Fairy Tale Tuesday No.87 – Esben and the Witch

This Danish story, from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Witches, introduces us to a family of twelve sons, eleven of whom are big, blokey types while the twelfth, Esben, is small and thin. Him being the youngest, you might not consider that too surprising, but his father and brothers treat any physical frailty like a disease they’re determined not to catch. The only member of the family who has any time for Esben is his mother, so he spends most of his time helping her in the house while the older boys work for their father in the fields.

One day, they decide to leave en masse and seek their fortunes. Losing eleven farm labourers at once is a hell of a blow to the ageing farmer, especially as they all expect to be equipped with horses for the journey, but he has done well enough to afford that, and a little extra money for the journey besides. Esben wants to go too, but the sudden departure of the farmer’s other sons hasn’t helped his youngest rise in the ranks. “If I could have kept your brothers at home and sent you away, it would have been better for me in my old age,” he declares, with withering bluntness.

Esben goes quietly into the woods and cuts himself a branch. He models it into the rough outline of a horse, and when he is satisfied with it he sings, “Fly quick, my little stick, carry me into the world.” The stick kicks off on twig legs, carrying him away in pursuit of his brothers.

They have ridden all day and by nightfall have reached a vast forest. There is only one house in sight, so that’s where they ask for shelter. Having eleven large men descend on you all at once would bother most people, I think, but the owner of this house is no ordinary old lady. She is a witch, and she has plans.

She also has thirteen daughters, who flirt cheerfully with the brothers while the witch makes supper, and then everybody goes to bed. In the same room. Which is large enough to be furnished with twenty four beds…which isn’t weird at all. The brothers, who do not seem terribly bright, go straight to sleep.

Not long afterwards, Esben arrives on his stick horse and sneaks inside. Based on an inexplicable hunch, he swaps his brothers’ nightcaps for those worn by eleven of the witch’s daughters, then hides under a bed. Soon the witch comes into the room with an axe. It’s too dark to see who occupies which bed, and to light a lamp does not suit her purposes, so she tries to guess from feel. She leaves the room believing she has beheaded her eleven guests. Thanks to Esben’s intervention, she has instead killed her own daughters.

When he is sure the witch has gone to sleep, Esben gets up and wakens his brothers, telling them to flee. They aren’t grateful, but they go, and he goes with them. In the morning they cross a river and reach a palace, where they are taken into service as stablehands. Esben, being young and little, is dismissed as useless. His brothers don’t speak up for him; the cook, however, thinks he’s funny and feeds him scraps. As a result he goes mostly unnoticed, which his brothers do not – they catch the attention of a vicious-tempered knight who, having won the king’s favour, is using it to wreck the lives of anyone he happens not to like. When the brothers refuse to defer to him, he goes to the king and tells him they know how to find a gold and silver dove. But they won’t get it  unless threatened with death.

The king swallows the story effortlessly. Either the brothers give him the dove or they give him their heads. Hearing of the ultimatum, Esben wheedles himself a bag of dried peas and returns to the witch’s house on his stick horse. Sure enough, she has the bird, and he coaxes it off the roof with the peas. The moment it flutters down he stuffs it in a sack. Alerted by the rattle of his stick horse in the courtyard, the witch comes running out, calling him by name. “Was it you that made me kill my eleven daughters?” she shouts. “Yes!” Esben replies, brutally honest, and rides away before she can reach him.

The dove wins the brothers much favour with the king, and Esben none at all. The knight who stumped up the task in the first place is disgusted at how it turned out and quickly comes up with a harder goal – to produce a boar with silver and gold bristles. He really has a thing for that colour scheme. The brothers, of course, haven’t the slightest idea how to get hold of such a creature, but the king sets his heart on it and tosses out axe-related threats that end up at Esben’s ear. The boy quietly slips away, back to the witch’s cottage with a bag of malt. He uses this to entice the boar (because naturally, she has one) into a sack. He then rides away, with the witch running and shrieking behind him.

If the dove delighted the king, the boar is even better. He makes the eleven brother equerries (that is, personally responsible for the royal horses, a psychological and financial step up from stablehands). The knight who set them up is outraged. Now he has to think of something truly impossible. “If they were so minded,” he whispers to the king, “they could get you a lamp that shines over seven kingdoms.”

