight up adventure with trips to the Undersea (where the water is breathable!), finding out the truth about the gods, and suriving all sorts of shenanigans.
I didn’t think the Kritzer could be knocked off its top spot on my ballot but here we are.

I was looking forward to Yoon Ha Lee’s foray into YA/MG fiction. Dragon Pearl did many things right. Min, a young fox spirit on a rather uncool planet, yearns to join her brother in the Space Force and explore the universe. When her brother is accused of desertion, she sets out on an adventure to find him, and the truth, and maybe even the mysterious Dragon Pearl that can help terraform her planet.
What follows is an exciting adventure with lots of action, new friends, betrayal, battles, chores (so many chores!) and of course shapeshifting. The story as such reads like a nice middle grade adventure. What made this slightly more interesting to me was the incorporation of Korean mythology and the way Lee deals with questions of gender and identity. There are several supernatural creatures but only foxes can shapeshift into anything. Min changes quite a lot on her journey and that offered much food for though. Ultimately, the characters remained a bit pale and while I was interested to see what happened next, I wasn’t really in it, if you know what I mean. I’d recommend this to younger kids but for me it was only nice, not amazing.

My last read was Riverland by Fran Wilde. As I didn’t enjoy her novel Updraft at all, I went into it with low expectations. It just won the Andre Norton Award so it must be good, right? Well… I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it. I kinda sorta liked it but with many reservations. Wilde picked a tough topic to write about – two sisters living in an abusive household, dreaming of a better life. And the author did a fantastic job on creating this oppressive atmosphere, of showing these girls’s lives with all the fear and shame and anxiety. But this is also a fantasy novel, specifically a portal fantasy with a magical river world. And that part was not executed well. I also felt that the plot lacked focus, tension, and solutions came  (surprisingly) too easily. I am very conflicted about my rating of this novel because I can’t imagine how hard it must be writing about this issue for a young audience. So I liked some parts of the book (the ones in the real world) and felt others were neglected (fantasy world building, characters, plot in general) which leaves this book at the bottom of my ballot.

My ballot (probably)

  1. Frances Hardinge – Deeplight
  2. Naomi Kritzer – Catfishing on CatNet
  3. T. Kingfisher – Minor Mage
  4. Holly Black – The Wicked King
  5. Yoon Ha Lee – Dragon Pearl
  6. Fran Wilde – Riverland

The only switch I’m still debating in my own head is between Minor Mage and The Wicked King. Holly Black doesn’t exactly need a push by winning awards. She is wildly popular, well loved, and will do just fine with or without a Lodestar. But I did love that book…
Ursula Vernon/T. Kingfisher on the other hand is an author I’ve been shooving in everyone’s face for a while and I’m glad she’s getting more recognition these days. But she’s not yet getting the acclaim she should! So I probably will leave these books in the spots they are now. I loved them for very different reasons and I love both their authors’ other work, but I would like to give Kingfisher a little extra boost.

Up next week: Best Novel

Twisty, Creepy, Wonderful: T. Kingfisher – The Twisted Ones

I love T. Kingfisher’s books so much. When I saw that she had published a horror novel – quite the departure from her fairy tale retellings I’d read so far  – I knew I had to try it. I just couldn’t believe that one author can write (and draw!) graphic novels, write fantastic retellings, and manage a good horror story as well. I’m very glad I was wrong because T. Kingfisher can do it all.

THE TWISTED ONES
by T. Kingfisher

Published by: Saga Press, 2019
Ebook: 400 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First line: I am going to try to start at the beginning, even though Iknow you won’t believe me.

When a young woman clears out her deceased grandmother’s home in rural North Carolina, she finds long-hidden secrets about a strange colony of beings in the woods.
When Mouse’s dad asks her to clean out her dead grandmother’s house, she says yes. After all, how bad could it be?
Answer: pretty bad. Grandma was a hoarder, and her house is stuffed with useless rubbish. That would be horrific enough, but there’s more—Mouse stumbles across her step-grandfather’s journal, which at first seems to be filled with nonsensical rants…until Mouse encounters some of the terrifying things he described for herself.
Alone in the woods with her dog, Mouse finds herself face to face with a series of impossible terrors—because sometimes the things that go bump in the night are real, and they’re looking for you. And if she doesn’t face them head on, she might not survive to tell the tale.
From Hugo Award–winning author Ursula Vernon, writing as T. Kingfisher.

