Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente

Six-Gun Snow WhiteTitle: Six-Gun Snow White
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Published: 28 February 2013
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Source: own copy
Genre: fantasy, fairytale, western
Rating: 9/10

This is as much my analysis of the story as it is a review, so it contains some spoilers, although I have not discussed the specifics of the ending.

I’ve never found the story of Snow White particularly compelling, but Catherynne M. Valente reinvents it in ways I could never have imagined. She takes the basic elements of the tale – the stepmother, the mirror, the huntsman, the heart, the seven dwarves – and reworks them into a story about racism, love, and mothers.

In North America’s Old West, a wealthy mine owner known to us as Mr. H sees a beautiful Crow woman named Gun That Sings and decides her wants to marry her.  Mr. H “had a witch’s own knack for sniffing out what the earth had to give up” (10), and Gun That Sings has the kind of beauty that seems to appeal to his business interests: “her hair had the very color of coal […] Her dark mouth as a cut garnet, her skin rich copper, her eyes black diamonds for true.” (10-11). Gun That Sings doesn’t want to marry this white man, but after a few not-so-subtle threats about the safety of her people, she relents. When she gets pregnant, Mr. H makes a wish:

let this child have hair like hot coal, and lips as bright and dark as blood, but oh Lord, if you’re listening, skin as white as mine. (15)

It doesn’t come true. Gun That Sings dies in childbirth, leaving behind a beautiful but clearly half-breed child. She lives in luxury in Mr. H’s beautiful castle by the sea, with a little zoo and her own dime museum. Mr. H gives her a silver gun with red pearls in the handle; she calls it Rose Red. But because of the colour of her skin her existence is kept secret.

Mr. H gets married again, to a woman so beautiful it hurts to look at her. When she sees the child she calls her Snow White as a mockery of the pale skin she will never have. Mrs. H proceeds to abuse Snow White for years, beating her and forcing her to do all the housework in their massive home.

In pre-Grimm versions of the fairytale, it was Snow White’s own mother rather than her stepmother who torments her. Valente conflates the two versions. Mrs. H is Snow White’s stepmother, but she’s the only mother the girl has ever known and she wants very desperately for Mrs. H to accept her. The very first thing Mrs. H says to her is “You are not entirely ugly, but no one would mistake you for a human being. That skin will never come clean” (37). She considers Snow White to be non-human because she’s not white, so the only way for Snow White to be accepted is to become white, or at least to become as much like Mrs. H as possible.

For a long time Snow White accepts Mrs. H’s violent abuse, believing that this is love and it’ll “fix” her.

Love was a magic fairy spell. Didn’t the girls in my books hunt after love like it was a deer with a white tail? Didn’t love wake the dead? Didn’t that lady love the beast so hard he turned into a good-looking white fellow? That was what love did. It turned you into something else.

For this reason I forgave Mrs. H. I tried to be near her all the time. She only meant to scrub me up and fix me. At any moment she might take me in her arms and kiss me and like that beast with a buffalo’s body I would fill up with light and be healed. Love would do what it did best. Love would turn me into a white girl. If I did everything right, one day I would wake up and be wise and strong, sure of everything, with skin like snow and eyes as blue as hers. It would happen like a birthday party. One day the girl in the mirror would not look like me at all, but like my stepmother, and nothing would hurt anymore forever. (44)

Under Mrs. H’s cruel ‘guidance’, Snow White bleeds and starves. She is scrubbed in baths of milk and ice. She is trussed up in corsets that suffocate and combs that hurt her. As a result, she gets some very twisted ideas of what it is to love, to be human, and to be a woman.

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. (43)

It’s a much more interesting dynamic than the petty beauty contest of the usual tale, with its stereotypes about female vanity. The mirror plays an important role in this story, but not because Mrs. H admires her face in it (it doesn’t actually show reflections at all). The question of beauty becomes a racial issue instead. Mrs. H is literally ‘fairer’ than Snow White, and since this makes her forever superior in racial terms, she never seems to see herself as being in competition with her stepdaughter. Other people talk about who is prettier, but Snow White is quick to dismiss the issue:

 I heard a lot of talk speculating on whether myself of Mrs. H was the more handsome. It’s plain foolishness.

Everybody knows no half-breed cowgirl can be as beautiful as a rich white lady. Where’s your head at? (65)

Later, Valente uses the fairytale’s iconic line as a dig at Snow White’s half-breed rootlessness. She won’t find a home in her mother’s Crow Nation because she’d “be the fairest of them all” (145) – just white enough that her presence would make trouble for them.

Unlike the fairytale though, there’s more to Mrs. H than simple evil. In the terrifying, ancient mirror that Mrs. H keeps in Snow White’s dime museum, Snow sees a young Mrs. H being abused in a similar way, and told that to be a woman means to “Work until you die” (50), to “Obey until a man give you permission to die,” (50) to “Make your black deals in the black wood and decide what you’ll trade for power” (51). It doesn’t all apply to this story; it’s more like Mrs. H come from a legacy of women who have suffered and found a way out of that suffering through cruelty and magic. Mrs. H tells Snow White that “Magic is just a word for what’s left to the powerless once everyone has eaten their fill” (63), and for a moment, I felt sorry for her.

In that scene, Valente also shows sudden similarities between Mrs. H and Snow White, suggesting that Snow White could take the same path. It’ll inevitably be a trap, a bad bargain, (“I am freedom and I will eat your heart” (51)), but perhaps Snow White could get what she wants.

