Title: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales
Editor: Paula Guran
Published: 2 October 2013
Publisher: Prime Books
Genre: short stories, fairy tales, fantasy, science fiction, magical realism
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Once Upon a Time is an anthology of eighteen modern fairy tales by contemporary authors. Each story is prefaced with a note by the author describing their inspiration for the tale to follow, and where relevant I’ve provided links to original fairy tales in this review. I feel like I hardly need to review this though – I could just post the title and the pretty cover and fairy tale fans will reach for it as quickly as I did 🙂 Nevertheless, there are some lovely tales in here that deserve being mentioned, so onward!
The anthology opens with a particularly nice introduction by Paula Guran. She gives a ton of recommendations for books and movies inspired by fairy tales, as well as a list of online resources. She also shares some insights into the tale of Rapunzel, which was not only interesting for the story itself, but offers a way of thinking about fairytales in general. For example, Guran says how stupid she thought Rapunzel’s mother was, endangering her husband by insisting that he steal rampion from the witch’s garden (the witch of course, took Rapunzel as compensation). Later, Guran understood this in a different light – a pregnant woman’s cravings may be the result of dangerous vitamin deficiencies, so satisfying those cravings was very important in many folk traditions.
Not that you need to understand traditional cultures to appreciate the fairy tales in this collection. As Guran notes, “fairy tales have always resonated with the reader’s own time and place” and the authors in this collection use them to explore more modern themes and narrative styles. Some authors rewrite old tales. Others use common tropes – like curses, witches, the youngest son who everyone assumes is an idiot – to write original fairy tales. Sometimes the basic elements of a popular fairy tale are reworked for a completely different tale.
The authors work all sorts of magic with their creations. Very often, the passive female victims of the tales are transformed into heroines with the schemes and strengths to control their fates. Good and evil cease to be so easily defined. Familiar stories are told from fresh perspectives, and the motives of normally inscrutable characters are explored.
Of course, there are plenty of tales based on the favourites collected by Hans Christian Anderson and the Grimm brothers. “Tales That Fairies Tell” by Richard Bowes sees “Puss in Boots” in an alternate contemporary world. Puss is not simply a helpful cat but a kind of immortal trickster who amuses himself by changing the fortunes of hapless young men.
A.C. Wise also examines the questionable motives of fairy tale characters in “The Hush of Feathers, The Clamor of Wings” a modern-day version of “The Six Swans”. In her story the youngest brother has fallen in love with the sky, and been seduced by the witch. He doesn’t want to be human again, so he’s wasted his sister’s painful gift of silence. “The Mirror Tells All” by Erzebet Yellowboy retells “Snow White” as a strange mother/daughter tragedy of love and neglect.
“Sleeping Beauty of Elista” by Ekaterina Sedia is the bleakest story in this collection, and the most stark example of a modern retelling. It combines the fairy tale with a true story that took place in Elista, Russia, where babies where infected with HIV/AIDS after getting injections with dirty needles. In that context, the prick of a needle and the notion of eternal sleep become so much more disturbing.
“The Road of Needles” by Caitlin R. Kiernan also manages to make a common fairy tale feature more unnerving – the forest. This was the most baffling story for me, a sci fi retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” that mostly takes place in an artificial habitat. I didn’t have a good grasp on this story, but what I did really like about it was how excessively, dangerously lush the habitat is. Due to some technical glitch, the natural growth goes into overdrive, and the protagonist finds herself in a forest so thick and tangled that it really drives home the idea of a forest as a wild, threatening place; something that most modern readers don’t fully understand.
While the modern settings are fun, I also like the fact that many authors use the setting and classic feel of fairy tales, but with their own inventive touches. “The Lenten Rose” is Genevieve Valentine’s version of “The Snow Queen”. This story weaves in a lot of details from the original fairy tale, which I had never read. I found Valentine’s story too vague and confusing, so I read “The Snow Queen” and then re-read “The Lenten Rose”. It was so much better once I knew the original, so after this I made sure to read any fairy tale I was unfamiliar first (they’re all available online).
In her intro to the story, Valentine notes how the original tale ends a bit too happily with Kay and Gerda’s ordeals “vanishing from their minds, leaving them, the story suggests, essentially unchanged from the children they were when they began it”. “The Lenten Rose” tells a more realistically sorrowful story. Kay’s obsession with the Snow Queen might have to do with more than just the mirror shards in his eye and heart while Gerda’s journey to find Kay has a kind of melancholy determination to it, rather than being fuelled purely by her love for Kay. And the entire ordeal leaves them irrevocably changed, trying not to think about the past.
