Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on Septembe 1, 2011
Overall Rating: **** (4 stars)
Dearest readers, you may have noticed that my usual method of posting little star ratings of plot, character, and whatnot is suspiciously missing from this review. This is not because I simply can’t be bothered, I assure you. It is due to the fact that Black Thorn, White Rose is a collection of re-told and re-imagined fairy tales by several different authors, and it would be difficult indeed to rate the myriad of characters and plots therein. Some of the writers, like Jane Yolen and Patricia C. Wrede have been favorites of mine since the beginning of my fairy-tale-reading days. A few of the stories have the distinction of being the author’s first publication, but few of them seemed amateur or forced. The collection is marketed as fairy tales for adults – though I found it in the YA section of the library – so many of the stories have amped up the sex and gore and adult themes. I was not super fond of the overtly-sexual stories, as my Victorian sensibilities are fragile as all hell, but the violence and darkness in the more Gothic re-tellings were right up my proverbial alley. Below, I shall go into more detail on a few of the stories which stuck out in my memory for one reason or another.
Stronger Than Time by Patricia C. Wrede: A sweet take on “Sleeping Beauty” which, despite having only two major characters, contains a significant plot twist and one very gruesome thorn forest. The main character is an elderly woodcutter who has lived in constant wariness of the imposing tower near his home. When a young and adamant prince-on-an-errand requests the woodcutter’s help in a quest to reach the tower and save the sleeping princess within, the old man grumbles most amusingly but concedes. The story is mostly the two men talking and then their perilous adventure to the castle, which involves some pretty nifty magic, but it is the denoument which made me realize that the tale was so good. I shan’t spoil the ending, but at that point the traditional Sleeping Beauty storyline is twisted around in a most spooky and satisfying manner. It wasn’t the sort of story I normally expect from Wrede, as her Enchanted Forest series is more lighthearted and full of grouchy dragons and strong female characters, but it was a good read nonetheless.
The Brown Bear of Norway by Isabel Cole: This story appealed to the teenager in me, for it involves doomed love, Scandinavian magic, and a young narrator whose stoic acceptance of a shape shifting boy she knows only through pen-pal letters succeeded in melting my cynical little heart. I wasn’t familiar with the “animal bridegroom” folklore tradition on which Cole’s story was based, but even so the fairy tale elements and the power of Northern magic combined into a likable story which fit very well into the collection. The narrator is in high school, which may alienate some readers who have put those years resolutely behind them, but the story is sweet and well written enough to bring us wholeheartedly into her quest across the ocean to find the boy who turns into a bear.
Granny Rumple by Jane Yolen: I was surprised by this story, for though I had figured out from the title that it would be a re-telling of Rumpelstiltskin it contains little to no fantasy. Instead, the story features a money lender and his wife living in a Jewish ghetto in the town of Ykaterinislav. The money lender is small and ugly, though his wife (the eventual Granny Rumple of the title) is supposedly stunning. When he meets a woman in the Christian part of town who is all bent out of shape because her father told her fiance that she could spin gold, he offers to help. That rumor does not lead where one might expect, for instead of spinning it himself the money lender simply gives her some cash to buy gold cloth and, as the rumor persists, dresses. In the end, the myth of the little imp who threatened to steal her baby is perpetrated by the women the money lender helped when his wife shows up after the wedding and demands payment. Disaster ensues. Though lacking the well thought out magic for which Jane Yolen is renowned, this historically religious take on Rumpelstiltskin is clever and important. Its narrative style; that of a legend passed through the Yolen family, adds the element of myth which would otherwise be missing.
Godson by Roger Zelanzy: This may have been my favorite story in the entire collection, though I had never heard of Zelanzy before in my life. I’ve always been a big fan of Death as a character, be it the narrator in The Book Thief or or Terry Pratchett’s character who speaks in booming capital letters. In this short story, which has since been performed as a three act play, a man rejects both god and the devil as voluntary godfathers to his son David, claiming that neither are trustworthy. Death, “he who makes all equal” meets the man at a crossroads and is deemed a worthy godfather. (Any tale which involves making a deal with Death at the crossroads is bound to be good, and Godson does not disappoint.) The godson knows Death as “Morrie” and is never surprised by Morrie’s ghastly abilities or inexplicable appearances at death scenes. Morrie gives the David a talking bicycle which happens to contain a human soul, several good chats about football, and a plant which can restore a person to life. My favorite part of the story was when David and Morrie have a birthday dinner in Morrie’s lair, where each living soul is represented by candles, easily snuffed out. Unsurprisingly, there are some mortal consequences regarding the use of this miracle plant; when David cheats death another candle is put out before its time. As David grows older and tries to escape Morrie’s influence, he has to make some serious choices, and the story throws into perspective the difficulties of choosing between a father figure and moral right. Godson is a modern and entertaining story. It could be included in an anthology of contemporary fiction just as easily as it is in this fairy tale collection. In it can be found a mix of everything good: a charmingly dark entity, humour, tension, inanimate objects which possess the power of speech, difficult choices, betrayal by loved ones, suspenseful altercations, and a mostly happy ending. That is, as happy an ending as one can expect when Death and mortals watch MTV together on the couch.
Sweet Bruising Skin by Storm Constantine: At first, I found it very unlikely that any re-telling of “The Princess and the Pea” could be dark and mysterious, since the fairy tale about princesses being hard to please never appealed to me much as a child. Somehow Sweet Bruising Skin manages to be both, with mixed results. Narrated by the prince’s ambitious and cunning mother, Constantine’s story incorporates alchemy and gross zombie-style-magic into a spooky tale of a Queen trying too hard to control her son. The writing is good, better than I had expected after reading the rather trashy-sounding title, and the characters are memorable. The queen’s alchemist is sleazy, the chancellors are stuffy, and the beautiful – though uncanny – princess who appears during a storm freaked me out entirely. This story reads like a thick fantasy novel; it’s about a made up country with archives full of magical laws, and for those readers who like their fairy tales resolutely starring a royal cast of characters it may become a favorite in the collection. I found myself wishing that Sweet Bruising Skin had been written as a novel, maybe one with a better title, because it seemed like the sort of disturbing tale which could go on for hundreds of pages. That’s a good sign, I suppose.
These were just my favorite stories, the ones which I’ll be carrying in my twisted brain for a good while. There is something for everyone who likes fairy tales and folklore in Black Thorn, White Rose. Do you like regency romances? There’s a story for you. Sci Fi stories with inter-species pairings? Check. Women struggling with painfully low self esteem? Two vastly different stories of that sort. I was not wild about the poems, but since I know next to nothing about modern poetry I will let other readers form their own opinions about those two inclusions. In short, one might read only a few stories in the collection – looking out for their favorite authors and original fairy tales – or one might race through it cover to cover as I did. Either way, or any way in between, Black Thorn, White Rose is a worthwhile anthology compiled by editors who clearly love what they do, and I look forward to perusing the other volumes of the series.