She runs away instead. She steals a fantastic Appaloosa named Charming and heads out into the WIld West, turning into a character very different from the delicate girl of the fairytale. This Snow White is the fastest gunslinger in the West. She cheats at cards. She “Could teach the Scottish laird who dreamed up whiskey in his sheep pen to bolt it down and never flinch” (150). She gets work in one of her father’s mines, doing filthy, exhausting work in the darkness. The question of her prettiness was dismissed before, but now it becomes irrelevant as her trials turn her hard and vicious. Not that she cares – as far as she’s concerned her body has brought her nothing but trouble so who cares if it’s beaten and scarred? She’s used to that.

A bounty hunter comes looking for her heart, but not because her stepmother wants to eat it. There’s no beauty contest here, so the heart has a more practical but no less macabre function. And then rather than stumble across seven dwarves, Snow White ends up in the town of Oh-Be-Joyful, run by seven female fugitives who understand Snow White’s need to escape from her life.

But even in the form of this hardened gunslinger, Snow White is plagued by her fundamental childhood longings – she “wants a mother so bad it’s like a torn up body wanting blood” (144), even though, for her, “[a] mother’s like a poison made for only one soul” (149). It’s a horrible paradox, but it’s also why this story has such a strong impact.

At this point in the the standard fairytale, Snow White is unbelievably stupid or (more generously) unbelievably naive. Her stepmother tries to kill her three times with the same trick, and Snow White falls for it each time. I won’t tell you how Valente reewrites this part of the story, but I will say that it’s much more intellectually and emotionally involved, as well as being one of the hardest hitting aspects of the book.

The only difficulty I have is the ending. I just don’t know what to make of it. This is a very strange and emotionally complex book, so I read it twice (it’s short) but I still can’t figure that ending out. It even stranger than the rest of the book, and it changes the feel of the story from fantasy to something more like sci fi.

But other than that – wow. I’m so glad I got the signed limited-edition copy of this. And not just for the incredible reinvention of Snow White. As usual, Valente’s writing alone makes this book worth reading, as you may have guessed from the abundance of quotes I couldn’t resist using. I realise that fairytale retellings are getting a bit old now, but a book like this still stands out.

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The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Fell Beneath FairylandTitle: The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There
Author: 
Catherynne M. Valente
Series: 
Fairyland #2
Published:
 
2012
Publisher: Much in Little
Genre:
 
fantasy, fairytale, children’s fiction
Source: 
review copy from the publisher
Rating: 
6/10

Ever since returning to the normal world, September has longed to go back to Fairyland. Her world is even more boring now, and school has become harder. She was always odd and quiet, but her experiences in Fairyland have somehow changed her in ways that make the other children shun and hate her. Then, on the day she turns thirteen, she sees a boat rowing across a wheatfield and chases it into Fairyland.

Septembers assumes she can now have the happy adventure she might have had the first time if she hadn’t chosen to defeat the Marquess. But of course it’s not a simple matter of “a child is whisked away to a magical land and saves it, and all is well forever after” (55). Fairyland is in trouble – people’s shadows are falling away to live in the world of Fairyland-Below, ruled by Halloween, the Hollow Queen. And because magic comes from shadows, the underworld is rich with it. Halloween throws revels (parties) so everyone can have a wonderful time. The catch is Fairyland-Above is losing its magic with the shadows and will eventually just become part of the ordinary world.

September can’t bear to let her friends suffer, so she descends into the underworld, only to find that all this is happening because of her – Halloween the Hollow Queen is September’s own shadow.

Like book 1, book 2 is a fantastical children’s novel, but a serious one. September faces serious dangers and ethical dilemmas, and it’s seldom easy to separate good from evil. September has to make tough decisions, and face us to grim realities. It’s because of her actions that Fairyland is in trouble, because it’s her shadow that’s causing the trouble. However, she sacrificed her shadow in an act of kindness, and you can’t blame her for not predicting the consequences. Nevertheless, she feels culpable and takes on the responsibility of setting things right.

Nor is Fairyland-Below a bad place. The underworld isn’t evil, and the shadows aren’t the evil parts of the people they were once attached to. They’re just different, characterised by the attributes that their other selves kept hidden – the parts of themselves that were kept in the dark. She meets shadow-Ell the Wyverary to find that is a bit shy, while his counterpart was not. Shadow-Saturday is boisterous and brave, while the other Saturday was always very timid.

September doesn’t have the comfort, then, of knowing she’s fighting against bad people or a bad place. The shadow versions of Ell and Saturday consider themselves her friends as much as their counterparts did. To make matters worse, they’re happy in Fairyland-Below, happy to be free. They weren’t unhappy in the past, but now that they’re allowed to live their own lives, they don’t want that to change. To be reconnected to their original bodies would be like chaining them up. The shadows are their own Beasts, and deserve to be treated as such. Ell makes an excellent point when September says she can’t allow Halloween to keep taking shadows that don’t belong to her:

“Well, they aren’t yours, either [September]. And anyway, don’t you want to see Saturday and Gleam? I thought you loved them. Not a very good love, that only grows in sunshine. (74)

But September can’t just leave them to it, because they don’t care what effect they’re having on Fairyland-Above. Also, Halloween is a tyrant. She might be beloved by most of her subjects, but she’s a tyrant, who uses a mysterious creature known as the Alleyman to steal shadows from Fairyland-Above and keep any unruly subjects in line. She doesn’t care about the consequences of her actions like September does, doesn’t care what she’s doing to Fairyland as long as she’s happy. She’s turned Fairyland-Below into a kind of childish fantasy where everything is easy, everyone gets to do what they want and there are lavish parties every night. And as September knows, life can never be that simple.