Despite brush-offs from his brothers, who appear to think their good fortune comes out of thin air, Esben learns of the latest task and pays yet another visit to the witch’s house, this time bringing a bushel of salt. He arrives at nightfall and climbs down the chimney so that he can search – but she, unlike his brothers, has learned from previous experience and hidden it well. At last Esben crawls into the oven to rest in concealment, and it’s a good thing he does, because the witch wakes up in the night with a craving for porridge. She sends one of her two remaining daughters to make it. Her specification is that there must be no salt in the dish, but while the girl is busy in the larder Esben sneaks out of the oven and tosses the whole bushel of salt into the pot.

Naturally, this meal does not suit the witch at all. There is no water in the house to make a second pot, so she is forced to fetch the magical lamp so that her daughter can go out to the well. Esben follows the girl, pushes her in, and takes the lamp for himself. Hearing her daughter’s screams, the witch comes running to pull her out and sees Esben disappearing on his stick horse, but all her outrage can’t bring him back.

Having completed three tasks – well, having let Esben complete them – you might think the brothers would now be safe, but quite soon the king has a passionate need for a coverlet sewn over with bells that can be heard in eight kingdoms. The witch, of course, has that in her keeping too. As soon as Esben lays a hand on it, however, the bells ring out, and she finally catches him. Showing tremendous self-restraint, she does not rip him apart on the spot; instead, she calls to her youngest daughter, and together they lock him in a dark room. There he will stay until he is fat enough to eat. To make sure he gains enough weight, she sets him a strict diet of nuts and cream, delivered by the thirteenth girl.

Despite the fact that Esben arranged the deaths of her eleven sisters and pushed the twelfth down a well, this daughter takes a liking to him. When her mother wants his finger chopped off, so that she can tell whether he’s fat enough yet, the girl wraps a nail in silk and offers that instead, buying him more time to think. In the end he has her give a roll of fat to the witch, convincing her he’s ready to be roasted, but this takes place on the night of a witches’ meeting and she must leave or be punished by her coven. She orders her daughter to prepare Esben in her stead. The girl is sad, but obedient – and Esben is cunning, tricking her into his cell and locking her there. He then runs upstairs to take the coverlet. Alerted by its ringing bells, the witch comes racing home. The sight of Esben galloping away enrages her so greatly that she…bursts into a million pieces of flint. As you do.

Esben has been away so long this time that his brothers have been imprisoned for their failure, with their executions scheduled for the next morning. So Esben takes the coverlet to the king himself, and reveals the whole story. Dismissing the slanderous knight from court, the king then offers all the brothers dukedoms, but they have finally realised what a fairweather patron he is and decide to go home to the farm instead. Piled high with gold and silver, they are welcomed home with open arms – even Esben, who only had to become a murderer and a thief to win his family’s respect.

This is a rather confronting story, one I’ve never liked. The witch is certainly a terrible person, but to be tricked into killing her own children is a brutal plot twist and Esben never shows the smallest hint of regret at what he’s done, even when the thirteenth sister treats him with such kindness. They are all capable of cruelty, youngest son and brothers, witch and daughters, king and knight. No one comes out of this one as a hero.

Review No.156 – The Red Necklace

The Red Necklace – Sally Gardner

Orion Children’s Books, 2007

In the winter of 1789, Paris is a city bitter with poverty and despair. Aristocrats dance in jewelled shoes while their people starve. It is a time when one particular dealer of death is free at his work, and in one disastrous night his cards are laid down. A notorious nobleman’s unloved daughter is summoned back to a household of lies. A magician is murdered in the middle of a lavish party. And a boy who can read minds predicts a rising tide of blood that will wash them all away. The question is, who will survive it?

