Ursula Vernon – Digger

I have made no secret of my love for T. Kingfisher and her utterly charming fairy tale retellings. But T. Kingfisher is a pseudonym for Ursula Vernon who – being the same actual person – writes tales just as charming and, it so happens, draws her own comics as well. She also seems to adore wombats which makes me adore her. The tale of digger is a big one and all the more praise to the author for making every page a pleasure.

DIGGER: The Complete Omnibus
by Ursula Vernon

Published by: Sofawolf Press, 2013
Hardcover: 823 pages
Collected Graphic Novel
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I’ve been digging for a long time.

Digger is a story about a wombat.
More specifically, it is a story by author and artist Ursula Vernon about a particularly no-nonsense wombat who finds herself stuck on the wrong end of a one-way tunnel in a strange land where nonsense seems to be the specialty. Now with the help of a talking statue of a god, an outcast hyena, a shadow-being of indeterminate origin, and an oracular slug she seeks to find out where she is and how to go about getting back to her Warren.
With an irreverent sense of humor and a fantasy protagonist with a healthy dose of skepticism, Digger rapidly gained a huge following of devoted fans eager for the twice a week updates of the webcomic for the duration of the comic’s run. Digger’s story is now complete. It has been compiled in six bound volumes, each including additional content not posted online.

Digger is a wombat who finds herself in a tunnel with no way back. So she does what any sensible wombat would do in her place – she digs on until she comes up somewhere. This somewhere, it turns out, is in a temple for a statue of the god Ganesh who is trying to help Digger find her way back home. But there is magic at play and things are not quite as simple as just digging another tunnel. So Digger explores her surroundings, meets many strange and amazing creatures – hyenas with war paint, a prophetic slug, a bunch of monks, some of whom may or may not be insane, and a weird little shadow creature whom Digger tries to teach about life and morals.

I really don’t want to tell you anything about the plot because it is just such a joy following Digger and seeing how things unravel around her. She is the same kind of practical, no-nonsense heroine that Ursula Vernon writes in her fairy tale retellings, and as such is easy to love. But Digger is also a badass with her pickaxe and her claws. You wouldn’t think the ability to dig tunnels could come in so handy sometimes.

I especially enjoyed Digger’s relationships with the friends she finds along the way. Her goal is to somehow get back home, but because gods and magic and ancient myths are involved, she kind of has to save the world a little bit before going home. And although Digger doesn’t believe in gods, doesn’t think very highly of the monks she encounters, and definitely doesn’t agree with the dietary habits (especially the tea) of the hyena she meets, she’s a good sport and helps along. After all, while she’s stuck in a strange place, she may as well make herself useful.

The art, although all in black and white, is delightful. Digger and her companions come to life through simple lines but there is a lot of love for detail in the larger pieces. I discovered several fish with interesting headgear in the margins, who have no bearing on the plot whatsoever and seem to exist simply to delight the reader. I’m sure I haven’t caught all of these little easter eggs but I giggle every time I did.

At over 800 pages, Digger is a brick of a book, but I enjoyed every page. There are twists along the way, some of them heart-wrenching, others funny, and although the ending tore my heart out, the tone of the book overall is humerous. This was 800 pages of fun, with a lot of heart, the bravest (and coolest!) wombat I’ve ever read about, and despite some slower moving parts, it begs for a re-read. Ursula Vernon has created a memorable cast of characters, all of which kind of grow on you as you go along. You won’t even notice when it happens but suddenly, you care what happens to them which makes the ending all the more powerful. I absolutely loved it.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

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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