Book Review: The Sleeper And The Spindle

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Illustration: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 10 and up (So long as readers are familiar with the likes of Grimm’s fairy tales and know that things can get ugly.  Previous knowledge of the original Sleeping Beauty/Snow White stories will help.)

The Sleeper and The Spindle, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Riddell, is a stunning new fairy-tale picture book for Young Adults.  Or, rather than a picture book, perhaps I’ll call it an illuminated story.  The tale is dark and the pictures more so.  I was thoroughly entranced for the twenty minutes it took me to read Gaiman’s words and examine all the neat little details in Chris Riddell’s pen drawings.  Though the story is simply told, much like Gaiman’s earlier fairy-tale novel Stardust, the traditional style highlights the plot’s unique surprises and occasional shining side-remarks.

The queen had a name, but nowadays people only ever called her Your Majesty.  Names are in sort supply in this telling.

Two kingdoms lie on either sides of an impassable mountain.  They share a border but nobody can get across to visit.  Three dwarfs burrow underneath, though, in order to get their Queen the finest silks in Dorimar.  The Queen is going to be married soon.

It seemed both unlikely and extremely final.  She wondered how she would feel to be a married woman.  It would be the end of her life, she decided, if life was a time of choices.

But the dwarfs don’t come back to Kanselaire with gifts of silk.  They come back with terrifying news: a sleeping sickness is taking over the land and is moving ever-closer to their own realm!  The Queen (who once slept a year under these particular dwarfs’ care and came out of it just fine) postpones her wedding, dons a mail shirt, grabs her sword, and leads the dwarfs on a quest to wake the sleeping princess, up in her tower guarded by thorns.

The way is sometimes dark: they travel underground.  It is sometimes frightening: cobwebby sleepwalkers move through a town like zombies.  And their quest is not quite what it seems.  The Queen kisses the Princess to wake her up, and that’s nothing compared to the real twist that follows.  Neil Gaiman’s description of evil stepmothers and youth-hungry enchantresses is spot on when the Queen confronts that evil fairy (or was she a witch or an enchantress? The folks at the inn can’t quite agree) who used the prick of a spindle to put the whole kingdom to sleep.  The Queen is young and she is brave, but her own past experiences with such cruel sorts makes her adventure in the tower more powerful than a mere rescue attempt.  The Sleeper And The Spindle isn’t a love story. Though it is short the tale followed a path just between familiar archetypes and new visions to feel full and satisfying.

Chris Riddell’s drawings are equal measures disturbing and beautiful.  They’re certainly phenomenal, and must have taken a great deal of work.  Mostly black and white with little highlights of gold, they contain skulls and thorns a’plenty, but also faces that seem delightfully alive even when the figure is fast asleep.  The Queen is lovely with her raven-black hair, and I adored the dwarfs’ innovative hats. If this is the sort of world in which fairy-tales happen, then I can easily understand why beauty, darkness, and grotesque wickedness are so important.  I can’t imagine the story being read without the illustrations, or the pictures without their accompanying tale.  They just fit together so nicely into the sort of book you want to own for centuries.

(Teenagers who enjoy The Sleeper And The Spindle might also like Donna Jo Napoli’s new YA novel Dark Shimmer, which has elements of Snow White and takes place in medieval Italy.  Fearless younger readers should also check out Gaiman’s Hansel and Gretel, illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti.)

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Book Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

Star Ratings:

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 and up.  (Definitely not for anyone who isn’t in high school yet, as there’s sex and other grossness.  I would actually recommend this to a lot of twenty-somethings I know, as the characters are older and the writing fits in to the fast and easy grown-up fantasy genre.)

Does everyone remember how I feel about sharp and twisty fairy stories?  Before reading this review, I recommend that you familiarize yourself with my love for such triumphs of fairy world weirdness as The Darkest Part Of The Forest by Holly Black, Chime by Franny Billingsley, and especially any re-tellings of my all-time favorite ballad Tam Lin.  Be they magical worlds which entwine with ours or completely new fantasy realms, I get unreasonably excited whenever a story of fairy courts and immortal strife bleeps on my fae-dar.

And, yes, the main dude’s name is Tamlin in this book, but despite a few nods to that legend, it’s best to banish all expectations from that reference right out of your head before reading.  I’m learning that lesson again and again.  Sarah J. Maas has combined the structure of the “Beauty and the Beast” fairytale with the style of magic and characters most often found in Celtic faery legends like Tam Lin.  I actually found the Beauty and the Beast parallels to be more obvious, excluding the faery court drama and occasional references to Tamlin’s “heart of stone.”

A Court Of Thorns And Roses is set in a fairly typical fantasy world, with peasants and wolves and frightening borders. The village where we begin is small and winter-bound; while we don’t get much in the way of world-development for this first setting, the isolated townsfolk live in a way we can recognize from other such stories.  They’re on the border of Prythian, the faerie realm.  Feyre, our heroine, hunts for food in the dangerous woods to support her father and two sisters.  Aside the occasional tryst with a local boy, Feyre’s life is defined by cold, hunger, and frustration.  If it weren’t for a promise she made to her dying mother as a child, she would be completely justified in abandoning her lazy, demanding family and taking care of herself first.

This is the sort of story where promises are important, unbreakable rules in both moral and supernatural matters. When Feyre kills an unusual wolf with an ash arrow, she brings the wrath of a monstrous High Fae upon herself and her family.  To fulfill the Treaty between human kind and the faeries, Feyre must live out the rest of her days in Prythian, at the Spring Court with Tamlin.  It turns out that Tamlin does not always take the form of a beastly claws-and-teeth-creature.  He’s actually a decent fellow, though his manners as host aren’t very polite and he prefers to keep Feyre uninformed about so much of her new home. She also has no idea what his face looks like, since he and all other members of the court had masks cursed onto them permanently.  (Bummer.  But, rest assured, this is the sort of YA novel –alas – that makes it clear how the rest of him is very handsome and his face certainly will be, too.) The Spring Court isn’t a prison, though Feyre can never leave.  Some blight is draining faeries and High Fae alike of their powers, so she spends her time more as a neglected house guest, trying to piece together her host’s history and the state of Prythian on her own.

Exploring in the forest with Lucien, Tamlin’s haughty and flippant emissary, Feyre discovers just how sinister the faerie world can be.  What few details she can learn about the blight are disturbing enough, but the fear that some of these malevolent beings might cross the border into her village, bringing back the reign of cruel servitude once imposed by the ancient High Fae, is too dreadful to consider.  Her father and sisters may have been awful while she lived with them, but she will protect them at all costs.  So despite the comforts afforded by Tamlin’s estate and the marvels all around her, Feyre plans her escape, tries to take courage, and keeps her hunters instincts trained on everything – seen and unseen – around her.

As she finds out more about Tamlin’s home and the other courts, Feyre finds herself drawn into a dangerous and twisted game of personal politics. There are other High Fae who can be so gleefully evil, they make the violent specters in the woods look positively humane.  And her time with Tamlin has turned apprehension into rather devoted affection, so every hard choice threatens to break either her mind or her heart or both.

Whew, ok.  That’s a lot of plot-splaination, and I’ve barely even covered the basics.  A Court of Thorns and Roses has sort of a three-part story:

1) Feyre’s life with her family and her internment in Prythian.  Tamlin is awkward and Lucien is a bastard.

2) Adventures of the magical and frightening variety in The Spring Court.  Tamlin is romantic and Lucien is a #1 sarcastic bro.  All this love and togetherness is broken apart when Tamlin forces Feyre to flee to safety once faerie politics start getting seriously out of hand.

3) Meanie-pants Fae Queen tortures everyone for the laughs.  (Yeah, I didn’t even get to mention her in my long-as-hell summary up there.  But this is a faerie courts story, so naturally there needs to be a cruel and beautiful queen!  And wow is she a jerk.)  Feyre undergoes a series of miserable and hopeless tests for the evil court’s amusement, expecting to die, all in a desperate bid to save her true love.

I liked the first 1/3 of this novel a lot, enjoyed the middle bit with some reservations, and found nose wrinkling in disappointment a few times in the home stretch.   Feyre’s miserable life sets a great precedent for the marvels she will witness in Prythian.  Impoverished and under-appreciated, she might seem like a typical passive heroine, but her hunting skills and occasional ruthlessness gave me hope that she could be an active participant in whatever adventures awaited.  For the most part, Feyre is a realistic protagonist who makes solid decisions of both the brave and catastrophic variety.  One great little touch was her illiteracy: growing up poor and focused on getting enough food for the winter, she never learned how to read, and there are some scenes of embarrassed struggle in the library which proved her to be resourceful yet realistic.  I also liked how Feyre’s habit of painting tinged her view of all the new beauty around her, and how even in the most horrifying situations a “useless” part of her terrified brain would notice pretty details through the terror.  I was with Feyre for the ride until her love and devotion and general swoon-y attitude towards Tamlin made veer her towards hysteria and despair.  In fairness, the last part of the book contains a level of cruelty that would otherwise be unknown to our heroine, so I can understand why she clings to her love as one emotion she can trust.  I liked her fine in the beginning of the book, but despite acts of reckless bravery I found her change of personality rather jarring by the end.