In addition to all these ethical conundrums, September faces new personal challenges as a teenager. To begin with, she now has a heart

For though, as we have said, all children are heartless, this is not precisely true of teenagers. Teenage hearts are raw and new, fast and fierce, and they do not know their own strength. Neither do they know reason or restraint, and if you want to know the truth, a goodly number of grown-up hearts never learn it. And so we may say now, as we could not before, that September’s heart squeezed, for it had begun to grown in her like a flower in the dark. We may also take a moment to feel a little sorry for her, for having a heart leads to the peculiar griefs of the grown. (11)

While September was never uncaring, her cares weigh a little more heavily on her now. She thinks about her mother and father more than she did before. She’s worried about what she’s going to be when she grows up, particularly since everyone in Fairyland, including all her friends, seem to know what they want and have known it their whole lives. Halloween in particular is so much more sure of herself – she’s Queen, she knows what she wants and uses the magic of wanting to take it. She has a fantastic conversation with September when they finally meet, and taunts her uncertainty:

I am everything you aren’t brave enough to be. I am what you cannot even admit you want to be – Queen of Fairyland, which is how all the best heroines end up.

The thing with September though, is that she never has the easy path. She can’t just be; she has to live. She can’t just know what she wants in life; she has to figure it out. And already we see her struggling to define herself. She gets annoyed with the way people, even her friends, assume she can’t do things without help, or do things to her without her permission. She gets treated like a child, and is fighting to be treated more like an adult. While this goes on, she’s also trying to adapt to the way her friends have changed – they’re literally different people, and yet are still the friends she grew to love.

I love the way Valente weaves all these issues into a fairytale narrative, but I must admit that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the first one. Both have a lot of encounters with bizarre creatures and places, and while September’s actions in these situations are important, the things themselves are just fantastical for their own sakes. Whether you like them is a matter of personal taste. There were some things I thought were cool and adorable, like September’s delightfully practical dress and the long wine-red coat that has a personality of its own. I was mostly indifferent to many other things. If you like them however, this book will be so much richer and more charming.

When reading first book, I immediately disliked it and then gradually started enjoying it more and more until the Marquess’s sad confession won me over completely. This time I got off to a better start, but . It was good, it was nice to read, and I think the challenges that September has to face make it an excellent children’s fairytale. I also like the way Valente plays around with fairytale tropes and mythical characters. But it just wasn’t as enchanting as I expected it to be. I’ll keep reading the series but I won’t dive into the third book as eagerly as I did this one.

The Color Master by Aimee Bender

The Color MasterTitle: The Color Master
Author:
 Aimee Bender
Published:
 
13 August 2013
Publisher: 
Doubleday
Genre:
 
short stories, fantasy, magical realism
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
8/10

Aimee Bender is a master of nuance. Her writing has a subtlety that feels smooth and delicate most of the time, and then stops you like a razor to your pulse. I savour her details like a perfect sip of wine or a bite from a deliciously simple and elegant dish.

Her tales saunter on the edges of fantasy and magical realism, or explore real-quirks in ways that give them a mythical quality. Reading them feels just a little bit otherworldly, like something both pleasurable and unnerving that you can’t quite describe. According to the blurb, she is “[b]eloved by readers and critics alike” and I can see how she finds favour with both groups. Her writing is beautiful and so easy to read. Her imagery is enchanting but not simplistic. You look deeper into every story, or just enjoy their dreamy, elusive qualities. Some stories have more or less traditional narratives, while others are more like fictional musings on an idea or character.

“Appleless” is a metaphorical story set in an apple orchard where everyone indulges in the fruit except for one girl who will not eat them. I had to take a minute to think about this one, and came to the conclusion that it’s a story about temptation and decadence. If you take the apples as a symbol or forbidden fruit or lust, then story depicts a society of thoughtless hedonists, and shows what they do to the one individual who has no interest in their excess.

“The Red Ribbon” is a slightly disturbing story of marital discord. I love the ways in which Bender intimates the wife’s unhappiness:

“Time for bed, honey,” she said cheerily, which was code for Don’t touch me.

 

She certainly liked the image of herself as the benevolent wife with arms full of flowers, but if she bought the flowers she would spend part of the ride home feeling so righteous and pleased that she had bought flowers; what a good wife she was; wasn’t he a lucky man; until, by the time she arrived home with the flowers, she’d be angry he hadn’t bought her flowers.

The wife is bored and unemployed. The details of the story keep suggesting that she’s unhappy because she doesn’t make any money but lives off her husband’s, and that she’s somehow wandered into this situation without meaning to. She takes on a more active role when she revitalizes their sex life by getting her husband to pay her for sex. He enjoys the game for a while but once he tires of it she finds she no longer enjoys it without being paid. The red ribbon in the title refers to a fairytale about a wife who always wears a red ribbon around her neck. When her husband removes it one night, her head falls off.

In “The Devourings” Bender depicts another problematic marriage, this time between a large, ugly woman and an ogre who makes her feel delicate and feminine in comparison. They’re happy together, until he accidentally eats their children. This story went on for a bit too long, I thought, but I liked the strange dynamic between the human and the ogre.

“Faces” was a 2009 Shirley Jackson Award finalist. The award is “for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic”. I suppose “Faces” falls into the first category; it’s a bit hard to define, but I like it a lot anyway. It’s about a belligerent boy who can’t recognise faces or facial expressions. He can’t tell his mother about the children he hangs out with at school; he doesn’t even know their names. His mother appears to him as “big red lips”, his father as mussed hair. He can’t distinguish young from old or alive from dead.  I’m not sure if this bothers him, but when he’s questioned about it his reaction is angry and dismissive:

Wasn’t there enough complication in the world already without having to take in the overload of details and universes in every single person’s fucking face?

