Review No.115 – The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (The Inheritance Trilogy No.1) – N.K. Jemisin

Orbit, 2010

To be Arameri is to wield the power of the gods. Their family have reigned over the world for a thousand years, while in the city of Sky ambitions and enmities seethe against a backdrop of obscene opulence. It is a world Yeine’s mother Kinneth rejected long ago, retreating to the ‘barbarian’ province of Darr, but that does not change the blood in her daughter’s veins. As the leader of the Arameri prepares to choose his heir, Yeine is summoned to Sky for the first time. This may be her chance to avenge the oldest of wrongs…if she can survive past sunset.

Little endears me more to a protagonist than competence and Yeine has that in spades. Her narration is pragmatically matter-of-fact, but also skilfully nuanced. The world-building is excellent, taking the most fantastical concepts and making them utterly, heartbreakingly believable. The trilogy continues with The Broken Throne.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.100 – An Adoration of Dragons

Cue the curse-breaking and mass reanimations! Since starting this project two years ago I’ve spent one hundred Tuesdays reviewing fairy tales and if you aren’t equipped to get that joke by now, I do not know what to do with you people.

As I’ve already reviewed ‘Sleeping Beauty’, however, I looked elsewhere for this week’s fairy tale. A milestone such as this requires celebration, and what better way than DRAGONS! It’s often assumed that all fairy tale dragons want to do is eat princesses and lurk in caverns of gold – and that the happy ending demands death by knight – but there is so much more to them than that and I have a quartet of fabulous fiery beasts only too happy to prove it.

Story 1: Chien Tang

This Chinese fairy tale is taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Dragons and its titular hero is a dragon in the service of Heaven. His duty is to bring down the rain when it is most needed and blow the clouds away when it is not. When not thus occupied, he lives peaceably in his well. The grateful populace often come there to sing his praises, dropping poems and flowers as tokens of their appreciation, but one day the fairy tale version of an internet troll comes by to make trouble. He throws a bundle of rags and a rude little down the well for Chien Tang to read.

You know what they say about letting sleeping dragons lie? That’s because BAD THINGS happen when you offend them. Chien Tang is so outraged that he whips up a ferocious storm and makes it rain for nine whole years. Villages are washed away and the people either drown or flee.

This is known as an overreaction.

At last the Supreme Ruler of Heaven has had enough and throws Chien Tang into a lake to think about what he’s done, whilst chained to a pillar so he can’t do it again. The pillar belongs to the palace of the Dragon King, who is incidentally Chien Tang’s brother. The Dragon King has recently married off his beautiful daughter to the dragon king of a nearby river – in hindsight, a dreadful mistake. Her husband is abusive and treats her like a slave.

Dragons, it’s important to note, can be shapeshifters. The princess is out herding goats in human form when she meets a young student called Liu. Seeing how unhappy she looks, he offers his assistance and she reveals the whole miserable business. A similar explanation is contained in a letter she has written for her father, but until now she’s had no means of sending it. Acting on her instructions, Liu goes to the Dragon King’s lake and strikes the tallest tree on the bank three times. This draws the attention of a young dragon who takes him down to a magnificent bejewelled palace, where the whole court await his message. When the Dragon King himself enters and the truth of his daughter’s marriage comes out, everybody begins to weep and wail. Too late, they remember that the princess’s uncle is within hearing range.

Outraged on behalf of his niece, Chien Tang breaks free of his chain and soars to the rescue. He takes care of the situation with incredible speed: first devouring his niece’s awful husband, then dashing up to Heaven to ask forgiveness for the whole flooding thing, before returning to the lake with the glowing princess in his arms. She marries Liu instead, who now has excellent motivation to be the ideal spouse.

Story 2: Pepito

This Greek story is from the same collection. Pepito is a young woodcutter struggling to support his widowed mother. One day, while out at work in the forest, he is approached by a well-dressed merchant offering a sweet deal – several days service on a short voyage in exchange for a hatful of gold pieces. Pepito does not need to be asked twice. The merchant has a whole fleet of ships waiting, and when Pepito arrives they set off.

Three days later they drop anchor alongside an island that is ninety nine percent mountain. Pepito’s job is to get to the top and throw down whatever he finds there. There’s a catch: the only way to reach the top is to be sewn inside a carcass so that the hungry local eagles will carry him up, then cut his way free before they tear the carcass to pieces. Pepito manages, just. The eagles are deeply unhappy about being tricked.

Fighting his way free of the bull hide, Pepito looks around and realises just what it is the merchant wants so badly. The top of the mountain is a meadow where brightly coloured flowers grow thickly – and scattered around them just as thickly are jewels and coins. Pepito is entranced. At the merchant’s distant shout, though, he snaps to his task and begins hurling treasure over the side of the mountain. He works all day, until every ship is loaded. Then the merchant sets sail, abandoning Pepito with no way to get down.