Tam Lin himself didn’t do much for me.  (Too bad because Tam Lin from songs of yore is my faaave.)  He was a little too overtly Aloof And Terribly Sexy Despite The Matters Weighing Heavy On His Lordly Brow for my tastes, and I knew quite quickly that there would be some yearning and dark hallways and unlocked bedroom doors in his future with Feyre.   Since unlocked bedroom doors are extremely NOT my cup of tea, I kind of skimmed over most of those scenes, so you’ll have to ask someone else if they’re any good.  However, I did appreciate how his character was often preoccupied with the Very Faery Problems of broken promises and eternal grudges, and how desperately he wanted to preserve the lives of those faeries who existed with him in the Spring Court, despite the encroaching evil.  There are a few instances in which his sense of humor or fun attitude shine through from before Prythian started going to shit, and that’s when I understood Feyre’s devotion.  If only he weren’t so predictably smoldering.  If only we weren’t reminded too often that he can also transform into a beast and therefore has rather ferocious tendencies towards romance.  Just not my cup of tea.

And, though it pains me to admit this, the evil Fae Queen Amarantha was not that impressive.  Yes, she’s cold and beautiful and can hold a MEAN grudge, but she just felt like a bit of a stand in.  Her cruelty was appalling but lacked emotion.  Her challenges did fit in with the old tradition of riddles and mazes, but the glint of gleeful malice in her eyes were more told than shown, and more shown than felt.

The minor characters and settings were pretty great, actually.  Particularly Lucien and the few lesser faeries we meet at the Spring Court.  The foxy emissary (I mean it literally) is an expat from the Autumn court who throws Tam Lin’s nobility into needed relief by first being distrustful of Feyre’s presence, then by impelling her to develop a sense of humor and helping her sneak around behind Tamlin’s back sometimes.  Lucien can be impulsive and dangerous, but he’s exactly the sort of fellow you might expect to come from a land where the hum of Autumn energy is always in the air.  And, as I learned with a few tears threatening, his life before joining Tamlin was grim as heck.  His friendship with Feyre, as well as her interactions with the faery servants, were mostly rewarding.  If we ignore one handsome-but-evil High Fae who appears as a villain – a personality which I found to be entirely gratuitous and unnecessary, though he may redeem himself in future novels – the supporting characters were good additions to the lovely and menacing world Maas has created.

There’s a whole maze of unresolved issues and unexplained plot points by the end of this book, but I can see how any sequels will build off the most pressing of questions.  The wider world will probably make more sense as Feyre gets to understand it better.  I’m not a huge fan of series, usually, but will probably pick up the next one someday, because I liked the story enough to stay curious.

In the end, there was a lot to enjoy about Sarah J. Maas’s foray into faery stories.  Trading one life for another, ancient treaties and forgotten wars, a world divided by seasons and times: all good things.  Looking at A Court Of Thorns And Roses as a slight retelling of “Beauty and the Beast,” I would call it mostly successful.  And it’s even a decent, though not awe-inspiring, opening to an original fantasy series.  My own qualms about all those sexy-times and incongruous characterizations may just be the picky bitching of a prude who has read too many faery legends.  Give the book a try if you like dangerous romance in cool fantasy worlds, tricky faery mischief that plays with mortal lives like they’re nothing but ants, and young people being put through a series of impossible tests by vindictive higher powers.

Book Review: Monstrous by MarcyKate Connolly

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: 9 and up

(Be it known that I read an ARC of Monstrous and a few details may have changed since publication.)

It’s been a while since I reviewed any children’s books, and that’s just not natural. Speaking of unnatural things… Kymera, the patchwork girl-creature in Monstrous, thinks she is a monster: not human but not any one beast, feared by the people of Byre for her predatory instincts and frightening abilities. Only Kymera’s father understands her. After all, he’s the one who made her – reanimated from different body parts – and gave her a mission to rescue girls in the nearby city from the clutches of a dangerous wizard. A sickness rages through the city, infecting only young girls, who the wizard then kidnaps for his own nefarious purposes. But Kymera and her father want to stop him – after all, the wizard killed the human Kymera once was. Now she’s unrecognizable and has lost nearly all memories of her previous life. With her father’s knowledge of science and her special skills, they intend to bring the sick girls to the safety of Belladoma. Kymera’s stinging tail, her wings, and her animal senses keep her safe, but they also prevent her from befriending any human other than her father. They have a happy life in the forest, but a girl needs friends as well as family.

Feeling like one of the locked-up princesses in her beloved fairy tales, Kymera starts to dawdle on her night-time rescue missions to Byre. She meets Ren, a boy who is also out after curfew. With her abnormalities hidden away under a cloak, Kym and Ren slowly become friends. She learns about Bryre and the evil that troubles it. But as she discovers more about the people who live in the city she wants to protect, doubts and hidden memories start to trouble her mind. It might take more to defeat the wizard than the rescue of his victims. Kymera might have to battle the threat herself, even if it means exposing her true nature to the boy who trusted her.

Monstrous draws on a variety of fairy-tale themes, and is obviously influenced by classics like Frankenstein and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but the characters and story are very much their own creature. There’s no shortage of fantasy stories set in vaguely-Germanic worlds, but I’ll admit to being a sucker for palaces and dark forests and dragons. Especially dragons, and Monstrous has a great one.

While there’s nothing groundbreaking about the world Connolly has created here, it was easy to settle amongst the surroundings – like flopping into a comfortable bed of pine needles on a sunny afternoon. (I’m really sick of Winter. Can you tell? Lots of this book takes place out-of-doors, and it made me ache for the sight of anything green and growing.) Each chapter is marked by how many days have passed since Kymera first comes into being, whether you want to call it “waking up,” or “being born.” We learn about her world at the rate she does, and her voice adds a degree of wonder to even the most recognizable landmarks of children’s fantasy fiction. The beginning of the book could have been animated by Disney, with the rose garden and the half-dog-half-bird who flies around causing mischief.

“A yapping brown dog with sparrow wings skids to a landing by Father’s plush armchair. Pippa. He calls her a sperrier. I call her delicious.” (Quoted from the ARC.)

As the days pass and Kymera learns more about her purpose, the comforting ambiance disappears. Different concerns work themselves into Kym’s conscious thought and, therefore, into the narrative. The use of first-person present-tense means that her realizations are instant and emotionally charged. When she tries to reason her way out of a paradox and the logic just doesn’t add up to what she’d expect, the thought process is right there. On one hand, this means that a reader will feel strong sympathy for this girl who thinks she’s something horrifying, who wants to help people but doesn’t know if she’s doing it right.

On the other hand, the style made for a very slow first half of the novel. The build-up to Kymera’s Big Realization included so many nuanced hints that jump out as clues on the page but are clouded in the narrator’s mind by her innocence. The day-by-day chapter structure provided almost repetitive details about Kymera’s developing awareness, and indeed certain sentiments were echoed almost verbatim from one chapter to another. Her explorations of the city and her concept of right and wrong are important to the story, yes, but the cycle of fly-fraternize-rescue-lie got predictable after a while. One of the big twists – the catalyzing event of Monstrous‘s action – was also predictable, but I find that the story didn’t suffer so much because of that. Betrayal of some sort is inherent in both fairy tales and the classic novels I saw reflected in Connolly’s writing.

Once the slow-burn beginning finally lights a fire under Kymera’s tail, things get exciting fast. The second half of Monstrous was a great deal of fun, and made the slight slog worthwhile. Kym gets to meet new characters, puzzle over fantasy-world diplomacy, and finally put her sharp claws to good use! The adventure gathers speed all the way to an emotional ending that was different than what I expected. So, in the end, Monstrous turned out to be a hybrid of one slow emotional journey of understanding and a lively adventure. The balance was a little off, but the story was sound and the characters really grew on me.

I recommend Monstrous for strong readers aged ten and up. It’s a rather long book (432 pages) and requires some dedication before the pace picks up. The darkness and moral ambiguity reminded me of The Thickety, which I also recommended with some reservations. Kids who have devoured their fairy-tales, or who require awesome dragons in their reading experiences, will enjoy Monstrous. (Readers of that description should also read Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing With Dragons!) By the end, I felt like I had known Kym for my whole life. From her beginning as a cobbled-together creation made from dangerous creatures, she becomes as brave and kind a heroine as any from her library of fairy-tales.

The Darkest Part Of The Forest is out today! Here’s why I love it.