This story of the French Revolution is a dark, enigmatic fantasy that is at the same time thoroughly grounded in its period. Gardner’s writing is graceful and evocative, but the plot is less successful – it branches off in directions that are abruptly curtailed, relies too heavily on coincidence, under-utilises key characters and leaves too many loose ends for my satisfaction, though the latter may be resolved in the sequel, The Silver Blades.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.86 – The Goblin of Adachigahara

This week’s story comes from The Japanese Fairy Book, collected by Yei Theodora Ozaki. Many travellers have disappeared on the plain of Adachigahara, and rumour spreads of a terrible goblin that lures the unwary to their deaths. Not unexpectedly, people begin to avoid the spot. One Buddhist pilgrim is unfortunate enough not to get the memo and happens to reach the plain just as the sun is setting. Tired, hungry and cold, he walks for hours before spotting a light through a copse of trees. It belongs to a tumbledown cottage, which in turn belongs to an elderly woman. She sits just inside the door, spinning busily. When appealed to by the pilgrim for a night’s lodging, she reluctantly permits him inside.

After her initial reserve, she becomes very hospitable, ushering her guest solicitously close to the fire and whipping up supper for them both. The pilgrim is delighted at his luck. When the fire begins to die down he offers to go out and fetch more wood, but the old lady insists on doing it herself. Her only requirement is that he stay where he is and not go poking about the house while she’s gone. Whatever else he does, he must not look into the inner room.

Until then he had not even thought of looking in that room, but now of course that’s exactly what he wants to do. For a long time he remains obediently still, but the old lady is away so long that at last he can’t resist. Creeping towards the forbidden room, he pushes the door and peers inside.

Inside is a slaughterhouse. The walls are splashed with blood, the floor heaped with human bones. The smell alone strikes the pilgrim with such force that he faints, and despite his terror, for some time he is in such a state of shock he can’t move. Coming to himself at last, he snatches up his things and pelts out into the night.

He has not gone far when a voice calls out for him to stop. The old lady – or rather, the goblin – is on his trail. “Stop!” she cries. “Stop, you wicked man, why did you look into the forbidden room?” Her moral standards may be a bit skewed. On the kind of adrenaline rush only possible when you are being pursued by a carnivorous monster, the pilgrim powers across the plain, praying frantically, but still she gains. She is close enough now that he can see she is carrying a large, bloody carving knife.

Just when it seems she must finally catch him, the first rays of dawn break across the plain and the goblin disappears. The pilgrim gabbles grateful devotions and sets off for a different part of the country, where it is less probable he will be eaten.

I’ve written before about fairy tales in which husbands butcher their wives, but a female Bluebeard is far less common. It’s worth noting, though, that there is not the same degree of intimacy in her association with the pilgrim, and that the story doesn’t blame him for being fooled. In fact, the plot doesn’t really hold together at all. First she almost refuses him lodging, then she leaves him for ages with the knowledge there’s something hidden in her house. What did she expect to happen? Perhaps she was trying to quit cannibalism and simply could not resist an unsuspecting pilgrim when he arrived on her doorstep. At least she didn’t try to marry him.

Not Your Moral Metaphors

Trigger warning: references to abuse

Vampirism is a good metaphor for abuse. Vampires, as they are popularly written, are charming and seductive, but they can drain the life out of you. It is in fact a comparison used to describe an unhappy marriage in the 2007BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

Vampires are also a staple element in paranormal fantasy, where they are the blood-drinking undead. Herein lies the conflict: in fantasy, what might otherwise be a metaphor becomes a logical plot point. You don’t need psychiatric treatment, there are actually demons in your house. Your estranged parents really are evil. Your boyfriend is not cheating on you, he’s leading the double life of a superhero. To judge a character accurately, you have to take their context into account, and that context might have only the most tangential relationship to the normal world.

I am not remotely qualified for an in-depth discussion about abusive behaviours symptomatic in popular literature. I am a lifelong reader of speculative fiction who thinks psychological analysis of fantasy can be taken too far.

Yesterday, I encountered two articles which break down aspects of Stephenie Meyer’s paranormal romance phenomenon Twilight. I found both well-reasoned, thought-provoking and intelligent. The personal experiences of Ms Mardoll are particularly saddening, and it’s incredibly brave of her to write about them. I can absolutely understand how a book like Twilight might be triggering for her.

But I also disagree with both interpretations. Particularly when Mardoll starts describing Meyer’s readership. Whilst theoretically defending them against the insultingly laughable idea that they all seek abusive relationships, she perpetuates the same idea: this book is bad. People who like it are naïve or in denial.