When Mouse’s father calls her and asks if she can clean out her late grandmother’s house so they can sell it, of course she agrees. Because that’s what you do for family. But she’s not happy about the task, especially once she finds out that her grandmother (who hated everyone, most of all her own kin) was a hoarder. From stacks of old newspaper over a creepy doll collection, there is a lot to clean up and throw away. At least Mouse has her beloved, if not very smart, coonhound Bongo with her.

Mouse’s first person narration is exactly what I expected from a Kingfisher book. She is practical, relatable, and good-hearted. And most importantly of all – she’s not an idiot. Things may start out harmless enough but Mouse soon realizes that Something Is Wrong and that she may have entered horror movie territory. And she reacts sensibly. She’s neither too trusting, nor too suspicious. That’s why I love T. Kingfisher’s protagonists so much. They are smart enough to see what kind of story they have stumbled into and they try to figure things out but they don’t do idiotic shit like “let’s split up” or fall for obvious tricks.

The horror elements of this novel work on several different layers. There is the base line horror of Mouse being stuck in her grandmother’s creepy house, full of old stuff, porcelain dolls, and – more interestingly – her stepgrandfather’s journal. Now Mouse is well aware that he had dementia and his scribbles should not necessarily be taken at face value, but the weird ramblings in that journal added another layer of creeping suspense to the novel. And then there are the things in the woods… which is all I’m going to say about that because, come on, you should be as creeped out as I was!

I made faces like the faces on the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones.

For me, a good horror story hinges on a handful of things. Number one is the protagonists’ behaviour. I already said Mouse is a fantastic heroine whose actions are always understandable and sensible. Number two is a slow build-up of fear or suspense. The writing style of The Twisted Ones is rather humorous because that’s just how Mouse deals with things, so it shouldn’t have worked as well as it did. But maybe Mouse’s ability to laugh at herself or see the bizarre things around her through a funny lens only increased the contrast to the horrible things that happen in this story. To give you a taste of how well it worked, let me tell you a little story.
I was going to bed after reading a few chapters of The Twisted Ones and when I stood in the doorframe of my bedroom, I saw something! It was tall and had a super round “head” with weird things growing out of it. For a fraction of a second, my heart stopped, I drew in a breath to scream, and then I remembered that it was my lampshade… I switched on the light and – surprise – my bedroom was my bedroom. There was no scary creature standing in the middle of it and I had a good laugh at myself. So although not every frightening scene in this book actually scared me while reading, apparently the book did push some of my buttons and got me on edge. Because, let’s face it, I’m a grown woman who got scared by her own furniture…

Without saying anything about the big threat in this story, I’d still like to mention how well I thought it was built up. I went into this with my horror movie glasses on – so I suspected every single character of being secretly in league with Evil, I expected every room Mouse explored in that old house to hold terrible secrets, and I tried guessing what her stepgrandfather’s diary would reveal and how Mouse would get out of it all alive. I was wrong on most counts, but  I loved how T. Kingfisher toyed with those expectations, clearly playing up some elements to make us think we know where the story is going even though she had completely different plans. Until the end, it was never quite clear which strange detail would turn out to be a real clue to finding out the truth. Once the antagonist (if you want to call it that) is revealed, the creep factor went down a lot – but that’s always the case with me. As long as I don’t know what’s going on, as long as I have no idea what the heroine’s fighting, I am terrified. Once it’s clear what we’re up against and maybe I even have an idea about how to fight it, it becomes more of an adventure story to me than a horror one.

If I had read older science fiction and fantasy more widely, I might have recognized certain aspects of this story. Kingfisher reveals her inspiration for this novel in the author’s note at the end. Having read it, I think I may even be glad I didn’t know the inspiration for The Twisted Ones because it may have made this book less exciting. But I won’t deny that I am now very interested in checking out the source material, if you want to call it that. I love when stories inspire other stories, especially if they turn out as great as this one.