I am a foolish mortal.*  When I read (and re-read) the galley of The Darkest Part Of The Forest a couple of months ago, I was full to bursting with things to say about it.  The effort it took to not wildly bang my keyboard with exclamation point and dreadful heart symbols may have caused me to physically shake.  Holly Black has a new modern tale of Faerie out!  She’s returned – triumphant as a queen – to the genre that first ensnared me to worship her work when I was but a wee sprite!  Exclamation point!  Heart symbol!  ❤  But, alas, I never got around to rhapsodizing in print, and now the book is out in the wilderness of fine bookstores across the country (independent bookshops, please).

Rather than rushing through a full review and spoiling my chance to go into wayyyy too much detail about Faerie ballads and woodland settings and promises in folklore, allow me to shout a few more not-so-subtle votes of recommendation into the Void That Is The Internet.  Then I can write a more balanced critical review later.  With way more talk about old ballads and symbolic plants.

If I were to start talking about the plot, you’d be reading for days.  Have a quick summary, snagged from the back cover of the galley:

Children can have a cruel, absolute sense of justice.  Children can kill a monster and feel quite proud of themselves.  A girl can look at her brother and believe they’re destined to be a knight and a bard who battle evil.  She can believe she’s found the thing she’s been made for.

Hazel lives with her brother, Ben, in the strange town of Fairfold, where humans and fae exist side by side.  The faeries’ seemingly harmless magic attracts tourists, but Hazel knows how dangerous they can be, and she knows how to stop them.  Or she did, before.

At the center of it all, there is a glass coffin in the woods.  It rests right on the ground, and in it sleeps a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointy as knives.  Hazel and Ben were both in love with him as children.  The boy has slept there fore generations, never waking.

Until one day, he does…

As the world turns upside down and a hero is needed to save them all, Hazel tries to remember her years spent pretending to be a knight. But swept up in new love, shifting loyalties, and the fresh sting of betrayal, will it be enough?  (Quoted from the cover of the advance reading copy.  Little, Brown.)

So, a list.  Reasons I Am Beyond Overjoyed That Holly Black Has Written Another Faerie Book:

  • Beautiful writing It’s mature while still retaining the sharp perspective of teenaged main characters. Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside were wonderful books.  They are single-handedly responsible for my early love of urban fantasy and fantasy stories with rougher, modern, teenaged characters.  That said, they are very clearly the early work of a writer who has access to a well of folkloric knowledge going fathoms deep.  The stories are great but the prose occasionally stumbled.  The Darkest Part Of The Forest contains even better writing.  The plot is delicately knotted but never tangles, and there’s barley any clunky mythological exposition.  Events flow, characters join and leave the story’s dance with logical ease, and even the magic that alters reality follows rules that seem as natural as the moon’s cycles.
  • The characters are complex.  Even the bad faeries.  Even the humans! How tired am I of YA fantasy books that portray non-magical teenagers as vapid peasants who only care about their phones?  Pretty darn tired.  Early on in this book, Hazel attends a party around the glass coffin where the sleeping faerie boy is entombed.   These parties seem to be a generally accepted part of high school life; Hazel sees people she knows – some whom she likes, and some she would rather avoid. Our heroine doesn’t hold herself to be a higher species than her classmates and friends, though.  In fact, she’s got a reputation for kissing an awful lot of people, and has no shame in acting upon it. (Something I also liked about The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.)  The town’s football star has a changeling brother, and is totally not a meat-head about it.  And the Folk who mingle with the population of Fairfold and make the town into some border between the worlds; they’ve got complex motivations too.  Who could blame a mother for protecting her child at any cost – even if humans have to suffer for it?  Why shouldn’t a brother defend his sister’s choice even if it invites the wrath of a cruel king?  And yet, the king’s cruelty isn’t one-dimensional, either.  No matter how badly faeries or humans behave, nobody’s evil just because the story needs a villain.  And the heroes are sometimes the most selfish of all.
  • Strong sibling and family bonds!  There’s nothing that sticks a barb through my heart quite like family members struggling to protect one another.  Hazel and Ben mostly raised themselves when they were younger, thanks to their well-meaning but ill-equipped parents largely neglecting to behave like proper adults.  This is how their roles as knight and bard came to be such a huge part of each sibling’s personality.  Their loyalty to one another – this us-against-the-world mentality – keeps all the supernatural drama feeling very close to home.  Likewise, there are some families in Fairfold who are half-in and half-out of the human world.  When the Folk become a dangerous presence instead of just a novelty attraction, some townspeople get a might uppity.  It’s in those moments that family strengths are tested, and the book makes quite an emotional impact.  The local faerie court has its own share of familial discord.  The Darkest Part Of The Forest reminds us to be very grateful that our parents aren’t faerie tyrants, but also drives home how important it is to stand up for your siblings no matter the cost.
  • Faerie systems that are completely new to the genre.  When you’ve got a story about a half magical town; changelings; and disappearances to which people willingly turn a blind eye, there’s a big risk of recycling old material through a slightly different point of view.  I dig re-told legends, as you may have noticed.  (See my Thoughts On Tam Lin post from the spring for way too much legend-digging.)  The Darkest Part Of The Forest has some elements from oft-adapted ballads and tales woven throughout, but Black is a confident enough writer that she creates a faerie court that could only exist around her fictional town.  The setting and the magic grow as part of one another, with individual characters contributing hugely to the unusual environment.  Complicated curses and tricky rules are important to the action, as they usually are in faerie tales. But in this case I couldn’t predict exactly which twist of a promise would set things into motion.  Black strikes just the right balance between recognizable emblems of traditional faerie-lore and innovative modern fantasy in her newest book.  Not that I would expect anything else.
  • Speaking of things I couldn’t predict: this book had several interesting romantic storylines!  What??  That’s right, not only did I find myself unexpectedly intent upon some of the tentative couples that formed during the course of this adventure, but the development of dreaded feelings didn’t seem to pop up out of the fictional blue without invitation.  Just because a boy and a girl meet in a charged and life-changing situation, it doesn’t mean they’re fated for one another (or a boy and the boy, in some cases).  Characters can want to help one another for reasons that go beyond their hormones, but the hormones aren’t completely ignored.  Trust, friendship, and shared experiences are more effective at bringing young people together than fate or insta-attraction. Huzzah!
  • Wild and dizzying faerie revels.  They’re important to me. (See my review of Thorn Jack, which was an awkward book at times but had great fay parties.) This book did not disappoint.  Time spent with the Folk makes people bloodthirsty, fearsome, brave, and foolish.  That’s the faerie land I know and love.  More, please, Holly Black!  Your books keep getting better and better.

Do you like faerie stories?  Buy this book.  Do you like unapologetic and morally complex teen characters?  Buy this book.  Want to spend hours making notes about every reference to ballads and folklore you see?  Buy a pad of paper, and then buy this book.  Want to just tear through a fun and electrifying story to take your mind off of mundane woes?  Head to your bookstore and then settle down with this book.  THIS BOOK, FOLKS.  I’m so excited that it’s out in the world.

Five very obvious stars.

*Definitely foolish.  Other parts of that statement are under debate.

Book Review: Daughter Of The Forest by Juliette Marillier

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: 15 and up. (The main character might be quite young, but there’s torture and sexual violence.)

I had no idea that such a spellbinding, heartbreaking re-telling of “The Wild Swans” existed until I read this review on my blog feed.  Thanks, Elizabeth, for drawing my attention to what has become one of my new favorite historical fantasy books!  Daughter Of The Forest sets the fairy tale of the “Six Swans”/”Wild Swans” (depending upon the source) in 9th century Ireland.  The plot follows the important landmarks of it’s fairy tale inspiration, but the historical setting and extraordinary characters turn the story into something new and breathtaking.  Daughter Of The Forest is the beginning of a trilogy, but it stands quite well on its own.  It took me a few days to get through the book, mostly because – after a slow start – it kept crushing my heart and I didn’t want to get too emotionally compromised.  The sorrow felt by Sorcha as she weaves stinging plants into shirts to save her brothers, never saying a word despite the awful things which befall her, made me walk around sighing tragically myself. I was left feeling mute and weepy with my head stuck in Marillier’s tale, but also very much in love with the story.

The Kingdom of Sevenwaters is sheltered by forests: the sort of old Celtic wilderness that confounds anyone who wasn’t invited and may contain otherworldly spirits.  Sorcha and her six older brothers grew up half wild, raised more by the woods and each other than by their father Lord Colum.  The Lord of Sevenwaters is respected and brave, but not a very caring father.  So Sorcha and her brothers rely on each other for good advice, for games, and for sympathy.  She should have been the seventh son of a seventh son – particularly magical associations in the Irish beliefs which flesh out this re-located fairy tale. Instead, she will finish her childhood by becoming part of a more tragic story. 