The weird thing is that he kind of has a point, but at the same time his uncaring attitude is so creepy.

I can see why the collection was named after the story “The Color Master” as it’s undoubtedly one of the best, most enjoyable stories. It’s a fairytale about a group of tailors and shoemakers who specialise in colour. The best of them is the Color Master, but she has grown very old and only comes in for the most difficult requests, like when they have to make a pair of shoes the colour of rock, or a bag the colour of a blooming rose.

They do far more than simply dye cloth; their skills lie in incorporating all the shades and depth of the real thing so that the rock shoes, for example, are indistinguishable from the rocks they imitate and evoke the sense of craggy mountains. The artisans collect colour wherever they find it (“an amazingly rich burgundy off in the driest part of the forest, on a series of leaves […] a new blue in a desiccated pansy, and another in the feathers of a dead bird”), their methods include meditation on colour, texture and being, and their services are so expensive that most of their clients are royalty. The main plot of the story when the king asks them to make a dress the colour of the moon for his daughter. It seems an impossible task, especially since the Color Master is dying. The story follows the narrator, who is not especially talented but has to guide the team through the creative process, putting not only colour but emotion into their work.

I’d already read “Americca” in the anthology Fantastic Women, but it’s a great story so I happily re-read it. It’s about an American family who keep finding strange objects that appear in their home. Some are duplicates of what they already have, some are things they’d never seen before, sometimes things they’d never buy. Besides unnerving them, every object seems to say something about the imperfections of their lives.

There are several plotless character-driven stories most of which weren’t particularly memorable, but were soothing to read. One that really stood out for me however (partly because it was discomforting rather than soothing), was “Lemonade”, about Louanne, an unpopular teenage girl who goes to the mall with a popular ‘friend’ Sylvia who only used her to get a ride. Louanne’s stream-of-consciousness narration is part of what makes this such a good story – it’s intensely self-absorbed, deeply insecure and ridiculously naive, as befits a teenager like her. She overthinks everything, tries way too hard, and  gets extremely worried about minor things that no one else notices, like trying to be nice by smiling at people:

And then I walked by a pretty black lady in pink high heels and I forgot to smile at her which means she might’ve thought that I didn’t smile at her because I am racist because, in case she happened to notice, I smile at everyone.

Presumably no one notices that she smiles at everyone and if they did they’d probably think she was insane. Although, being a teenager is a kind of insanity 🙂 The story has a sad side to it in the casual cruelty with which Louanne’s peers treat her, most notably when Sylvia meets up with her boyfriend and another girl, and Louanne is asked to go away:

“Will you leave us alone for half an hour Louanne? […] I need to talk to Sylvia and Jack about something important. I’ll tell you another time, I just have to talk to them alone right now.”

It’s the kind of situation that anyone who was a bit of an outcast at high school will recognise, and that’s what makes it a bit discomfiting to read. I love the way Bender does a psychological close-up of a specific experience though, and it’s the kind of thing that comes up in many of her stories. Another one I wanted to mention was “Wordkeeper” about the effect of technology and social media on our minds and relationships. In the story, people can no longer remember common words because they’re so used to letting phones and computers do their thinking and remembering for them. The narrator relates his deteriorating relationship with a friend and neighbour who is growing increasingly frustrated with people’s dependancy on technology. In one scene, he chooses his email over sex:

She ate the peanuts. She was flushed from the wine. She wanted to take off her clothes, I could feel it, the same way she was undressing peanuts, and I felt it as cruel then, how I didn’t want to do anything with her. Maybe cruel to both of us. But the truth is, I just felt like I had e-mail to check. I could masturbate faster. It was easier, in terms of fallout. Who wants to be in an argument with your neighbor?

Overall, this is a beautiful collection. If you like short stories, especially the kind of stories you find at the intersection between literary fiction and fantasy, then I think you’d love this. Bender’s lovely writing is really something worth indulging in.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Fairyland 1Title: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
Author: 
Catherynne M. Valente
Series: 
Fairyland #1
Published:
 
10 May 2011
Publisher: 
Corsair
Genre:
fantasy, fairytale, children’s fiction
Source: purchased new
Rating: 7/10

Twelve-year-old September is tired of her life in her parents’ house, so when the Green Wind alights at her window and offers to take her to Fairyland on the back of the Leopard of Little Breezes, she accepts immediately.

From the start, September finds that Fairyland is nothing like what she could even have begun to expect. She nearly drowns when she arrives, and then has to choose between one of four unappealing paths – to lose her way, her life, her mind or her heart. Losing her way means going back the way she came. She doesn’t want to lose her life or her mind, so she choose to lose her heart, since “[a]ll children are heartless” (5) anyway, as hearts are heavy and it takes a long time to grow one.

On her journey, September agrees to retrieve a witch’s spoon from the evil Marquess who rules the land. The Marquess has introduced all sorts of rules and bureaucracy in an attempt to tame the world and make it more hospitable to children. She has even forbidden the fairy folk from flying, and had their wings strapped down with chains. She insists that fairy folk are too mischievous and dangerous by nature so

I fixed all that, September. Do you have any idea how difficult it was to invent bureaucracy in a world that didn’t even know what a ledger was? To earn their submission, even to the point of having their wings locked down? But I did it. I fixed it for children like you, so that you could be safe here and have lovely adventures with no one troubling you and trying to steal your soul away. I do you didn’t think you had charmed them all with you sparkling personality, child. (126)

The Marquess blackmails September into retrieving a magical sword in the midst of a periods forest. Luckily, September has friends to accompany her. She met a dragon-like creature called a Wyvern, who believes his father was a library.  His name is A-through-L, and he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of any subject beginning with the letters A through L. September also earns the devotion of a tattooed, blue-skinned boy named Saturday who will grant you a wish if you wrestle him nearly to death.