I also quite liked the ending, even though it leaves quite a few questions unanswered. But it really fit with the narrative as a whole. I don’t think revealing all the secrets and answering all the questions would have been a good choice for this story. If there’s magic involved, it’s fine to keep things vague. The whole point of magic is, in my opinion, that it can’t be explained nor fully understood. The Twisted Ones wraps up in a believable and satisfying manner and it also lets us know that certain horrors never leave you, even if you’ve survived terrible things.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

A Charming Middle-Grade Adventure: T. Kingfisher – Minor Mage

It’s no secret that I love everything T. Kingfisher writes, whether it’s her fairy tale retellings or the massive graphic novel Digger she published as Ursula Vernon. You can always expect lovable heroes with a solid moral compass, charming stories, and practical characters. The same goes for this little book aimed at a younger audience.

MINOR MAGE
by T. Kingfisher

Published by: Red Wombat Studio, 2019
Ebook: 185 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First line: Oliver was a very minor mage.

Oliver was a very minor mage. His familiar reminded him of this several times a day.
He only knew three spells, and one of them was to control his allergy to armadillo dander. His attempts to summon elementals resulted in nosebleeds, and there is nothing more embarrassing than having your elemental leave the circle to get you a tissue, pat you comfortingly, and then disappear in a puff of magic. The armadillo had about wet himself laughing.
He was a very minor mage.
Unfortunately, he was all they had.

Oliver is the resident mage of a small farming village – ever since the old mage died, after teaching Oliver everything he knew… or trying to at least, between periods of dementia. When the current drought has gone on so long that people worry about their crops, Oliver decides to go out into the world and bring back rain from the Cloud Farmers, only to find out that a mob of village people had that very same idea and is kind of forcing Oliver to go. Even though he would have done it anyway. So him and his familiar, an armadillo, make their way West to save their home (and maybe also a little bit to get away from that angry mob).

From the very beginning of this book, T. Kingfisher shows all the things she does best and the reasons why I love her fiction so much. You have an upstanding, brave hero who wants to do the right thing, a sarcastic but hilarious animal sidekick, and characters that are multi-layered and feel real. As a 12-year-old, being sent alone on a dangerous journey should make Oliver feel kind of pissed at his neighbors, but being the goodhearted boy that he is, with a real sense of responsibility, he does his best to understand why his friends would suddenly turn on him this way. He is not making excuses for them, but he sees them as real people with their own worries and fears and so can’t really be too mad at them for sending a child away alone.

This can definitely be described as an adventure novel, so Oliver and Armadillo get into quite a few scrapes along the way. I don’t want to spoil any details, but while there are encounters with supernatural creatures, the far more scary ones are those with other humans. Apparently, publishers refused to publish this as a middle grade novel, and yes, some scary stuff does happen, but I’d guess that kids could easily handle them. Especially because whenever Oliver is forced to make decisions where there is no easy division between Good and Evil, he examines his dilemma. Characters die in this story but Oliver doesn’t shrug these things off – they bother him, they make him wonder whether he’s made the right choice or not. It is small details like this that I find so important, not only because they show that the world just isn’t simply Good or Evil, but because it also doesn’t pretend that everything is always peachy and easy. Keeping ugly truths from kids – like that there are people in the world who will do gruesome things for no reason that you or I could understand – is way worse than writing something that will challenge a young mind to think for itself.

Oliver himself was such an endearing character. Not only the way he always tries to see from other peoples’s point of view and thus understand their motives, but also because he just has a good heart. He knows only three spells and using them gives him nosebleeds. But he wants to be so much better! So this story is not only an adventurous romp through fantasyland, but it is also about a young boy who, at first sight, may not have the greatest gifts or abilities, but who learns that sometimes what you already know is all you need. Armadillo, snarky as he may be, is a great help in teaching Oliver that the few spells he knows can go a long way, if employed creatively. It’s a beautiful message to both kids and adults out there who sometimes feel like they are not good enough. I’d say it’s a feeling we all know, and realizing that although there may be many others who are better at a thing than you are, that doesn’t mean your abilities aren’t worth anything. Sometimes, they are not only enough, but exactly right!

Lastly, let me say again how utterly charming Kingfisher’s language is. She writes with heart and humor and just gives me warm and fuzzy feelings whenever I pick up her books. Any of her stories are perfect for getting out of a reading slump, for picking up when you feel down. If you want to be certain that you’ll have a great time and close the book with a happy smile on your face, go for T. Kingfisher. I love her writing so much and I can’t wait to read her first horror novel which just came out this year. If she nails that as well, than I am all the more impressed with her.

RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

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

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

THE RAVEN AND THE REINDEER
by T. Kingfisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

 

Reading the Hugos: Short Story

This seems to be a really good year for me when it comes to keeping up and catching up on books I’ve been meaning to read for a while. The fact that the Hugo nominees are stellar this year doesn’t hurt. While I’m currently making my way through the novelette nominees, I’m already done with the short stories and I’m pretty sure I’ve settled on the way I’m going to rank them on my ballot.

The nominees for Best Short Story

  1. Alix E. Harrow – A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Pratctical Compendium of Portal Fantasies
  2. T. Kingfisher – The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society
  3. Sarah Gailey – STET
  4. Sarah Pinsker – The Court Magician
  5. Brooke Bolander – The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat
  6. P. Djèlí Clark – The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington

The only short story I had read before the nominee were announced also turned out to be my favorite – if only by a small margin. Alix E. Harrow‘s tale of a witch who works at a library (where else?) and who tries to improve the life of a young boy by putting just the right book in front of him when he seems to need it was moving and beautifully written. It made me remember those early reading days when I first discovered The Neverending Story or got Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as a present. Books have the power to change lives and Harrow uses that knowledge to weave a wonderful tale with just the right amount of magic.

My second favorite – and no surprise to me – was T. Kingfisher‘s tale of a group of  magical beings gathering to tell their woeful tales of a human girl who didn’t behave like she should. We all know when a handsome elf comes your way and makes you fall in love with him, the human should do the pining once he’s gone. But pesky Rose MacGregor won’t have any of it but flips fairy tale tropes on their head. This story was hilarious, refreshing, and features one of Kingfisher’s trademark practical heroines. I adored every single line, some of which made me laugh out loud.

Sarah Gailey’s STET is probably the shortest of the nominated stories but those few pages pack a punch! The story’s form is almost as interesting as its content, written as an academic paper handed in for review. The actual story comes to life in the footnotes (I love footnotes!). Whether this wins or not, I urge you all to read it. On just a few pages, this story made me gasp, think, sent me through so many emotions… Even though it’s not in my top spot, I’d be happy if it took home the Hugo.

Sarah Pinsker’s story was a strange one. I loved the atmosphere it created right from the get go, when a young boy, desperate to learn magic, is recruited to be the Court Magician – a job that takes much more than sleight of hand card tricks. The deeper this new Court Magician sinks into his job, the darker this story becomes. I really enjoyed it, sinister as it was, but while the ending definitely works, I felt there was something missing. So it’s only number 4 in my list.

Brooke Bolander wrote an impressive novelette (also nominated and currently on my number one ballot spot) but while this story was fun and cleverly written, it didn’t resonate with me as much as the others. You get what it says on the tin. The story of three raptor sisters, a stupid prince, a clever princess, some carnage, and a big adventure. I can’t say much more than I liked the story but didn’t love it.

The only story I really didn’t enjoy was P. Djèlí Clark‘s tale. I see what he was trying to do, telling a tale for each of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington, but few of those tales were interesting to me, some of them were quite boring, and there wasn’t any payoff at the end of the story. I look forward to reading his nominated novella but this short story just didn’t do it for me.

Much like the nominees for Best Novel, this is a ballot filled with dramatically different stories, which makes it all the harder to choose a favorite. All of these tales are well written, so my judgement is based much more on personal enjoyment and taste than on quality. Had I read them at a different time in my life, in a different mood, I might have ranked them differently, but for now, I’m happy with my choice. I’d be really happy for either of my top 3 to win the award, but I also wouldn’t mind for my numbers 4 or 5 to take it home. A ballot with only a single undeserving story (according to my personal tastes, I know lots of people love Clark’s story!) is definitely a great one.

I’ll continue to read the nominees and let you know what I think of them. I’m almost done with the novels (one and a half books to go, yay!),  the Lodestar finalists (3 books to go), and the novelettes – 5 to go, but they are quick reads, so you’ll probably hear about them next.

Refreshingly charming: T. Kingfisher – Bryony and Roses

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

Bryony and Roses
by T. Kingfisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

T. Kingfisher – The Seventh Bride

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

seventh bride

THE SEVENTH BRIDE
by T. Kingfisher

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

First sentence: Her name was Rhea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

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Fairy tale retellings by T. Kingfisher:

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

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