When the malicious Lady Oonagh entrances Lord Colum and gains control of his household, she turns Sorcha’s brothers into swans. Sorcha goes into hiding. She must weave six shirts from the painful starwort plant to break the curse, as she learns from a mysterious forest lady (a sidhe or fey woman very much like the Tuatha De Danann). But we’re playing by fairy rules here, often cruel and complicated just for some amusement. Simply weaving the shirts would not be enough; if Sorcha speaks one word, makes one sound, signifies any part of what she must do to save her brothers, the curse will be eternal and her brothers will always be swans. If she can remain silent and brave and true throughout all the tribulations which may befall her (and oh lord are there some difficult times ahead), then Sorcha can have her brothers back. Alas, when she gets half rescued/half kidnapped by a Briton Lord – the Britons being enemies with the Irish and with Lord Colum especially – Sorcha’s diligence and fierce love might not be enough to keep from speaking. Life on Lord Hugh’s land is brutal for a young, half wild, Irish girl. Between the rumors that her weaving is witchcraft and suspicions about her political purpose at court, it will be a miracle if Sorcha can finish the shirts without crying out in fear, snapping in frustration, or giving up hope entirely.

So far, so like the fairy-tales by the Grimms or Andersen. Daughter Of The Forest is a nice re-telling of the tale we already know. But the historical details, the setting, the characters, and the writing really turned it into a book I would read and love even if I didn’t already adore “The Wild Swans.” It follows the same general plot, so I wasn’t particularly surprised by any of the huge plot twists. I was often surprised none-the-less. Aside from the business of curses and occasional meddling by fairy folk, the book is richer in historical atmosphere than in fantasy. Even before Lady Oonagh cast her dark cloud of influence over Sevenwaters, the plot wheels were a’ turnin’.

The initial set-up took a little while to get going; we had to meet Sorcha and all her brothers, and learn how to tell them all apart . But then – calamity! A young Briton – possibly a spy, and definitely uninvited – is captured in the Forest and brought to Lord Colum. The methods used to coerce information from foreign intruders back in the 9th century were pretty horrific, so Sorcha helps her brother Finbar free the boy and bring him to safety. Aside from establishing Finbar as a thoughtful-yet-rash young lad (you can see why he’s sort of Sorcha’s favorite), this gives us an idea of the turmoil which was always churning in the Celtic lands back then. Sorcha’s family follows the old religion, yet they hide the Briton with a trusted and beloved Christian hermit. They have been brought up to fear outsiders, yet can feel sympathy for a boy who is caught up in the endless madness of ongoing war. The historical climate which gets introduced through this early harrowing experience sets up for really important conflicts later on. Without all the details about medieval Ireland and religion and general distrust, the drama would have to ride on the powers of love alone. Love is pretty strong in this sort of tale, but the bigger picture made it all feel real, and made Sorcha’s struggle all the more urgent.

Six brothers are a lot to keep track of. Six brothers, one sister, a hermit, various mythological presences, and a castle full of noblemen and women are an even bigger crowd. So it’s a testament to Juliette Marillier’s skill as a writer that I felt so connected with the entire cast of characters throughout the book. I do think that Lord Hugh’s villainous uncle was a little too nauseating to be believed, but he did fit into the fairy-tale mold quite well. Nearly everyone else had depth and an important role to play.

In the end, though, it’s Sorcha and her brothers who I’ll be remembering the most. For a group that spends over half of the book either silent or transformed into birds, they really played hacky-sack with my emotions. The too-short nights at each solstice, when the boys could turn back into humans, broke my heart and made me cry every time. It was just too unfair that Sorcha couldn’t tell them how she intended to help, and that they didn’t have enough time to help her in return. The romance and fighting in this book were moving, but nothing could compare to the bond between these siblings. Any time that bond was threatened I wanted to weep and wail, though I found myself trying to stay silent as long as our heroine had to bite back her own anguish.

I knew how the book would end. I’ve read so many versions of this story. All the same, I was surprised and enchanted by Juliette Mariller’s vision of the brothers turned into swans, and the sister who would do anything to save them. If you like old fairy tales or historical fiction steeped in folklore, go get Daughter Of The Forest from the library. (Or buy it from an independent bookshop!) If you are ok with getting your head stuck in medieval Ireland, and don’t mind worrying about these brothers as though they were your own, start reading this book. It now has a home on the same shelf as my other favorite re-told fairy tales, and I think they’ll find it’s very good company.

Some other fairy tale books I’ve reviewed:

Boy, Snow, Bird

Thorn Jack

Tam Lin

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

Black Thorn, White Rose

Book Review: Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour

Star Ratings for Thorn Jack

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up

Thorn Jack first caught my eye because I liked the title and the skull on the front. But, lest I be accused of judging a book by its cover, I got excited about it for better reasons soon enough. Thorn Jack is supposedly a “modern retelling of the ancient Scottish ballad of Tam Lin,” and I may have mentioned that “Tam Lin” is my absolute most favorite traditional ballad.

Have I mentioned this before? Oh, right; I have trouble shutting up about that magnificent fairy story. In the Spring, I went on a rather obnoxious rant about it, and I’m forever keen to read new interpretations.  (“Thoughts About Ballads: Tam Lin” can be read here.) That’s why this review is so damn long, and I apologize in advance. Thorn Jack looked to be a throwback to my goth-y days of yesteryears, back when I wanted to be a wicked, winged thing and sometimes dressed the part. So if this Katherine Harbour lady felt like throwing in references to fairy legends all over the place, that would be just fine with me.

Before I started reading, though, I gave myself a stern talking-to. It went something like this:

  • Me:”Self, lower those wacky expectations of yours! Remember how unreasonably picky you were about Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin?”
  • Myself: “I remember. Why did she bother to call it Tam Lin when it was mostly Shakespeare homework with bad seventies haircuts and –”
  • Me: “Enough of your complaints, self! You may not have liked Dean’s re-telling, but that’s because you wanted it to be something it was not. All that whining you did about the class schedules and the smugness and the terrible pacing. I mean, yeah, the pacing was quite dreadful. But your silly indignation, when the story didn’t follow the exact pattern you wanted to read, just got out of control. Maybe it wasn’t the re-telling you expected, but you need to dive into books with an open mind, or risk being even smugger than that particular Janet.”
  • Myself: “Fine, fine. Fair enough: I shan’t make that mistake again. Authors can borrow as much or as little as they like from folklore, without needing to justify their choices to little old me. Happy?”
  • Me: “Never. But you may now proceed to give Thorn Jack the old college try.” (Like Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, Thorn Jack is set in and around a secluded college campus.)

 

The story:

Finn and her father have moved from California to Fair Hollow, New York, after her older sister’s suicide. Before she died, Lily Rose was preoccupied with thoughts about fairies and monsters. She collected their stories in her journal, and a little passage from that journal opens up each chapter in Thorn Jack. Lily Rose’s writing helps Finn realize, rather belatedly, that the oddities of her new town might be due to something weirder than just kooky wealthy residents.

Fair Hollow is really rather odd. Shrines of sinister toys and abandoned cakes decorate ruined chapels in the woods. The little girl who reads Tarot cards at Hecate’s Attic (I want to visit that shop, please!) knows way more than she should. Mansions which had once belonged to the rich and famous now lie abandoned and overgrown all over town. Finn’s college campus, HallowHeart, is decorated with elfin carvings and nods to ancient superstitions. When Finn attends a wild outdoor party with her new friends, Christie and Sylvie, she’s surprised to see that a great many people her age dress and speak and act bizarrely. Under the influence of blackberry wine, she follows a dark young man into the woods and thus encounters Jack and Reiko Fata for the first time.

The Fatas pass off as an extended family of wealthy eccentrics, but something about them is just unnerving. Reiko Fata doesn’t just look like royalty – stunning and cold – she acts the part of an imperious Queen all the time. Jack might be handsome and a little scary, but he’s a slave to Reiko’s beck and call. Then there are all the various cousins, the chauffeurs, the adopted siblings, the visiting friends; everyone is beautiful, and no one should be trusted. Finn and Jack start “hanging out” – if that’s what you could call bizarre midnight chats and old films in abandoned cinemas – and draw the attention of Reiko and her cronies. The more time Finn spends with Jack Fata, the curiouser she becomes about the Fatas and their inexplicable lives. With the help of Christie and Sylive, she wants to uncover the truth behind their facade. What’s keeping Jack so beholden to Reiko? Why does her classmate Nathan, adopted into the family, seem so uncomfortable all the time? And who are all these sinister people suddenly popping in and out of town for extravagant parties, threatening Finn and her friends whenever they make a new discovery?

Finn used to disbelieve the myths and legends her father taught. When she first meets Christie, she tells him, “Superstitions are useless and fairy tales are lies.” But three months in Fair Hollow will change her mind, because in this weird town superstitions could the the only thing to save her from a deadly fairy tale ending.

My thoughts:

It helps that this book isn’t specifically called Tam Lin, so readers won’t be so hung up on spotting direct parallels to the ballad right from the beginning. And it definitely is more inspired by the old Scottish story than it is a re-telling.