Obviously, this is not your usual fairytale or a typical children’s fantasy, even though it has all the magic and wonder of one. But it’s the exactly the kind of thing I love and look for in a Valente novel. Nevertheless, I got off to a bad start. While I fell in love with Valente’s writing in works like The Habitation of the Blessed (2010) and Silently and Very Fast (2011) it has a very childish quality here that I immediately disliked. The abundance of detail that I normally find so enchanting about her style, here seemed excessive and irritating.

I’m not so easily dissuaded though, and I kept reading hoping I’d just get used the style, or that the book would hook me once the plot was in full swing. And, happily, the book kept growing on me until, by the end, I was completely and utterly enchanted by it.

Valente has written a lush fairytale full of strange creatures and places. It’s strongly reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland with a nod to Narnia, particularly The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Valente’s stories often have a metafictional aspect to them, and there are quite a few comments about stories in general and this one in particular. September embarks on her adventure having read stories where girls are whisked away to other worlds, and she worries that she’s not ill-tempered, smart, brave or talented enough for this journey. She understands what’s expected of her too, because “What is a child brought to Fairyland for if not to thwart wicked rulers?” (139).

This is so much more than an echo of the works that inspired Valente though. Like the best rewritten fairytales, she builds on them in interesting ways. Unlike Alice in Wonderland for example, the novel considers why September – and other children – might want to escape to Fairyland for reasons other than simple curiosity, and despite the many dangers. At first it seems like September is just bored and irritable, looking to do something other than wash teacups. But she’s also unhappy at home – her “father ran away with the army” (19) and her mother is  always working, no doubt struggling to make ends meet.

By spending time away from her mother however, September is given the chance to appreciate the practical things her mother – an engine mechanic – has taught her.

she was her mother’s daughter, always and forever, and felt sure whatever she set her hands to would work. Once, they had spent a whole afternoon fixing Mr Albert’s broken-up Model A so that September would not have to walk every day to school, which was several miles away. September would have been happy to watch her mother shoulder-deep in engine grease, but her mother wasn’t like that. She made September learn very well how a clutch worked, what to tighten, what to bend, and in the end, September had been so tired, but the car hummed and coughed just like a car ought to. That was what September liked best, now that her mother was not about and she had the freedom to think about her from time to time – to learn things, and her mother knew a great number of them. She never said anything was too hard or too dirty and had never once told September that she would understand when she was older. (158)

September’s skills, ingenuity and acquaintance with hard work are essential as she frequently encounters demanding obstacles and great danger. She understands that this is necessary:

There must be blood, the girl thought. There must always be blood. The Green Wind said that, so it must be true. It will all be hard and bloody, but there will be wonders, too, or why else bring me here at all? And it’s the wonders I’m after, even if I have to bleed for them. (49)

And she does bleed, many times. Her body is changed in ways that are far more scary than simply shrinking or growing as Alice did. One of the creepiest but most memorable moments is when she encounters her own Death, who appears to her as a small creature. Rather than run away, September cradles her Death in her arms and sings it to sleep.

Another way in which September differs greatly from Alice is that her actions and adventures have real consequences for herself and others. It’s not just a dream, and after a while you sense the gravity of what’s going on. Even though September is like Alice in that she goes from one bizarre encounter to another she always plays an active role and what she says and does matters to other people and the plot. She can’t just leave one thing behind and completely forget about it as she moves on to the next.

It was the gravity of this story that ultimately won me over. I think it was about midway through the novel, when September has to deal with something particularly threatening and scary, that I really started to enjoy the story. It’s still a children’s tale, but not a patronising one. September might be in a fantasy world, it very real to her and her friends, as is the quest she embarks on. She has to make sacrifices, face up to uncomfortable realities, and make choices that I would never have to want to make myself. The were several occasions where this book had me on the verge of tears.

It’s not all dark and desperate though; the novel is full of the delights you’d expect in a fairy world and more – whimsical customs, magical baths, strange mouthwatering food, pookas, spriggans, live bicycles who run (or rather, cycle) in herds, and a key who races after September because it knows she will need it. It’s lovely read for people who love modern, elaborate fairytales and stories that can be both grave and delightful. I recommend it.

I want to save the world with pretty clothes: The Dream Crystal by Mark O’Bannon

Title: The Dream Crystal
Series: The Dream War series
Author:  Mark O’Bannon
Published: 2011, independant
Genre:   fantasy
Source:  eBook received from author for review
My Rating: 1/10

It’s Erin O’Neil’s dream is to change the world “with pretty clothes of her own designs”. But then she gets kicked out of fashion school because the clothes she designs are too beautiful and enchanting. Then she gets kicked out of her house, because her parents have never really liked her. Then she gets kicked out of the dojo where she’s been practicing Kung Fu since she was a kid, because the dojo master wants her to go and fulfill her destiny.

Erin feels like her life is now “a smoldering ruin” but then she finds out that she’s not really Erin O’Neil but Aisling, a faery changeling. The faeries find her and tell her who she really is, then take her to their home, The Land of Dreams, along with her only friend, Genevieve. Aisling resolves to find the real Erin, who is being held prisoner by the Shadow People, and take her back to her human parents. But it won’t be easy, because the Shadow People are at war with the faeries.