Stories like “The Lenten Rose” have an edginess to them, like a piece of modern art. It’s interesting, but I have to admit that when it comes to fairy tales I prefer the ones the thrive on sheer plot and charm, like “Below the Sun Beneath” by Tanith Lee. This was one of my favourites, a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” with fleshed-out details and a few delightful twists.
Two of my other favourites were also ones that just had really enjoyable stories. These ones are more original fairy tales using traditional tropes. “Flight” by Angela Slatter is about a princess who turns into a bird and is held prisoner by an evil witch. I thought the story was a bit too conventional at first, but Slatter does some interesting things with themes of gender, tradition good and evil, and freedom, so by the end I quite liked it.
“Castle of Masks” by Cory Skerry was a wonderful and surprising. In a village where young women are regularly offered as sacrifices to the Beast who lives in a castle, a boy named Justus dresses as a girl and takes the place of the next sacrifice. He’s a hunter and plans to slay the Beast, who took his sister the last time. The Beast wants company, however, so Justus has to play a careful gender game while looking for the right time to strike.
“Blanchefleur” by Theodora Goss ends the anthology on a perfect note. Although inspired by a fairy tale called “The White Cat” by Madame D’Aulnoy, Goss tells her own tale about a humble young man who everyone calls ‘Idiot’, but who travels far, learns a lot, and finds his fortune. It’s fully of fantastic talking animals with a range of personalities and it’s stories like this that make you love fairy tales in the first place.
There were a couple of stories based on fairy tales that were entirely new to me. “The Coin of Heart’s Desire” by Yoon Ha Lee is inspired by Korean folktales featuring the Dragon King Under the Sea. A young monarch approaches the dragon in the palace treasury to find impressive magical gifts for the powerful families of her kingdom. The dragon tests her by asking what she wants for herself. I’ve read and listened to several stories by Yoon Ha Lee, who I’ve come to know for her uniquely surreal stories. Some are so weird that I find them alienating, but this hits the right balance between the fantastical and the familiar.
“Born and Bread” by Kaaron Warren is based on a Russian fairy tale called Sivka Burka, which begins with a man who asks his three sons to bring bread to his grave for three nights after his death. Warren wondered “what sort of man would demand such a thing and what sort of bread would be best for a dead man”. She then answers this with an original fairy tale, about an ugly child who is born looking like dough, but has a wonderful personality and grows up to be a talented baker.
“The Giant in Repose” by Nathan Ballingrud is a metafictional reworking of a Norwegian fairy tale called “The Giant Who Had No Heart In His Body”. In the original, a youngest son/prince has to find the place where a giant keeps his heart. In Ballingrud’s version he strays from the Story and lives his own life, but because the Story is incomplete, the crow who played a role in the original calls him back to finish it.
“Lupine” by Nisi Shawl is one of the original tales, exploring the curse trope. A mother who hates her daughter gives her a potion that makes her “act hatefully toward those she loved and lovingly toward those she hated”, turning her life into a miserable existence. You will find another mother who is displeased by her child in “Egg” by Priya Sharma, a somewhat disturbing story about a wish. A wealthy, career woman wishes for a child, but she’s single and infertile. A witch grants her wish, but the child she gets is more bird than human. Raising her is akin to raising a child with severe mental deficiencies, and protagonist has to struggle with the vast differences between her expectations and the grim reality.
“Eat Me, Drink Me, Love Me” by Christopher Barzak and “Warrior Dreams” by Cinda Williams Chima both explore the world of the fae. In Barzak’s tale, a girl spends a short time in that world, and longs to go back not just because it’s so sensual, but because it’s so much more liberal than her own small society where she can’t have the romantic relationship that she wants. “Warrior Dreams” is full of water fae-folk: nixies, grindylows, a Wendigo, a kelpie, a black dog, the Red Dwarf of Detroit. However, it takes place in an urban setting, with the far calling on a homeless ex-soldier to help them fight a monster who is devouring their kind.
The only story I haven’t mentioned yet is “The Spinning Wheel’s Tale” by Jane Yolen, partly because it’s my least favourite. It’s written from the POV of the spinning wheel that pricked Sleeping Beauty’s finger. Yolen has an impressive history with fairy tales, so I expected this story to be quite good, but somehow it just fell completely flat for me.
On the whole though, Once Upon a Time is a pretty strong collection. While nothing had me awe-struck like some short fiction, quite a few gave me the pleasure of simply reading a really good story. It’s also always fun to see how different writers interpret fairy tales or their tropes, and to be introduced to new ones. If you love fairy tales, this should be on your shelf.