The Fatas – Thorn Jack’s approximation of the Fairy Court – behaved much in the way the court does in “Tam Lin”, with the pageantry, the mockery, and the sacrifice of a tithe. And some other pieces of the novel stuck to the ballad’s form, too. Finn lives at home with her father; she keeps going to forbidden old estates; and only mortal love can save whomever’s been doomed to act as the tithe. But otherwise the story meanders in other directions. Since I managed to check my expectations at the door, I was able to enjoy most of the book for what it was. It’s a cluttered and crazy salute to centuries of fairy-lore, with immature writing at times, but I had a great time reading it despite the several flaws. Thorn Jack reminded me of my early teenage years, even though all the major (human) characters are college students. I got totally sucked into the preternatural melodrama and I liked playing “spot the fairy” at every party scene.

There are plenty of fantasy stories for both teenagers and adults which show fairies as timeless creatures playing at, or bastardizing, human culture for a bit of fun. Alluring, wicked things straight from hearthside stories pass in and out: a dreamlike parade of old spirits disguised as eccentric young people. So many writers have brought figures out of the mythological imagination and into our modern lives.* Add Katherine Harbour to that list, because Thorn Jack was crowded with phookas, sluaghs, ghosts, tree spirits, etc. The book is almost certainly over-crowded with these characters dropping in and out, but even though the plot suffered for it I was highly entertained by the ever-shifting crowd. They were appropriately terrifying and mesmerizing at the same time, following their own selfish reasoning with no regard for mortals. I thought Harbour did a marvelous job of showing how small human lives were in the eyes of fair-folk; they really mean it when they call Finn and her friends “mayflies.” The Fatas were pretty, they were scary, and they were not of this world. I loved them.

My biggest complaint about Thorn Jack would undoubtably be about the romance between Jack and Finn. It did remain a few steps ahead of the sullen girl falls for dark boy because he’s aloof and hangs out by her window at night disaster-zone, because Jack is meant to be keeping an eye on Finn for more sinister reasons than his own heart. In fact, the concept that mortal love makes fairies grow hearts and bleed was kind of cool, and led to some examples of poetic cruelty between the Fatas themselves. With a knife, Reiko can take “heartless” to a whole new level – a reference to one of my favorite lines of the ballad. But Finn’s attachment to him happened too quickly and it seriously detracted from her own character. And oh, boy, did I get tired of hearing her describe his hands. I know there was enchantment at play, but the path from fascination to love wasn’t followed with enough conviction to justify the clinginess which followed. (Though there’s a moment when clinginess comes in handy at the end of the original “Tam Lin”. Ha ha ha.)

The friendships between other characters felt more believable, even though they also bonded almost instantly out of vague curiosity. Finn meets Christie within the hour of first moving to Fair Hollow, I think, but his rakish ways and grim logic in the face of horrors endeared him to me very quickly. Sylvie, the other member of their trio, is lovably goth, brave, and imaginative. Poor Nathan, all tangled up with the Fatas, is a sympathetic character and it’s easy to understand why Finn wants to help him. And the villains? They were scary as hell.

The majority of the action takes place off of HallowHeart’s campus, but the teachers there were mysterious enough that I hope we’ll see more of them in the future. And, as per the ballad, Finn’s dad was kind and smart but none too observant: the perfect sort of parent character for a story about young people struggling to keep a magical world separate from “real life”. I remember that fierce terror of having grown-ups catch wind of my supernatural concerns when I was a young teenager, and Harbour has managed to capture it very well.

“Ordinary Life had been infected by an otherworldly menace.” (p 245)

Her protagonists are older than I imagine them, but the threat of worlds colliding is very present and very right. Because even when the invisible world is crashing to pieces, you still never wanted to put your parents in danger or let on to your teachers that something was wrong. In this way, the emotional resonance never lagged in Thorn Jack even when the plot got tangled or the romantic tension felt off.

After the exhaustive academia of Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, I’m quite content to get a mere taste of college life in this novel. The real action takes place in atmospheric ruins, in the woods, and at dizzy parties I want to attend. Harbour’s descriptions could be annoyingly repetitive – yes I get that the staircase was “art nouveau” without it being reiterated at every step – but the atmosphere was spooky and a good stage for such dark drama. Some moments were maybe too similar to Pamela Dean’s version: the students behaving weirdly must be theatre majors, the old photos of Jack look-alikes from the past must have some logical explanation, the constant quoting of poetry. At least Sylvie had the decency to call out Christie’s weirdness whenever he busted out a line from Yeats in regular conversation. But I’m being too picky again. While Tam Lin is technically a much smarter novel, with more subtlety and cunning allusions, Thorn Jack was just a more enjoyable read for me. I liked the twist with the sacrifice and was happy to have a bit of magic on nearly every page.

In the way that Fire & Hemlock and Tam Lin pulled bits and pieces from various ballads into one complex homage, though not nearly so craftily as Dianna Wynne Jones, Thorn Jack has some obvious parallels and some smaller little references. Comparisons to Holly Black’s Tithe might be more accurate.  Harbour incorporates various fairy characters and traditions into her plot, using a huge cast of minor characters to create an unearthly atmosphere in our own realm. Read the book to appreciate all the moments which dip into legend, but let yourself embrace the diversion into a more modern story along the way.

So, was Thorn Jack a good book? I think so… The cast of characters was sometimes hard to follow, the writing had clunky passages, and the romance was a bit of a mess. The ending, too, was confusing enough that I had to go through it again before closing the book. The book suffers from too much trying to happen in not enough space. But the entire time I was reading it, I was thoroughly engrossed in the story. I had to know what would happen to the characters, and I wanted to stay in Fair Hollow for a long time. My delight in reading Thorn Jack is similar to my fondness for Anne Rice’s vampire books: there are so many weird characters I’d like to meet in the invisible world within our own. These books aren’t trying to be academic literature, they’re just fun. Thorn Jack is entertaining, dark, and an interesting debut. I will definitely be reading the next book in Katherine Harbour’s Night and Nothing series, whenever it comes out.

*An incomplete list would include Holly Black, Maggie Stiefvater, Pamela Dean, Jane Yolen, Charles de Lint, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, Julie Kagawa, Brenna Yovanoff, Terri Windling, and many many others.

Book Review: Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Tam Lin is part of the “Fairy Tale Series” created by Terri Windling.

Star Ratings

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: ** (2 stars)

Plot: ** (2 stars)

Writing : *** (3 stars)

Overall: ** (2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 + (Mostly because the academic subject matter might be boring to many younger readers, not due to any particular graphic unpleasantness.)

I was so excited to finally read this book. It’s been on my shelf for so long, but I forced myself to wait until spring to start reading. Tam Lin is my favorite legend of all time (I guess it’s technically a ballad), and the story has inspired a whole bunch of really excellent novels and re-tellings. Was Pamela Dean’s version of the story worth the anticipation? Not entirely.

I know several different versions of the song, but they all follow the same general theme, which I have summarized here, for anyone who doesn’t know it. I discussed the characters and themes of the original ballads in a separate post from this one, because I already had way too much to say about this one book. Read that first if you aren’t familiar with the legend.  (Thoughts About Ballads: “Tam Lin” Re-tellings)

"Tam Lin - The Faery Host" by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

“Tam Lin – The Faery Host” by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

 

In Pamela Dean’s novel Tam Lin, the ballad’s general theme and storyline has been brought to a college campus in the 1970s. Janet starts her undergraduate studies, and she quickly makes friends with an arcane group of fellow students. The three boys she and her room-mates start to date, and the boys’ acquaintances, behave in a fashion which might be mysteriously esoteric and might just be pretentiously self-impressed. They are college freshmen and theatrical types, after all. In the midst of academic over-ambition; qualms about birth control; and relationship issues, Janet’s started to notice that things aren’t quite normal on campus. The Classics department has a habit of riding horses through the woods every Hallowe’en night to the sound of bagpipes. Nick, Robin, and Thomas are more comfortable arguing over Elizabethan plays than they are going on dates or discussing modern novels. The rumored ghost in Janet’s dorm building has been throwing books out the window, unless it’s someone playing a prank no one can quite understand. The boys are strangely beholden to one Professor Medeous, who is head of Classics – brilliant and manipulative – and a complete mystery. As Janet tries to puzzle over the anomalies on campus, she uncovers clues to a much older and more dangerous cycle of events which seems straight out of a fairy-tale. Her friends’ lives may be in danger, but to help them she’ll need to work out what happened at Blackstock in the previous century. On top of that serious mission, she’s got essays to write and Shakespeare to study!

The book is a long one. It describes Janet’s entire time at Blackstock college; four years of and then she took a class about poetry, and, the five of them sat around discussing Ancient Greek for a solid hour in the dining hall. (These are not direct quotes, because the real descriptions of class schedules and homework assignments sometimes feel like they go on for many pages.) Tam Lin is obviously, and unashamedly, an extensive love-letter to Pamela Dean’s college experience. I didn’t always see the point in the heavy focus on campus life, but I will say that her descriptions did make me feel as though I were right there with Janet in her dorm room, or puzzling over some text in the library, or taking the long way to the bridge to meet some troublesome lad. The thing is, I don’t think the fairy-tale elements of this novel quite justified the hundreds of pages about campus life. It was just too imbalanced for me.