The Land of Dreams is so named because the faeries use magic based on thoughts – “If you can dream it you can do it” is the motto they’ve snatched from Walt Disney. Using their minds, faeries can summon or conjure up what they need: food, electricity, weapons, warm winds to dry them off when they’re wet. They can also transform themselves into other forms or sprout wings. But mostly you see them use their magic for clothes. If you read this book, it’s the obsession with clothing that you’ll remember most.  Because Aisling is a fashion designer, she’s always taking note of people’s outfits, and designs and conjures up clothes for herself and others. Every chapter and scene comes with new outfits for all characters involved, and if they’re dissatisfied with their clothing or get wet, they change again. And you get to read about every single dress, shirt, sandal and boot. Here’s a taste:

“She wore bright red leather pants, a white tunic with flared sleeves, and black boots.”
“pink and black striped tights, a black half shirt, mini skirt, and pink platform shoes. A short pink leather jacket lay on the bench next to the pipe organ.”
“Aisling wore a green blouse with flared sleeves, a thick white belt with a silver buckle, white tights and a pair of shoes, also white. Topping off her outfit, like an accessory, were large wings, now stretched out in alabaster brilliance, and bathed in sunshine. She smiled at the idea of designing outfits that matched her wings.”
“a pair of white leggings under a blue and green plaid shirt, open toed, high heeled sandals with blue and green plaid straps, and a white fur coat to keep out the cold”
“She wore an exquisite dress with a short layered black skirt over a longer purple skirt, a black corset with purple ribbons over a gray blouse, striped black and purple leggings, and combat boots with buckles up the sides.”

What’s very odd, in a boring kind of way, is that the faeries’ clothes are all human clothes. A passing reference is made to odd things like mushroom hats, but otherwise it’s all figure-hugging dresses and leggings with boots. It’s not only clothing the faeries have borrowed from humans, but their lifestyles too. The Dream Crystal faeries go shopping (one of the first things Aisling and Genevieve do is go shopping for skinny jeans), use electricity and go to church (did I mention they’re Catholic faeries?). At one point a faery takes Aisling for supper at a sushi restaurant. A sushi restaurant! In the land where faeries live!

Of course everything is done with magic and no one needs to work for money, but you expect fantasy to be more, well, fantastical. The Land of Dreams has the potential for something outlandish, but instead the faeries live the very tame, easy, mundane lives that an unimaginative, well-behaved twleve-year old girl might think up. It’s sunny and pretty, everyone is beautiful, everyone is friendly (except for the token rival, Morrigan), everything is made quick and easy with magic, pretty clothes are just a thought away, and you can fly.

There is a plot, but it’s often easy to forget about, and very difficult to believe that it’s important, because the faeries are always having parties and picnics. It’s almost a parody. At one point the faery King mentions that faeries are falling into shadow for being too proud and passionate (they’re Catholics, remember). Pride and passion are deadly sins that attract the evil Shadow People, thereby playing a role in the war. Shortly after the King’s warning, the Queen banishes some faeries to the shadows for “failing to repress their desires, their pride and their passions”. Then, in the next chapter, they have two fashion shows.

I don’t understand how things like fashion design would not involve pride and passion, and the faeries certainly do not live the simple lives that their beliefs would demand. More importantly, if they are at war, why do they have time for fashion shows? This odd mixture of supposed seriousness and random frivolity is common in the novel. For example, a massacre is mentioned casually among other pieces of conversation while the characters are relaxing in a Jacuzzi overlooking a lake. Another tragedy is followed by a church service in a Cathedral, but it’s not to mourn the lost faeries – it’s a something like a Valentine’s Day celebration. At one point Aisling and her friends defy the Queen’s orders, and Aisling decides that the best way to react to this and to the war is to relax, so they all go and play a game of tag among the sunflowers. It’s hard to take any of it seriously.

Aisling actually criticizes the faeries for being frivolous, but she is no better. Her mission to rescue Erin is also sidelined by clothes and parties. In fact, I can’t think of a more superficial, deluded character. This is a 19-year old girl whose great ambition is to design pretty clothes for the whole world. Her idea of paradise is “a place full of sunshine and flowers. It’s a place full of pretty clothes and friendly people – a world of fantastic beauty. It’s a place where dreams come true.” She’s under the impression that, in the normal world, “no one ever gets what they want” and “there’s a war against beauty. Attractive people are always the brunt of cruel jokes. They’re never taken seriously”. Her idea of a nightmare world is one full of “dreary people content to wear uninteresting, ugly clothes”. Aisling believed she “could have changed the world with [her] fashion designs”, but being thrown out of fashion school and accidentally setting her portfolio alight means “the world will remain a gray place forever”.

Those last two quotes really sum Aisling up – ridiculous, deluded, unbelievably arrogant yet totally defeatist. Since when is the whole world dull and grey, and how could it be saved with clothes? How could the whole world be doomed because she got kicked out of school and burnt her portfolio? How can you define paradise with pretty clothes and a dystopia with ugly ones? If anything, the pressures that fashion places on people (women in particular) can be nightmarish, and we’d probably all be happier if we all cared less about our clothes.

And since when is there a “war on beauty”? I might understand this if Aisling were criticizing the dominant standards of beauty, but she subscribes to them, as does the book in general. The very idea that beauty comes from clothes, shoes and make-up is the basis of beauty magazines. Aisling is contemptuous of those who don’t make the effort to comply with this aesthetic. In chapter 1 she describes a waitress who “could have been beautiful” but spoilt her looks with “large tattoos, multiple body piercings, and excessive body hair. It was as if she was trying to be as ugly as possible”. Later in the novel, Aisling sees her friend Aoife looking “unusually plain” in simple clothes, with unwashed hair and a wart on her nose. The plain look is just an illusion Aoife is using to prevent male faeries from hitting on her all the time, but Aisling is disgusted, remarking that “it’s wrong to destroy beauty”. I shudder to think what Aisling’s opinion would be of someone who really was plain, overweight, didn’t have long glossy hair or had no interest in fashion, but luckily for her the waitress was the only one in the novel. Even the evil Shadow People are hot and well groomed.

