I really liked W.D. Valgardson’s What the Bear Said: Skald Tales of New Iceland. It’s a collection of short stories about Icelanders, most of whom are living on the edge of Lake Winnipeg, but some happen back in Iceland. There are faeries and a sturgeon that looks out for the woman who saved it and good deeds going unnoticed by all but the being who matters and bad deeds being punished.
It was like a fairy tale book, but one set in the world I recognize. (I wish Mennonites had a tradition of magical tales so I could be digging these out of my own heritage. I guess martyrs’ stories are our equivalent? Lame.)
Tender Morsels is Margo Lanagan’s fairy tale that doesn’t feel like a fairy tale because of how terribly it begins. [TRIGGER WARNING] Liga is raped by her father in their cottage in the woods repeatedly and the third time he gets her pregnant he’s killed on his way home to give her the abortion weeds. And then after she’s given birth to a daughter she’s raped by a bunch of the town boys.
So yes, dark.
That terrible horrible beginning is so important for the rest of the book though, which is about Liga protecting her daughters and her daughters trying to find their own ways in the world. It’s so good. Each of the women, Liga and her two daughters, have very different ways of dealing with the world and the story of how they do this is deep and affecting. It doesn’t have the same sense of fun with the grimness of the fairy-tale that A Tale Dark and Grimm does, and it’s written for a much older audience.
Alex Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm is a retelling of a bunch of Grimm’s fairy tales, but pulled together into a single narrative about Hansel and Gretel, who are siblings who have to deal with a great number of terrible parental figures. It’s written for a modern audience and doesn’t shy away from the violence in these stories (Hansel and Gretel get their heads cut off in the first chapter to bring their father’s faithful servant back to life).
One of the best parts about the story is the narrator, who helpfully tells you when the really little kids should leave the room, and gives them a good number of false happy endings (much like Emily Gravett’s Wolves picturebook). The narrator also talks about when we’ve reached the sad part of the book and tells the reader how to pronounce names and commiserates with the readers about the sometimes inexplicable things that happen (like when Gretel has to cut off her finger to open a door because they lost the key).
The narrator is like a built in commentary for reading the book aloud to a kid. It’s the kind of stuff I’d like to be able to extemporize when reading fairy tales, but having it actually written makes it much more clever (and less repetitive than I’d be).
So yes, this is an excellent fairy-tale retelling. Bloody and heroic and filled with the agency of children. Great stuff.
The Wee Free Men isn’t the best title for Terry Pratchett’s excellent book about a girl, Tiffany Aching, who becomes a witch-hero.
Like The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents this is an excellent younger readers-focused book set in the Discworld but kind of off to the side somewhere. It has less to do with storybook tropes, and more with analysis of what a witch actually does.
Basically Tiffany Aching is a ten-year-old badass through her careful paying of attention to things and when her little brother (who she doesn’t really like) is kidnapped by otherworldly creatures she goes off to save him because who can wait for the “real witches” to show up? She’s got help from a toad (a bit) and the titular Wee Free Men, who are pictsies that fight and steal and cuss. They’re kind of awesome and stuff, but it bugs me that the book is named after the assistants, rather than the hero. I guess there are a lot of them, and they may have intimidated Sir Pratchett.
I haven’t been waiting for the latest in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series for as long as some people, but I was glad to see A Dance with Dragons come out this year. Reading it was my reward for finishing up my fantasy and science fiction for younger readers course. I was in the mood for some Knights Who Say Fuck. And in that I wasn’t disappointed.
As far as the book itself went though? It was okay. I was glad to catch up with what was happening to all the characters I hadn’t heard any news from in so long (most of the story in this book is about characters whose shorelines were left out of the previous book, A Feast For Crows). And in the last third of the book we got a few glimpses into other areas of Westeros and beyond as well.
It was all fine, but it felt more like a letter from a friend you haven’t seen in a while than an actual story with a beginning, middle and end. It really is just a bunch of stuff that happens. Yes the stakes escalate through the book, and terrible things happen to characters we like (which is one of those things you have to deal with getting into this series), but it didn’t feel like a story, just the latest instalment to leave you waiting for the next one.
It’s good though. Theon Greyjoy has a great arc in this book. Ramsay Snow/Bolton is a terrifying villain. Tyrion is in this book and it’s really hard not to enjoy his chapters (though I bet when they get to doing the TV version of this book his trip to Meereen will be a bit less needlessly complicated). There are dragons doing dragony things and princes from fairy tales trying to do princely things. Things turn out better for one of those groups than the other.
I hope the next book takes a bit less time, and that there aren’t too many more to wait for. But if you’re in the market for epic fantasy and don’t mind an author who isn’t afraid to be brutal to his protagonists, this series is very good. I just can’t say it keeps getting better and better.
I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for my SFF reader advisory class. Now, those who’ve ever had occasion to discuss C.S. Lewis with me know my story about having Narnia ruined for me by a terrible fucking school librarian (who was probably just a volunteer and I shouldn’t harbour this resentment from a quarter-century ago but whatever) who told small Justin “You know, that story’s actually all about Jesus.” Even then I thought that was sneaky and underhanded and terrible and it tainted the way I read anything by Lewis. So. My biases out of the way.
Rereading it now I’m amazed by how quickly everything happens. It’s just bam bam bam. All of these iconic scenes are things I’d assumed were just shorthand for all the things that happen in the story (Edmund eats magic Turkish Delight), but they aren’t. Pretty much everything I remembered is exactly what the story is. I may not be explaining this super well. I assumed that I’d simplified it in my memory, but I hadn’t. Everything is remarkably simple and straight to the point. I disagree with the point and I take issue with how important the nature of good creatures vs bad creatures is, and the fact that none of the characters have any real agency of their own bothers me, but at least it doesn’t spend 800 pages trying to get there. This is one of those times that the story is better than the movie because of what it isn’t dwelling on. The battles are all off the page until Aslan returns. We hear about Edmund being clever, and about the big battles but we don’t have to read about every terrible clash of the sword.
I’d also forgotten that at the end the kids become kings and queens and talk like you pretend middle ages people talk before they stumble back through the wardrobe to become children again. The whole thing is very much a fairy tale, and I can appreciate it as such. Even if I don’t like it.
(Seriously though, CS Lewis’ ideas of class and the value of a person having nothing to do with what they do really bother me.)
I’m slowly catching up on Bill Willingham’s Fables series. It really is as good as everyone said. The general concept is that all the fable characters are immortal and have been living in New York since they were chased from storybookland by The Adversary. After Animal Farm (which saw a failed uprising by the more inhuman Fables in their upstate location), the status quo seems ripe for upsetting.
In Storybook Love there are a few stories. One is a caper where a bunch of the Fables, led by Bigby Wolf have to deal with a journalist who’s cottoned onto their “secret.” There’s also a story filled with political machinations (and some romance).
These stories are great. Not as literature dependent or complex as something like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but a lot of fun. Who’s a villain and who’s a hero isn’t as easy as remembering the original stories. Willingham does a really good job of making these characters fit their roles, but also develop. Excellent stuff.