To clarify: Pamela Dean obviously knows her ballads and legends like an absolute wizard. There are several subtle references to medieval British folklore sprinkled throughout the otherwise-mundane chapters of the novel. From the wreaths of symbolic flowers on Janet’s mysterious academic advisor’s door, to the prevalence of green clothing whenever something faintly magical gets suggested, I was always happy to notice a little nod to the old stories which the novel meant to emulate. There are probably a hundred references which I wasn’t sharp enough to catch, too, because in the game of How Many Obscure Literary/Academic/Classical References Can We Hide In One Text?, Tam Lin rivals T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land”. (Janet even first meets Nick over a shared love of that poem, and that just sets the stage for a bazillion other oh aren’t we a clever crew moments.) But unless you’re easily satisfied with minor hints of fairy activity, these occasional moments of mystical intrigue won’t be enough to keep you entirely engaged. The most otherworldly and exciting scenes took place whenever Janet and her friends went ghost hunting, or exploring at night to chase down the sound of bagpipes and spy on the Hallowe’en hunt. Alas, the unusual events they witness don’t nudge the plot into any truly spooky atmosphere.

It’s not until the book’s final hundred pages that the vague hints and scattered references draw together for a supernatural showdown. By that point, the story’s momentum is too bogged down in tedious information, and the action seemed to come from nowhere. A great many threads and plot lines get pulled into the novel: fairy-tale; ghost story; campus drama; literary tribute; coming-of-age story, but none of these aspects gets developed enough. Instead, we have to slog through too many pages of self-indulgent cleverness to get to the legend at the story’s heart. It’s all well and good for the story to be anchored in a fresh, modern setting – those re-tellings are usually my favorites – but if the readers get bored of homework and gratuitous scholarly musings before they even reach the story’s fantasy elements, they could miss the magical moments all together.

When adapting a folktale or legend, it’s really important that the characters retain the qualities which make them so memorable. In this case, Janet (or whomever her counterpart may be) needs to start out obstinate and entitled, but she should turn into a brave, compassionate heroine by the time she faces the Fairy Queen. Dean’s Janet starts out unbearably smug and never gets much better. She does improve a little, recognizing her faults and follies over the course of four years, but she doesn’t change enough to make us truly root for her. The ballad itself isn’t always terribly long, but in five minutes of singing the character of Janet can undergo a better transformation than she did in all four hundred pages of this novel. Also, for someone who wants to research and understand everything (Janet’s like a Hermione who never stops being a know-it-all), she manages to completely overlook all the signs that Fairyland might be at work in her University. Time traveling crosses her mind, and she’s happily inquisitive about ghosts, so it’s a little hard to believe that she’d never heard Fairport Convention’s version of the song, which had been popular only a few years before the story starts. In fairness to our heroine, Dean does make use of the fairy magic confuses mortals trick, and while this slows the plot to a snail’s pace it does, at least, fit nicely with the genre. Janet’s good qualities – her inquisitive nature, her steadfast determination, and her wits – were completely over-shadowed, for me, by her constant need to be the smartest person in the room and the slight brattishness which never really turns into bravery.

Thomas –the Tam Lin of this version – is actually a fairly good character, both in his own right and in conjunction with the ballad. He doesn’t exactly stand around guarding a forest all day, but the mortal trapped by fairies vibe is right on target once the plot finally gets to work. He can’t seem to graduate, distrusts his friends, and has trouble saying what he means. Dean describes his despair and his enthrallment very well. Thomas’s scenes gave me hope that the parallels between the novel’s namesake and the events unfolding would get clearer. Unfortunately, they did not.

In my opinion, the Fairy Queen should be the coolest character in the story. In the ballads, her scene is my absolute favorite. She can start out as a complete mystery, as the stunning but volatile Classics professor does in the novel, but she absolutely must have a strong personality and embody the traits which are inherent to the legacy of her character. I tend to judge re-tellings by their Fairy Queen, and this one fell disastrously short on that account. We very rarely see the Fairy Queen figure, so her role in the story is largely sustained by other characters’ conversations about her. I know that’s how we learn about her in the ballad, too, but two lines in the song manage to convey an aura of power and dread more distinctly than all the prose-y conversations in this book. Maybe the stakes just weren’t high enough, or the action built up far too quickly out of nothing to create the necessary aura of unearthly menace. Even when delivering my favorite lines, it felt like the character was simply reciting from a hasty script. There is always a scripted nature to any re-telling – a formula the author chooses to follow to a certain degree – but since Pamela Dean ignored most of that formula until the end, when it took over the plot rather too conveniently, I see no reason why the Queen couldn’t have been suitably impressive.

Most minor characters were fairly realistic and reasonably likable, but it just felt like I was eavesdropping on some overzealous undergraduates in a Harvard Square cafe. Janet’s family is delightful – (what a relief, since I really like the kind father part of the ballad) – and her scenes at home do manage to provide her character with some redeeming qualities. The twist at the end makes up for some muddled personalities, keeping in mind that we see everything from Janet’s point-of-view so when she’s confused, we’re confused. The characters who had some connection to the ghost were far more intriguing than those with fey-like qualities, but that’s the opposite of what I’d prefer. Fairyland’s denizens can be inscrutable puzzles and still keep the reader enthralled, but the eldritch members of Blackwood’s faculty and students just seemed wooden and shallow. I didn’t care enough about any of them besides Thomas and, sometimes, his friends.

Maybe my disappointment is due to unrealistic expectations. I would love to know how the book feels to someone who wasn’t in love with the original ballad before they started reading. As a coming-of-age campus novel and nothing more, Tam Lin would still have issues with pacing and character development. But the descriptions of college life in the 1970s – the issues of sexual awakening, scholarly ambitions, and young people on their own for the first time – could possibly interest some readers enough to justify the imbalance between so many mundane details and the underdeveloped supernatural elements. Terri Windling’s introduction and especially the Author’s Note at the end of the book do provide some explanations about the story’s peculiar direction, and I appreciated Dean’s choices a little more after learning what inspired her. Anyone who tries the novel should make sure to read those, as well. These notes won’t entirely excuse the bad pacing and unlikable characters, but they do provide some context and several interesting observations about the ballad itself.

Tam Lin wasn’t a terrible book, despite all my complaints. I did read all the way to the end, and the subtle mysteries building around Blackstock were interesting enough that I cared to find out what Janet would discover. I liked solving bits of the puzzle before she did – recognizing symbols from the ballad – and I liked the twist at the end. Ultimately, though, I spent most of my time reading the book white-knuckled from frustration rather than suspense. There are better books out there which have covered the two main styles of Tam Lin. If you want a thoughtful; twisting; incredibly well-researched modern adaption of the ballad, read Dianna Wynne Jones’s Fire & Hemlock. That’s got a billion and twelve folklore references in it, too, but both the magic and the real world are far more intriguing. For anyone after a twisted and highbrow story of undergrad Classics students in way over their heads, read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Tam Lin is a heavy-handed combination of the two genres, and while I would recommend it to devout fans of either genre and/or the 1970s, the novel just doesn’t live up to the legacy of its title.

Thoughts About Ballads: “Tam Lin” Re-tellings

“Tam Lin” is a Scottish ballad which has been adapted into a great many songs and stories. There are many different versions of the ballad, all of which follow the same general plot and central characters. My favorite musical recordings of the song are probably those by Fairport Convention and Tricky Pixie, though there are countless others out there for your Youtubing pleasure. If you want to look at a large selection of the ballad variations, have a scroll through this page. “Tam Lin” is Child Ballad #39, and the story is still well-known today. I’ve summarized the general story here, based on my own favorite versions.

tam lin

Tam Lin – The Faery Host by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

The legend: Janet, daughter of the lord who owns the land, breaks the rule never to go to Carterhaugh and picks a forbidden rose there. The woods are off-limits because, as the song tells us at its opening, young Tam Lin guards the place and takes either the green mantles or maidenhead of any girl who trespasses. Tam Lin appears to Janet, demanding why she’s come to Carterhaugh without his permission, and she retorts (rather smarmily, in some versions) that she can come and go as she pleases because she was given Carterhaugh by her father.

The ballads usually gloss over the following events, but it seems that Tam Lin likes her defiant/entitled spirit, and she falls for him too (once he stops shouting at her about flowers, I assume). The point is: things get consummated in the woods. Probably a little mossy, and most certainly a bit surprised by the un-planned direction of her afternoon, Janet returns to her father’s hall. It quickly becomes obvious that she’s pregnant, but Janet refutes everyone’s curiosity about who the baby’s father might be by declaring that her lover was an Elfin knight, who she’d not trade for any knight of her father’s human court.