Aisling also looks down on people who she thinks are not passionate or driven enough. She refuses to give a homeless man spare change because she “won’t help anyone that’s given up on life” and she criticizes the changelings who have become bitter because the other faeries want nothing to do with them. This contempt comes from a girl who falls into a bottomless pit of misery when faced with even small setbacks. When Aisling states that “Doing the impossible” has always been her motto I wanted to throttle her for such ludicrous hypocrisy.

Aisling’s terrible character might not be so bad if the novel had a good, solid story to fall back on, but it doesn’t. It’s chaotic and confused and as a result, boring. The faeries and their world are based on Irish mythology, but the novel is set in America, and you also get Japanese and French faeries. Aisling assumes the faeries are Catholic because they’re Irish, and religion plays a role in the plot, but why should mythological creatures have a human belief system? Intense fight scenes come out of nowhere (giving Aisling a chance to show off her Kung Fu and sword-fighting skills). Important plot developments are followed by events and dialogue that serve no purpose. It’s also hard to understand exactly what the two sides (faeries and shadows) want. We’re told that faeries fall into shadow for being too proud and passionate, but then we find out that they also fall for not having dreams or not loving anyone. Pride, passion, ambition and love are so closely intertwined (you take pride in your work, you love passionately, etc.) that I don’t understand what the ideal state is and how you achieve it. Are dreams good or bad? The novel eventually makes a weak attempt at clearing this up, stating that selfish dreams are bad while good dreams “whisper the love of truth”, but that makes no sense in practical terms and no explanation is given.

At the centre of the conflict is the Dream Crystal, a small crystal that is apparently the source of all the thoughts, dreams and ideas in the world. I don’t even want to get into the details of how absurd that is. Anyone who possesses the crystal holds the power to control thoughts, but this is never demonstrated so it’s unclear what role the crystal really plays in the plot and how it can be used. We’re told that dreams will die if the crystal is lost but what exactly does that mean? The word ‘dream’ is used in multiple ways, to refer to ambitions, hopes and the dreams you have when asleep. It’s not always immediately clear which one is being referred to, so it can be a little confusing.

The novel is just very badly written. Besides being so chaotic in terms of plot, it’s packed with descriptions in purple prose, usually about the scenery or whatever terrible depression Aisling is suffering from. There are also lots of odd, often senseless phrases:

“A dark scowl lit Morrigan’s face” (my italics)
“My hair may get in the way, but I can still see what kind of person you are.”
“Clang!” (in inverted commas during a sword fight, as if someone were yelling out sound effects).
“Wind accompanied the sound, knocking hair into her face.” (I don’t know how hair can knock into something, but this expression is used several times).

I hated every minute I spent reading this. I would never have gone past chapter one if I hadn’t agreed to review it. If I’d seen the cover first, I wouldn’t have agreed to read it at all. They tell you not to judge a book by it’s cover, and that’s partly true in this case, because it’s not faery porn as those two girls seem to be suggesting (it’s PG-13 at most). But it’s still trashy. I should have just written it off with a short review, but after making what felt like a gargantuan effort to get from the first page to the last, I felt that I deserved a chance to vent at least a few of my frustrations.

Normally when I don’t like a book I try to imagine who it might appeal to. This time I’m stumped. Even if you would take great pleasure from the countless outfit descriptions, or you think Catholic faeries in combat boots sound cool, it’s still so unimaginative, confused and irregularly paced. I’m sorry to say it, but I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone.

Buy The Dream Crystal

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Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Howl's Moving Castle (Castle, #1) My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three sisters and as anyone who has read fairytales should know, the eldest of three will be “the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes”. Sophie is “not even the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success”. With this in mind, poor Sophie resigns herself to a quiet, dull life making hats in the family shop while her sisters leave home with more exciting ambitions. However, Sophie clearly has some magical powers, even if she doesn’t realise it, and the hats she makes (and unwittingly enchants) soon become famous.

Perhaps too famous though, because the wicked Witch of the Waste turns Sophie into an old lady as punishment for using magic (or as the Witch puts it for “meddl[ing] with things that belong to me”). Sophie is oddly comfortable with the transformation and in fact, it’s almost liberating. As the eldest, she feels old and dull in comparison to her more outgoing sisters, and the months spent quietly trimming hats in the family hat shop already seem to have “turned her into an old woman” anyway. Consequently, Sophie’s cursed appearance suits her better than her true one. Unable to tell anyone about the spell, she decides it’s best to simply leave the hat shop, and thus has an excuse for escaping this mundane life.

But with no real plans, Sophie ends up exhausted and alone on the hills at nightfall. When she sees Howl’s terrifying moving castle coming towards her, she figures she is probably too old for Howl to be a danger to her (he’s rumoured to prey on young girls), forces her way inside, and stubbornly instills herself as the maid. In doing so she hopes to both find a way to both break her curse and thwart Howl’s heartless plans.

What follows is a humorous, fun mystery-adventure full of well-known fairytale tropes and references. However, Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t simply based on fairytales – it happily plays with and subverts the genre’s conventions.