Longtime readers of this blog will know I’ve talked about my feelings on this subject before, and will realise how annoyed I am now. I like Twilight. I wouldn’t count it as an all-time favourite, but I really enjoyed all four books and was interested enough to locate the draft of Midnight Sun, a reworking of the first book told from Edward’s perspective, posted by Meyer online. Watching the movies introduced me to the music of Linkin Park and Paramore. I have good feelings for Twilight.

I’m also fed up to the back teeth with having to defend myself for that, but as I can, I will. So let’s analyse this series from the angle I see it. Be warned, it will take a while.

Edward Cullen is incredibly fast and strong. He can read minds, even the minds of other vampires, allowing him to glimpse the future through his adoptive sister Alice, which makes him virtually omnipresent. He has been alive for almost a century and has good odds at outlasting modern civilisation as we know it. He has occupied that time by collecting languages like he collects CDs, learning an instrument and going through high school so many times that it’s become a mindless chore. Oh, also, he’s going to remain a stunningly attractive seventeen year old FOREVER.

This is because he is a vampire.

On the flipside, the only interactions he has with human beings are based around maintaining the deception that he’s one of them, he lives with an adoptive family of superpowered recovering blood addicts, and is convinced God hates him. This is the context for his character. How do you expect him to behave?

Like a mind-blowingly arrogant jerk, actually. He’s thoughtless, immature and stuck in an unnaturally extended adolescence, accustomed to thinking he’s better than everyone else (because, superpowers) and that his judgement is infallible (because, omnipresence).

He’s not alone, either. All Meyer’s vampires behave this way. They are carnivorous gods in a world of oblivious mortals; it would be weird if they didn’t. Edward is a different species to Bella, with the alien cultural rules that implies. His first reaction on meeting her is to think: how odd, why can’t I read her mind? The next is: BLOOD. Edward spends the first class of their acquaintance fighting the urge to rip her throat out. He manages to resist, but it’s a close thing. When the situation is explained to them, as seen in Midnight Sun, his family are concerned, not outraged. They are literally a drug addict’s recovery group (Edward describes the lure of blood as being like a heroin addiction), offering ways for him to avoid falling off the wagon but accepting it’s a very real possibility that he might.

Because they are vampires. Even relatively nice vampires have questionable consciences when it comes to human lives. By the standard of his contemporaries, it would be perfectly natural for Edward to abduct, murder and devour Bella within minutes of meeting her. Raised by his pacifistic mentor Carlisle, Edward doesn’t want to do that – but at the same time, he really does.

This does not make it an okay thing. It’s a really, really awful thing! It’s also not a metaphor. To be a vampire means drinking blood; in Meyer’s world, at least, there is no opting out.

This may be the first time in decades that Edward has been confused. He doesn’t handle it well. He convinces himself not to kill Bella, but between her inexplicable unreadability, her mouthwatering scent and the amazing bad luck that dogs her everywhere, he becomes obsessive. His actions are, undeniably, stalkerish and unacceptable. Does it make sense, within his context? I think it does. Edward has a rigid personality. He’s overprotective, judgemental, paternalistic, and completely out of his comfort zone in the modern human world. If Bella finds it hard to relate to people, Edward takes introversion to extraordinary lengths.

Still, being in an unusually enlightened position of knowing just how dangerous the world can be, Edward appoints himself as Bella’s unlikely guardian angel. Is it an excuse to justify the stalking to himself? Probably. Is it useful? Hell, yes. Bella is often in danger. From Edward’s perspective, she is as ephemeral as a butterfly. In consequence, once he decides to risk getting to know her, he wants to know EVERYTHING. She’s the first person he’s had to question in about a century, it’s a bit exciting. He goes absurdly overboard.

As for Bella, he’s this hot supernatural mystery man who frets about her safety and likes the same music. He’s intelligent, generous to a fault, capable and willing to defend her from all harm. She gets on brilliantly with most of his family. Best of all, she could become a superpowered goddess too! She doesn’t actually like being clumsy and disaster-prone; it’s Edward who finds that endearingly unusual. Bella wants to be strong. She wants to be a vampire.