All of that treasure seems considerably less appealing now. Pepito throws a huge gemstone out of sheer misery, accidentally revealing a ladder that was hidden beneath. It leads down to a dark passage, and that in turn leads to a lush valley. A marble palace amidst the green fields implies habitation, so Pepito heads for that. As he walks through the open gates there appears to be no one home, but a loaf of bread and flagon of milk are laid out in one room. Pepito is draining the last of the milk when a whirring of wings alerts him to the return of the owner. It is a magnificent dragon with a golden beard and golden horns! Far from being angry at Pepito’s arrival, the dragon is thrilled to have company. He beams welcoming fangs and wags his tail, trying to look approachable.

Pepito cautiously introduces himself. “I haven’t got a name that I know of,” the dragon sadly replies. “You see, there’s no one to call me anything. And no one to talk to except the fishes in the stream. And they’re so silly – they do nothing but giggle.” It’s all too much. He bursts into tears. Pepito, remembering a rumour that dragons love pearls, offers one he pocketed in the meadow and the dragon cheers right up, fitting the jewel into the scales of his neck.

They are oddly matched housemates, but Pepito hasn’t much choice in the matter and the dragon is a deeply conscientious host, giving his new friend the best of everything. Then one day Pepito notices a door he hasn’t seen before and wants to know what’s behind it. At first the dragon tries to deflect him. Eventually, however, he’s pressured into handing over the key. On the other side lies a pretty but otherwise unremarkable garden and Pepito is just about to leave when a pigeon flutters down, turning into a beautiful girl. She takes off her robe of feathers and bathes in the garden’s fountain. Disregarding the basic rules of privacy, Pepito tries to talk to her, but she just pulls on her robe and flies away.

The dragon explains the situation. The girl’s father is a magician and her mother is a witch; they cursed her to be trapped in the shape of pigeon, only allowed to become human when she bathes in the fountain. This is the kind of punishment magical parents consider appropriate for disobedience. Pepito is immediately fired up with the resolve to rescue her, which isn’t really that difficult – all he needs to do is take away her robe of feathers. Next time she comes down to the fountain, he seizes it and proposes marriage.

The girl seems okay with that. It’s better than being a pigeon, anyway. The dragon is less than pleased at the interruption to his bromance, but produces some beautiful clothes for the girl to wear instead of her robe. He advises Pepito to burn the feathers, but Pepito thinks they’re too beautiful and the girl assures him she’ll never want to wear the robe again. The dragon turns himself into a priest to marry them, then back into a dragon to be their sole and somewhat sulky wedding guest.

The couple live very happily in the dragon’s palace. In time they have two children, a boy and a girl, and the lullaby their mother sings to them reminds Pepito of his own mother. The dragon, who has grown very attached to the whole family, nobly offers to send Pepito home, on the condition he eventually comes back. In a blink of dragon magic, Pepito finds himself transported to his mother’s cottage, his wife and children with him. The joy of the reunion is supplemented with the long-promised gold.

Pepito buys a farm (forgetting all about his promise to the dragon) and has his mother come live with him. He gives her the feather robe to hide, but it’s so beautiful that she sometimes brings it out to admire, and on one such occasion her daughter-in-law comes in unexpectedly. She reaches out to touch the feathers and the robe lifts by itself, wrapping around her. A pigeon once more, and the children cursed with her, she cries out a clue for her husband: “seek me in the castles green and the castles red and the five white towers!”

Pepito’s mother passes on the directions when he gets home, but he has no idea what they mean. His only hope is the dragon. Disguising himself, he goes to the port and hires on with the same merchant. This time he turns the tables; the merchant gets him where he wants to go, but doesn’t get so much as a penny out of it. Instead Pepito climbs straight down the passage to the dragon’s hidden valley.

His friend has been desperately lonely since he left and is so overjoyed to see Pepito again that he turns somersaults. His mood takes a downturn when he realises Pepito is just there for information and plans to go away again when he gets it, but being an awesome person and the best of friends the dragon tells him what to do anyway. Deep in the dragon’s palace are stored a rusty sword, an old hat and the stump of a poplar tree – all of which are considerably more powerful than they appear. The sword will cut down whatever it’s told, the hat will make you invisible, and the stump will carry you wherever you need to go. Abandoned twice over, the dragon sadly watches Pepito go.