After nine months, our forthright and loyal lassie returns to Carterhaugh (sometimes she’s looking for an abortive herb at this stage), and asks Tam Lin how he got stuck guarding the forest in the first place. It turns out he was kidnapped by the Fairy Queen and has become a human member of her court; he haunts Carterhaugh at the Queen’s bidding. Tam Lin also tells Janet that every seven years the Queen must pay a tithe to Hell, sacrificing a member of her court. Being a human, handsome, and one of the Queen’s favorite knights, he is almost certain that the sacrifice this year will be himself. Janet’s not keen to let the Fairy Queen give her lover over to the fiends of Hell. When Tam Lin tells her that she might be able to save him if she yanks him from his horse as the Fairy Host rides through the woods on Hallowe’en, she gets all heroic despite the added inconvenience of being incredibly pregnant.

At Miles Cross, Janet waits on a stormy night to witness the court go riding by. As Tam Lin had instructed, she lets the black horses pass by, and then the brown, and when she sees the white horse at the end of the procession she pulls the rider down. The faeries turn Tam Lin into all sorts of horrible creatures in an attempt to force Janet to release her hold on him: lions, snakes, bears – it varies from song to song but they’re always mean and bite-y. But she was warned of this, too, and hangs on. Even when Tam Lin turns into a burning brand in her hands, she holds fast, and eventually he turns back into himself, naked and rather bedraggled, and she covers him with her green mantle. The end of this action is usually the end of the narrative.

The Fairy Queen almost always ends the song with some bitter and imperious line about how she would have turned Tam Lin’s heart to stone; or his body into a tree; or taken out his eyes, had she known what would transpire that night. We’re left to assume that Janet and Tam Lin limp off into the night to figure out their unnatural family dynamic in peace, while the Fairy court presumably has some last-minute alterations to make to their plan.

It’s a wonderful ballad, with several important symbols and elements which make it work out both as a piece of fairy-lore and as a compelling story. You need the forbidden woods to be mysterious, and their guardian Tam Lin to be both powerful and vulnerable: frightened for his own life while still in touch with Fairy land’s magic. Janet’s got to be youthfully hot-headed at the beginning, and turn into a brave, compassionate heroine by Hallowe’en. The ballad might be named after Tam Lin, but the story’s actually about Janet. I think that her behavior upon learning that she’s pregnant is incredibly important: Janet’s not going to be bullied by the expectations of stuffy old court traditions. She’s comfortable with herself and generally the sort of leading lady you want to cheer for.

Most importantly, in my opinion, the scene at Miles Cross needs to be dangerous and otherworldly, so that Janet’s bravery in the face of the Fairy Court can be properly appreciated. The Fairy Queen is one of my favorite characters out of every myth, legend, and ballad I’ve ever encountered. She doesn’t ascribe to mere human manners or morals, but there are folkloric conventions her character really ought to fulfill. The Queen of the Fairy Court – sometimes specified as the Unseelie Court – should be powerful, impatient, and utterly self-obsessed. (You see why we would get along.) The dangers of crossing this lady cannot be taken lightly, so her formidable presence highlights Tam Lin’s peril and Janet’s courage.

Finally, the rules and magical logic which apply to freeing a knight from the Fairy Court are steeped in tradition and very important. Various interpretations of the story change up the forms Tam Lin takes, but the point is that Janet holds on. She gets beaten, bitten, bruised, and burned, with whole host of immortal creatures watching her agony from horseback. But fairy stories are governed by tests and loopholes, so when she wins her love fairly, there’s naught the court can do. Names are always important in fairy stories. Promises are binding and when you’re forbidden from speaking or moving you’d better hold your tongue and stand very still. Just as characters in these songs and tales must follow the twisted rules which create their world, so should re-worked interpretations pay attention to the necessary patterns. A novel which draws on any folk ballad or legend can change all sorts of characters and plot points to its heart’s content, in my opinion, as long as the canon functions of Fairyland get their due respect. Sometimes authors bend the rules, and when it’s cleverly done those alterations are exciting. If bits and pieces of similar stories are wisely, cleverly sampled to form one big narrative, the results can be spectacular; Fire & Hemlock contains threads from “Tam Lin,” and “Thomas the Rhymer,” all twisted into one big ol’ gorgeous novel. It’s frustrating when an author ignores vital parts of the folkloric tradition just to suit their own convenience, especially when drawing inspiration from such a well-known ballad as “Tam Lin,” but any story with hints of Fairy’s sinister, timeless magic is worth investigating.

Below are some of books inspired by “Tam Lin” which I’ve read. There are so many different versions of the ballad itself, so certain themes are more prevalent in each authors’ writing style. Not everything inspired by the ballad is necessarily a faithful re-telling; some of these books just borrow from the plot or make use of the key elements. Tithes to Hell, forbidden woods, and angry Fairy Queens tend to make for an interesting story. Anyone with books to add to the list and opinions to share should speak up in the comments, because I’m always on the hunt for more to read on the subject.

Books I’ve Read:

Fire & Hemlock by Dianna Wynne Jones

souce: goodreads

One of my favorite fantasy novels, making a near-perfect use of all those mythical rules I went on about, and then twisting them in the best of ways. Even though the main character is a child for most of the book, it is (and should be) a favorite amongst adult fantasy enthusiasts. I love that Polly recognizes the similarities between her own adventure and the old ballads, and uses this to her advantage. Very highly recommended to anyone who likes their stories to be full of layered inferences to the old stories and songs.

Tithe by Holly Black

source: goodreads

Again, a book which includes certain characters and plot points of the ballad without being a thorough re-telling. Good, gritty YA with a firm grasp on fairy lore. I loved Tithe as a pre-teen and still think it’s pretty great. The Fairy Courts (both Seelie and Unseelie) are described particularly well.

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

source: wikipedia

You can read my full rant and review here, in its own post. Pamela Dean’s book contains interesting allusions to the old folk stories and songs, which are fun to hunt for through the pages, but with a title so obviously referencing the ballad I was disappointed with the re-telling. The action of the ballad is set on a college campus in the 1970’s, over the course of Janet’s four years as an undergraduate. Rather than just borrowing from the legend, Tam Lin enticed me with the idea of a thorough re-telling with connections between nearly every character and plot point. Unfortunately, it felt imbalanced with too much homework and not enough of a magical atmosphere.

Added July 13, 2014: Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour

I read Thorn Jack without so many expectations, after learning my lesson with Dean’s Tam Lin.  Despite some immature writing and a bothersome romance, I really liked it.  Goes to show that it’s better to read with an open mind.  Thorn Jack borrows from the Tithe aspect of Tam Lin, and has a magnificent Faery Court disguised as wealthy young people.  The plot twists away from the ballad’s original pattern, borrowing an awful lot from Celtic faery mythology to create a huge (and sometimes confusing) cast of minor characters.  The references to Tam Lin are pretty good, and it was a fun book despite the clutter.  My full review is here.

Books inspired by “Tam Lin” which I haven’t read yet include:

The Perilous Guard by Elizabeth Marie Pope

Winter Rose by Patricia A. McKillip

The Mirk and Midnight Hour by Jane Nickerson

Which of these should I read first? Suggestions? Opinions? Books I’ve not yet heard of that I need to track down ASAP? I’m always excited to read another take on my favorite fairy story – be it literary fiction or pulp fantasy or something in between – so please chime in with whatever comes to mind.

I feel like I’ve saturated the blog with fairytales and folklore this spring, so maybe it’s time for some other subjects, soon. I hope my unofficial Fairy Fest, 2014 hasn’t been too unbearable for those of you who prefer cutlasses to curses. Swashbuckling heroics and clever kid’s books are on the way, I promise. For now, I’ve just got to wait out this folklore virus and enjoy every page of it.

Archived Review: My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

(I originally wrote this little review for a magazine at my University, back in Feb 2012.  I’m cross posting it here because I’ve been thinking about fairy tales a lot, lately, and seriously recommend this collection.  It’s still in print, too, unlike some of my other favorite anthologies.)

source: indiebound

I was a little wary when I opened the provocatively-named anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me; a collection of “forty new fairy tales” compiled by Kate Bernheimer. Re-told, re-imagined and modernized fairy tales have become wildly popular lately- and I’ve left many a cinema and shut many a book feeling disappointed. Too often the director or writer makes an easy interpretation by amping up the sex and violence while just barely clinging to the bones of the fairy tale – at that point, why not just write an entirely new story? At other times I can barely spot a difference from the original folk tale besides a shifted point of view. After a while the poor, misunderstood wicked step mother’s perspective gets pretty old. So I didn’t let my hopes get too high when I began reading My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, but in the end I was pleasantly surprised.

One of the collection’s major virtues is the sheer variety of authors who re-worked fairy tales and myths into their own style of story; greats of the genre like Neil Gaiman are filed among newer writers I’d never heard of, and even authors not always associated with fantasy – Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike, for example – contribute to make the anthology wonderfully well-rounded. In her quest to present fairy tales as legitimate inspiration for quality literature, Bernheimer solicited pieces from authors “whose work had suggested ‘fairy tale’… whether in obvious or subtle ways.” She isn’t kidding about that.