Some people, carrying the Mary Sue metaphor to an extreme, have labelled Bella as religious just because Stephenie Meyer is. They are wrong. Bella is a vague agnostic; she finds magic easier to believe in than hell. Edward is the religious one, and given that he was born in America in 1901, this should not be too surprising.

At the prospect of Bella turning into one of the damned undead, like himself, Edward falls into a flailing mess. He chooses to pretend he was never in love with her at all, hoping she’ll hate him so much she’ll be glad he’s out of her life. Not content with dragging his family away from their home as part of his stupid plan, he then traumatises them by attempting suicide the only way a vampire can, by picking a fight with vampirical law enforcement. He gets it wrong in every single way he could, and goes on getting it wrong when he gets his relationship back together, first by trying to stop Bella seeing her werewolf friends, then by trying to make her abort their baby.

In no possible way are either of those things okay.

It’s important to remember, though, that in both of the latter situations Bella is essentially courting suicide. Teenage werewolves are notoriously volatile, and the most probable explanation for her impossible pregnancy and its unnaturally swift progression is that she’s carrying a monster for which her human body is completely unprepared. Edward, who has lived in the supernatural world a whole lot longer than her, has a set of cast-iron preconceptions that require systematic dismantling before he can believe this thing is not going to kill her. This is a world of extremes. Ordinary human problems, like messy break-ups and unplanned pregnancies, have a tendency to snowball into a carnival of death.

So Bella, who understands that but is willing to take the risk, recruits assistance from her support network to get her through the pregnancy. Edward was right; to all intents and purposes, it does kill her. Edward was wrong; by getting the timing just so, Bella keeps both her baby and her life. She takes that final step she’s been dreaming of pretty much since she met him and becomes a vampire herself.

In Breaking Dawn she’s finally Edward’s physical equal, capable of defending herself against pretty much anything the world has to throw at her. Oh, and she has to fight off an army who come to kill her baby, because disaster follows Bella everywhere. Edward, in his turn, has to learn to trust her, even when her decision-making seems counter-intuitive to him. Time and time again he is struck by the staggering realisation that he is not always right. He has to learn to negotiate, to debate things, to change his mind. He has to grow up.

Did Meyer have to write her vampires this way? No, of course not. Is Edward challenged enough for crossing Bella’s boundaries? Again, I’d say no. Do these negative elements cancel out the positive ones? I don’t believe so.

Analysing problematic aspects in any type of media is valuable. I do it myself with every review I write. Books such as Laurell K. Hamilton’s ‘Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter’ series and A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness contain comparable characters – immensely powerful vampires each seeking to control his human love interest, including stalking, drugging and physically threatening her – and I’ve discussed elsewhere how uncomfortable those characters make me.

I feel differently about Twilight. In part that’s because Bella is a slightly directionless teenager, not a grown woman with pre-existing plans for her life – becoming a vampire is a reasoned decision that she makes for herself, not something forced on her by Edward. Quite the opposite, actually. When she really cares about something, she does it regardless of what he thinks (i.e. reconnecting with the werewolves, keeping the baby, maintaining communication with her father even after her transformation). It’s also important to me that he can’t use at least one of his powers on her, and by the end of Breaking Dawn, he has no physical or supernatural advantage over her at all. By then an isolated, insecure girl has developed into a confident, capable woman with a husband who loves, admires and trusts her, and a network of good friends.

I get something very positive out of this story. I understand that not everyone will. Discussing different interpretations of a book is every reader’s right.

But that’s not what’s happening with Twilight. An immensely popular series has been critically degraded to the point where the readers who love it are ridiculed by people who should know better and vastly insulting assumptions are made about them as a result.

The articles that kicked all this off were not, I am sure, intended to be a part of that. They are considered arguments from people who have actually read the books, an approach I appreciate and respect. What I feel both writers failed to do was take into account the fantastical elements of the story, and the ways in which that might affect resulting interactions. They are judging Edward as a human teenager, and he’s not. That doesn’t justify inappropriate behaviour, but it does go some way towards explaining it, and I think most readers instinctively recognise that, particularly pre-existing fans of speculative fiction.