Jones’s tale is not as Manichaean as the fairytales it draws on. Howl is not the demonic soul-sucker or heart-chewer of young girls that he is rumoured to be, nor is the terrifying fire demon of his castle quite as terrifying as first impressions suggest. Sophie is by no means the perfectly clever, kind and efficient heroine you might expect but is more of a “one-woman force of chaos” at times, blaming her many errors on being the eldest and avoiding the difficulty of facing her own shortcomings. Jones’s characters are far more interesting and complex than normal fairytale figures: they alter when seen from different perspectives, are changed by the things that happen to them, are almost never completely good or evil. You can’t help but care about them, to wonder about their origins and how things will turn out for them, even if their roles are small or they’ve behaved badly. Thus, the characters draw you into the story while the adventurous plot keeps you engrossed.

Howl’s Moving Castle is a bookworm’s gem, an all-round lovely read that manages to be clever, charming, adventurous, and light. This is my favourite type of YA literature – just a really great story that reminds you how you came to love reading so much, or ensures that you will from now on.

Beastly by Alex Flinn

BeastlyBeastly by Alex Flinn
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Technically this review contains spoilers, but if you know the Beauty and the Beast fairytale, you already know the basics of what’s going to happen in Beastly. Not that you can’t see all the clichés getting ready to roll out from the start.

Kyle Kingsbury is a horrid brat spoilt with good looks, status, and wealth, although the reader is supposed to feel a little bit sorry for him because his father is an arrogant bastard who doesn’t seem to care much about his son. Kyle has taken to heart his father’s belief that no one should have to look at ugly people and thus he enjoys tormenting them when he’s not completely ignoring their existence. To punish him, a witch disguised as an unattractive schoolgirl curses Kyle by making him as ugly on the outside as he is on the inside. However the witch gives him one chance to break the spell – fall in love with someone who loves you in return within the next two years, and her kiss will change you back.

Transformed into a hideous beast, poor Kyle can no longer be the most popular guy in school and is forced to live in solitude with only a blind tutor and a housekeeper for company. He develops some emotional depth, as indicated by his new hobby of reading literary classics – the drab conventional symbols of intellect. Kyle also changes his name to Adrian, because he no longer feels that he’s the same person. It’s all very ho hum, particularly since this story is hardly new – a hot, self-centred jock is taught the error of his superficial ways and learns to see beyond physical beauty. Not that he really has to, because the plain, nerdy girl he inevitably falls in love with is not as unattractive as she first seemed but is actually a babe hidden behind poverty, baggy clothes, and an unflattering hairstyle.

The girl in Beastly is Lindy. Lindy lives in a rough neighbourhood with a drug addicted father, but she’s smart, reads most of the time, and hopes to escape to a good university. But then her father breaks into Adrian’s home looking for drug money, and offers to give Adrian his daughter when Adrian catches him and threatens to turn him into the police. This is where this humdrum novel takes a turn for the ludicrous.

Copying and pasting the Beauty and the Beast plot into a contemporary New York setting with high school characters leaves the story awkward and implausible. Giving away your daughter is normal in folklore, but in most of the modern world, women are not considered property, and therefore it seems bizarre that Lindy’s father would so easily give her to the Beast in exchange for his own freedom, even if he is a drug addict. And although Kyle/Adrian needs her for his own spell-breaking purposes it’s even more ridiculous that he, not to mention his companions Will and Magda, would not have more than a slight problem with basically kidnapping a girl and holding her captive indefinitely. Of course Lindy comes to accept her captivity and to care for the beastly Adrian. Again, this might not seem odd in a fairytale where marriage could be a girl’s only ambition and Beauty could learn to live with her situation, but in this case Lindy loses a valuable high school scholarship and her hopes of going to college seem to have been tossed out the window. By the time she and Adrian were waltzing and having snowball fights I’d written this off as painfully contrived junk. You already know how it ends (although it ends up being even more unlikely than you’d expect).

Besides being so clichéd, Beastly tries to be a moral tale about inner beauty being more important than outer beauty but, like its many predecessors, it sounds insincere. Dualities of ugliness and beauty remain firmly in place. The ugly people are still ugly, the beautiful people are still beautiful, although sometimes the ugly people are actually beautiful, they’re just badly groomed. Lindy went from plain to gorgeous as soon as she changed out of her baggy clothes and loosened her long red hair. The witch Kendra wasn’t really ugly or fat – that was just a disguise to test Kyle. And Kyle/Adrian himself is only temporarily cursed. Actually, none of the main characters are truly physically ugly, so whatever the book is trying to say, and whatever epiphany Kyle/Adrian has, it still seems to suggest that only the beautiful are worthy of attention. So what exactly is the message here? Perhaps it’s that you shouldn’t be mean to the hideous because they’re people too. Brilliant.

Not that Beastly didn’t have have potential – retellings of fairytales are often interesting, and writing this one from the Beast’s perspective, explaining how he became a beast, was a good idea. And at least Lindy, in falling in love with beastly Adrian, really does value inner beauty over outer appearance. I also found it admirable that Flinn didn’t completely ignore the disturbing sexual undertones of the fairytale. Lindy’s father is basically pimping her and the idea of a guy locking a girl up in his home immediately implies rape, a concern that Lindy raises, although she refers to ‘sex’ rather than the more explicit ‘rape’. In addition, it was great to see the original Little Mermaid story play out in the chat with SilentMaid. Most fairytales, in their original or earlier versions, are very dark and disturbing, and I much prefer it when this is acknowledged rather than sanitised and glossed over to produce twee little stories for children. Beastly is at least not too childish, but none of this is enough to save what is really a very mediocre novel.