Some of the stories were ridiculously fantastical, some verged on sci fi, while others had only the slightest hint of fairy tale hidden within the writing. The selection covers a whole spectrum but each story stands out as a shining example of its kind. In a way this extreme variety could seem jarring; Timothy Schaffert’s trippy and disturbing “The Mermaid in the Tree” preceded a story by Katharine Vaz which contained absolutely no magic and read like a realistic literary examination of a relationship. Staggeringly different in tone, the fact that both stories were based on “The Little Mermaid” surprised me. The stylistic disconnect between stories proved to be a good thing, though, as 533 pages of only a few writers’ voices would have been boring at best and irritating enough that some stories would go entirely unread. Instead we have forty new fairy tales told in forty unique styles, and something can be found within the anthology for every reader.

I would recommend My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me to anyone with an interest in fairy tales, be it a residual love for the colorful films of one’s childhood or a growing fascination with folk tales and legends. It’s the sort of book you can read on the bus without fearing the judgmental glances of scholarly sorts (though they shouldn’t judge at all because at least you’re reading, right?). Kate Bernheimer has succeeded in convincing me, for one, that fairy tales can be fodder for serious literature as well as entertaining fluff, they just have to be wrought by the most capable hands in the business. I’m pleased and relieved to say that this is one book that I closed with regret rather than disappointment. I was sorry to reach the end and I hope to see similar endeavors on shelves in the future.

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Book Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

source: goodreads

I often wonder if I’m in danger of becoming a fairy-tale villain. I don’t like little children. I’m greedy, I’m selfish, and I occasionally think about cursing people into small amphibians or enchanted sleeps. Like Boy, the main character in Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel, I spend an awful lot of my time looking in mirrors. It was fascinating to watch Boy’s progression from abused daughter to possibly evil stepmother, especially since it’s easy to see how we might follow the same path if we were in her place.

It’s 1953 and Boy Novak has run away from her abusive father, the rat catcher, in New York City.  She chooses to make her home in a Massachusetts town peopled by skilled craftsmen despite her lack of any artistic occupation. The magazine quizzes tell Boy that she might be frigid, and there are times when mirrors seem to enchant her while she sees truer reflections of herself walking across the street, invisible to everyone else. It takes Boy a little while to get her bearings, though she’d never admit this to the characters who try to befriend her, but eventually she puts a past love behind her and marries a teacher-turned-jeweler; a widower with a stunning little daughter whom Boy can never quite figure out. “[Snow] was poised and sympathetic, like a girl who’d just come from the future but didn’t want to brag about it.” (p 71) Just as Boy starts to grow comfortable in Flax Hill with Arturo’s family the Whitmans (that’s right: Snow Whitman and her stepmother…) she gives birth to a little girl of her own. Snow is the one to suggest the name Bird, and Bird grows into an inquisitive and lively young teenager who does the name justice. Bird also comes out brown skinned, which exposes the Whitmans as having Black ancestry in the not so distant genetic past. They might live in a fairly accepting Northern town, but this is still 1950s America, so everyone is pretty shocked when Boy chooses to send Snow away to stay with Arturo’s estranged sister and her more obviously  Black husband instead of Bird. Thus begins Boy’s transformation into something of an evil stepmother, something of a protective mother despite the cultural obstacles, and something of a confused fairy tale heroine in her own right. As family secrets get tangled into legend or pulled out into the open, a realistic portrayal of self preservation versus difficult truths mixes with the stuff of bedtime stories to create a touching and clever novel which enthralled me completely.

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of re-told fairy tales. I like stories which are fairly obvious in their parallels and I also like mostly-original novels which follow an understated pattern of fairy tale logic and contain hidden references along the way. Oyeyemi has borrowed the fairest-of-them-all conflict, the child-sent-away plot catalyst, and the magical qualities of names for her novel. She has sprinkled her tale of new beginnings and re-shaped families with references to “Snow White,” most obviously, but also a whole library of other myths and legends.

That being said, Boy, Snow, Bird is not really a fantasy novel. I mean, there are no dwarves and no magic apples, but there’s also no concrete suggestion that all this talk about curses or fate might be truly serious. Maybe the fact that all three title characters don’t show up in mirrors, sometimes, should be read as pure metaphor. Maybe Boy Novak runs away from her vicious father with the grim profession to a secluded town just because the time is right, and not because she’s following the well-trodden path of all those girls who struck out, cursed, for unknown lands in the storied traditions before her. Maybe Bird can’t really talk to spiders. Maybe the mystical powers girls like Snow and Sidonie hold over boys – regardless of race in such a racially aware time – comes from something within them that isn’t so much magical as genetic or psychological. Who knows? All I know is that Helen Oyeyemi did a marvelous job integrating some of my favorite themes and traditions into her writing. Every few pages, I have passages underlined in pencil or sticky notes pointing out of my copy of the book, marking my favorite references both obvious and minute. I bet there are plenty I’ve missed, too. There were connections with the German and English tales we’re all quite used to, but also some references to the Black American legends of John the Conqueror and the more Romantic poem Goblin Market; mixed allusions are hidden all over the place and I wanted to high-five Oyeyemi from afar every time I noticed one of my favorite obscure little legends.

Aside from the layer of magical motifs which embellished Boy, Snow, Bird, there were several other aspects which rather enchanted me. Yes, the characters were memorable – though I thought that the male characters were distinctly less developed than the vivid female ones – and the setting made a nice stage for the volatile time period in which the story takes place. (It was pretty odd to read about a fictional New England town which was meant to be less than an hour away from mine. Every time the characters went to Worcester I couldn’t help but picture the streets and restaurants I’ve personally encountered.) But it was the way that certain characters interacted with each other and learned to distrust their first, second, third impressions which really caught my attention. When Bird gets work as a coat check girl on a party cruise simply because she’s got blonde hair – the 1950s were absurd – and strikes up a friendship with Mia, who masquerades as a blonde to write an article about the whole shindig, there’s a bit of foreshadowing there for the bigger disguises which will reveal themselves in time.  All clever plotting aside, it was entertaining to watch their friendship develop, and to see how Mia’s doggedly inquisitive personality rubbed against Boy’s challenging one. The bookshop owner who later employs Boy is an ornery old English lady who turns out to be full of little surprises, not the least of which being her patience and understanding to the three precocious young black children who spend their afternoons reading at the shop instead of going to school.  Since Boy, Snow, Bird is a novel which focuses on race, I was glad to see these kids through the eyes of a lady who has absolutely no time for racist nonsense. Think Aunt Eleanor from Inkheart, dispensing thoughtful advice about theoretical curses rather than facing down real magical villains. The supporting cast of ladies, including those who had ugly pieces of their souls hidden away, were as carefully characterized as they were diverse. I didn’t really mind the fact that Boy’s husband and the other menfolk weren’t so interesting. They just seemed more realistic, less complex, a little drab; and maybe that’s part of what made the book seem to follow Anderson’s and the Grimms’ formulas. The honest woodcutters (or jeweler, in this case) and the kingly fathers rarely have any clue what’s going on under their noble, hardworking noses. It’s the women and children who notice the threats in nature and in their own reflections.

My favorite interaction to witness was probably the correspondence between the nearly grown up Snow and her half-sister Bird in the middle section of the book, which was told from Bird’s perspective. We get such a romanticized picture of Snow from Boy’s chapters – not always in a good way – that it’s hard to see her as a real person for the first half of the narrative. But she finally gets to have a bit of her own voice in the letters she exchanges with Bird, who doesn’t have any set opinion of this beautiful but incomprehensible girl just yet. “I don’t think Mother Nature likes us much,” Snow writes to her sister once they finally make contact. “If she did, she wouldn’t make the things that are deadliest so beautiful.” (p 230) It’s observations like that one which turn Snow into more than just a beautiful concept against which other characters can hurl their dreams and prejudices and insecurities. For all that Boy finds herself at internal odds with her stepdaughter once her own daughter is born, this is an observation which sounds like it could have come straight out of Boy’s head.

The conflicted stepmother and the fairest of them all aren’t so different, and in the end I read every one of their own encounters with my breath held a little, waiting to see if there would be violence, or tears, or retribution, or forgiveness. This book isn’t a fairy tale, it just shows us a picture of diverse life half a century ago through the window of the folklore we recognize, so no one falls asleep after eating a poisoned apple. The forgiveness and acceptance we seek while reading Boy, Snow, Bird does come to pass in the end, up to a point. But it’s a fraught road to get there, and you can’t be quite certain that things won’t soon tumble back into the deceptive, treacherous world of hidden identities and quiet manipulations. I’m choosing to hope that there might be a happy ending for Boy, Snow, and Bird, though, because I grew attached to all three of them. Even if true happiness isn’t an option, I closed the book wishing that they might survive whatever harrowing journey through the woods they three had embarked upon together.

Star Ratings

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing : ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)