I’m not saying the writer of either article is wrong, either. Everyone who reads a book will get something different out of it. I, for instance, am not a huge fan of William Shakespeare. I find it difficult to see past the misogyny and historical inaccuracies. Charles Dickens is a bit too flowery for my taste. That doesn’t mean I can’t see the immense skill that went into their work, or accept that other people love them in a way I do not.

But of course, they are men. They are classics. It’s much easier to dismiss a woman, a modern writer yet to develop that patina of respectability that only time can provide; it’s easy to belittle a fantasy series about a teenage girl in love. I imagine that a great many people will be outraged by my making the comparison at all. To which I want to say: no one is making you read what’s popular now. No one is taking the classics away – in fact, the authors I refer to are very much respected by modern audiences, if the number of large-scale theatre productions and BBC dramas are anything to go by. But the story you need will not necessarily be the story someone else needs. And their need is every bit as important as yours. If you don’t like the book, for pity’s sake, just put it down.

For those who find Twilight genuinely troubling, it is your right to feel that way, and to talk about it. That’s healthy. But don’t run down other people for not seeing the same thing you did and feeling the same way. It’s unkind and unhelpful. And it’s my right to say so.

Review No.155 – Fairytales for Wilde Girls

Fairytales for Wilde Girls – Allyse Near

Random House, 2013

When Isola Wilde finds the dead girl in a birdcage in the wood behind her house, it is only another secret she has to keep. No one else sees her six brothers, from Alejandro the Victorian ghost to Ruslana, the avenging Fury; no one knows about the creatures of Vivien’s Wood. No one else talks to Isola’s mother any more, isolated as she is in a shrinking universe of depression. But this particular secret is the most dangerous of all. By night the dead girl sings at her window; by day, the woods begin to close their boundaries. Isola is being haunted.

I don’t know quite what to make of this book. It is Melbourne-based Near’s first novel and a gorgeously lyrical, gruesomely dark concoction, laced with literary references and Gothic glamour. It’s really more horror than fantasy, and horror is not a genre I tend to touch, but I could not put this down. On the other hand – it is incredibly dark in parts, and I’m not entirely comfortable with the sheen of glamour laid over that darkness. Also, a plot should never be a metaphor, and this book veers very close to that with a dissatisfyingly dream-like ending. It was absolutely worth the read, though, and I will be very interested in seeing what Near writes next. Fairytales for Wilde Girls recently won this year’s Aurealis awards for Best Horror Novel and Best Young Adult Novel.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.85 – A Marriage of Monsters

Finding a life partner in a fairy tale is a perilous undertaking, particularly if you happen to be female. More than one girl has been married off against her will to a cursed prince, a homicidal sorcerer or even an actual wild animal. Often, these stories end on a sinister note. Other times, miraculously, it all works out okay – who doesn’t know the story of ‘Beauty and the Beast’? Rarely, however, do we see the flipside: handsome young men marrying monstrous women. I have found two examples, and…well, let’s put it this way. They don’t handle the situation with Beauty’s poise.

Story 1: Melusina

This story is from Luxembourg and taken from Maggie Pearson’s collection The House of the Cats and other traditional tales of Europe. It begins by introducing us to Count Siefried, who is rich, handsome and about to get married. Rumour is rife about the girl in question. Admittedly, the story is a gossip-worthy one. While out hunting, the count drifted away from his friends to follow the sound of singing and found a naked woman bathing in a mountain spring. Being a pretty decent man, he offered her his cloak – being a fairy tale ruler and therefore prone to incredibly impetuous decision making, he also proposed marriage on the spot.

So, the couple marry. There is only one condition Melusina requires of her husband; that she may lock herself in the castle chapel on Saturday at sunset and remain there undisturbed by anyone all through Sunday. At first, the count abides by the rule without question. Over time, however, local gossip begins to get to him. It’s said his wife is a witch, working spells in secrecy; as each of their children are born, small flaws are seized upon as proof of her impurity.

One Saturday evening, when Melusina has locked herself in the chapel as usual, the count crouches before the keyhole to watch what she does. She is bathing, as she was when he first saw her – but he might not have proposed had he seen the serpentine tail draping over the edge of the bath. In his shock and disgust, the count makes an incautious sound and Melusina realises he has betrayed her.

The same gossips who condemned her produce three different accounts of the ensuing events. Some insist a crack opened to swallow her; others, that she dived into the river, or flew shrieking out the window. Certainly, she is never seen in the count’s lands again, but for months afterward the nurses tending her youngest two children are woken in the night to the sound of a woman singing. When they go to the nursery, the window is open, the room is empty, and the cradles are gently rocking.

Story 2: The Legend of Lady White Snake

This one is taken from Chinese Fairytales, retold by Sun Xuegang and Cai Guoyun, and takes a rather different approach. It begins with a white snake and a turtle who live in the same lake, both dreaming of immortality. The snake takes the approach of good deeds and positive thinking; the turtle prefers greed and aggression. Inevitably it ends up in a fight, and the white snake wins hands down.

A thousand years of study and good deeds later, the snake and her sister manage to take the forms of young women. They visit the human world during a spring festival and at first enjoy the celebratory atmosphere, but then it begins to rain and the only shelter they can find is a large tree. A young man passing with an umbrella gallantly offers them better protection from the downpour. Introductions are exchanged: the white snake now goes by the name of Bai Suzhen, her sister by Xiao Quing. The young man with the umbrella is Xu Xian, a poor young pharmacist.

By the time the rain eases, Bai Suzhen and Xu Xian are enchanted with each other. He insists on her keeping the umbrella, in case it starts to rain again on the girls’ journey home. Her sister, who has noticed the mutual admiration, quickly agrees and assures him they will return the kind loan the next day. The acquaintance is continued and several months later the couple marry. With all her magical abilities and centuries of study, Bai Suzhen is an extraordinarily gifted doctor and Xu Xian’s pharmacy becomes famed for its efficacy. During a terrible plague Bai Suzhen administers medicine free of charge to all the poor and sick. Her fame spreads, and eventually reaches the ear of the turtle she vanquished all those years ago. He now goes by the name of Fa Hai, masquerading as a monk with three magical tools stolen from a Buddhist temple.

He’s the type to hold a grudge. Travelling to the city where his old enemy is living, he stops her husband in the street and declares that he is surrounded by a terrible black energy, proof positive that he is consorting with devils. For instance, what if his wife was really a white snake…Xu Xian is outraged by the suggestion, but the ‘monk’ persists. If he takes a glass of wine to his wife during the Dragon Boat Festival and she drinks, he will know she is entirely human. If not – well, he has been warned.

Xu Xian wants to rid himself of the idea. Like an idiot, he takes Fa Hai’s suggestion and offers his wife the wine. She refuses at first, pointing out that she is pregnant, but under his pressure consents to drink a little. Immediately she feels sick and retreats to her bed. When her husband comes to check on her, he sees a white snake coiled on the mattress, and falls into a faint.

It takes Bai Suzhen some time to recover her human shape. As she rises, she finds her husband sick with shock on the floor. Asking her sister to watch over him, she hurries away to collect magical plants and brew up a restorative tonic. He recovers, but not in an appreciative frame of mind. “You tricked me!” he accuses. “I have just saved your life because of my love for you,” his wife points out. “How can you say I tricked you?”

His answer is to jump out of bed and go running to the nearest temple, where Fa Hai is waiting. The snake sisters, who have followed, watch the gate open to let Xu Xian inside and recognise the fake monk for what he really is. They demand to see Bai Suzhan’s husband at once, but Fa Hai is not afraid of them any more. He lifts up his stolen Buddhist sceptre and a giant storm comes sweeping in, swelling the river until it breaks its banks and washes through the streets.

The sisters are not so easy to kill, however. Bai Suzhan transforms a golden pin into a boat and circles the temple, looking for a way in. It finally gets through to Xu Xian that his wife may be a monster, but that she is not monstrous. He climbs the temple walls, calling her over to where he is, and jumps down into the boat. Reconciling their differences, they return home – or what’s left of it, given there’s a catastrophic flood going on and all. But who cares about that! Their marriage has been saved!

For a little while, anyway. When Bai Suzhan’s child is born, the family gathers to celebrate and Fa Hai sneaks in to cause more havoc. He waits until Bai Suzhan is alone in her room, then uses his second magical tool – a golden bowl – to transform her back into a snake. He then flees the house and buries the bowl, with Bai Suzhan inside, to make sure she is trapped forever.

Upon finding his wife missing, Xu Xian goes straight to the temple, but is too late to catch Fa Hai. Xiao Qing takes a different tack. She returns to her own world for intensive study, and eventually comes back with a store of knowledge. With her newfound magical powers, she finds out where her sister was buried and summons up a storm of her own to set her free. The snake sisters’ first priority is then to find Bai Suzhan’s husband and son – next, they track down a certain traitorous turtle, whose flashy vengeance resulted in losing his stolen tools. When he sees two wrathful snake women coming his way, he scurries away to hide inside a crab – and is trapped there forever.

So that’s a happy ending of sorts, though both mother and aunt lost many years with the child. Common to both stories is a theme of deception; these men both believe they have been tricked into marrying monsters, but it is the breaking of their promises that forces the women they profess to love back into serpentine shapes. Bai Suzhan’s husband realises he loves her anyway. Melusina is not so lucky.

Perhaps it’s because the tellings I’ve used here are fairly recent, but both are decidedly sympathetic towards the female monsters. They are beauties and beasts at the same time, without a safe narrative framework to guarantee their happily ever after – but that doesn’t mean for one minute that they can’t be heroines.

Review No.154 – Libriomancer

Libriomancer (Magic Ex Libris No.1) – Jim C. Hines

DAW Books, 2012

For over two years Isaac Vainio has been an ordinary librarian. Not many people know he moonlights as a cataloguer for an ancient organisation, or that he has magic that makes the books around him a veritable armoury. He is no longer allowed to use that magic, except in emergencies. When three vampires show up at the library looking for trouble, Isaac has the perfect excuse, but that is only the beginning. The organisation he serves is under attack and the rot goes further than he could have imagined. If power corrupts, magic can drive you insane.

I wanted to like this book. For the first few chapters, I did. The magic system is interesting and reasonably well-defined, Isaac is a likeable enough protagonist and the story moves at a good pace. However, the backstory it inflicts on its main female character, Lena, is not only staggeringly tacky, it’s completely unnecessary and the resolution is too simplistic. I’ve explained my thoughts in more detail in the brackets below. The series continues with Codex Born, but I very much doubt I will be reading it.

(SPOILER: The idea of magic in the Libriomancer universe is that a sufficiently talented magic user, trained or otherwise, can reach into almost any book and take out a non-living object – with notable exceptions. Lena is a dryad grown from an accidentally discarded acorn. So far, no problem. Unfortunately, Lena is not just any dryad; she comes from a 1960s sexual slavery fantasy and is programmed by the writer to alter herself completely to suit the desires of her lover, including physical transformation. Even worse, said lover will be whoever she spends the most time with.

If all that’s not problematic enough – and for pity’s sake, it is - the narrative insists that all other characters should simply accept this as Lena’s nature and not challenge its inherent unhealthiness. The best attempt she makes at controlling her own destiny is to take two lovers at once, hoping to develop her own character between their conflicting desires, which is a rubbish solution to a psychological crisis. Also, Lena’s ‘programming’ has already been proven to make her untrustworthy when those divided loyalties were tested. Even without considering those obstacles, Lena’s behaviour is startlingly selfish. She proposes the arrangement in front of her current lover without talking to Isaac individually first, gives him about five minutes to think it over, then makes out with each one in front of the other without allowing them any time to get used to the idea. This does not seem like the best start to me.

To give Hines some credit, Lena’s inability to refuse sex is not exploited by Isaac or anyone else within the events of this story, and it does end with her attempt to take some control over her life. Even according to the narrative’s magical boundaries, however, she could have been given more free will. Hell, Isaac’s pet spider has more sense of self than she does. From what I’ve heard, Hines is a genuine feminist, but if he was trying to deconstruct a sexist trope with Lena, he fails to make it work. To be honest, I very much doubt anyone could.)