The five white towers stand on a white mountain, which sounds like a riddle about teeth or something but isn’t. Pepito’s wife is in the courtyard of the fifth tower, dressed in rags and feeding chickens. Amongst the poultry are two little pigeons. Pepito whips off his hat to reveal himself and his family rush to greet him, but this reunion isn’t set to go smoothly. The doors to the tower fly open and Pepito’s wife barely has time to cram the hat back on his head before her father the magician comes storming out. It turns into a bit of a farce – the magician running all over the yard, trying to lay hands on Pepito, sending gusts of wind to pry at his magic hat, all without success. At last the magician gives up. “You can take your wife,” he declares, “if by tomorrow morning you have thrown down this mountain and made a flower garden of it.”

Pepito has no chance. Pepito’s wife does. She has him throw a tile in the tower well, and at once a small army of workmen rise out of it to start pulling apart the mountain. Sure enough, by morning the towers stand in a field of flowers.

That’s not enough for the cursed girl’s parents. The witch comes bursting forth next, riding an extremely unhappy dragoness, to help her husband catch Pepito. He can’t elude both of them, so draws his sword of last resort and orders it to cut off both their heads. At once the two little pigeons turn into Pepito’s children and he has his family climb aboard the poplar to go home. “You can go home, too,” he suggests to the dragoness. She starts crying. Home for her was the well in the yard, and it’s horrible down there. “Would you like to have a handsome husband and live in a palace?” Pepito the matchmaker enquires. It doesn’t take much effort to convince the dragoness, and the whole lot of them return to the dragon’s valley together.

He’s waiting there miserably for Pepito to return. At the sight of his friend, he bounds over, hoping this time he’s back for good – which he’s not. But then the two dragons are introduced, and it’s love at first sight. As Pepito and his family fly away, they look back and see the dragon and dragoness dancing through the flowery valley to their own happily ever after.

Story 3: Yanni

In this Macedonian fairy tale (also from A Book of Dragons), a boy called Yanni is on his way to visit his sweetheart when a dragon jumps out at him from behind a fountain and explains his new title is ‘dinner’. “If your dinner I must be,” Yanni bargains, “let me first say goodbye to my dear little sweetheart!” The dragon consents.

Yanni arrives at the girl’s house in a state of understandable depression. When he tells her what’s happened, she insists on accompanying him back to the fountain. The dragon is delighted at the sight of them (“My dinner comes double!”), but the girl has a plan. “Go on and fear not,” she tells Yanni. “I have eaten nine dragons for breakfast – I will now eat the tenth one!”

She’s terribly convincing. The dragon edges nervously back. “Pray tell me, friend Yanni,” he says, “whose daughter is that one?” The girl steps in front of her lover. “I am the daughter of Lightning,” she declares, “grand-daughter of Thunder. Move aside, Yanni. I will flash with my lightning, I will crash with my thunder! I will eat this small dragon!”

The dragon flies away as fast as he can and never comes back.

Story 4: Damian and the Dragon

This Greek story comes from a different Manning-Sanders anthology, also entitled Damian and the Dragon. It starts with a king, who has three sons and one daughter. One morning he asks each of his sons to tell him their dreams from the night before, because these will reveal their true selves. The elder two princes dream of possessing great estates, or at least are smart enough to say they do, so their father grants them large chunks of the kingdom. The youngest prince, Damian, doesn’t want to admit to his dream at all, but when pressed, admits in his dream his father brought his washing water and his mother a towel, like servants. The king is furious. Though Damian tries to explain it’s only a dream and not what he really believes, he’s sent on a walk in the woods with the royal executioner, and it’s plain he’s not intended to come back.

The executioner doesn’t have the heart to go through with it. He confesses the plan. Damian comes up with a compromise; he has the executioner cut off his finger and stain his shirt with the blood, to take to the king as evidence of his ‘death’. He then walks away from everything, all because of a stupid dream.

For six months he lives as a beggar. At last he comes to a large castle, where he hopes there may be work. No one answers his knocks, so he walks into the courtyard – and sees a dragon coming in at the same time, driving a flock of sheep. Damian quickly hides behind a pillar. He needn’t have worried; the dragon has no eyes to see him with.

When the dragon starts milking the sheep, Damian sneaks over to drink some. Later, he watches the dragon settle in the great hall of the castle with a pipe and decides to adopt him. Seriously, he comes over and introduces himself as his son.

The dragon is surprised, but not displeased. As he can’t see, Damian’s presence is actually very useful. The prince turns housekeeper, cleaning the long-disused chambers of the castle, bringing in wood, even scouring the milk pail. He makes an excellent son and the dragon, providing square meals and a supportive attitude, makes an excellent dad.

One day, while the dragon is out tending the sheep, Damian finds a flute forgotten on a shelf. When he plays it, all the furniture begins to dance. Even the castle begins to waltz around him. The dragon returns home puffing, having been obliged to dance as well. Damian conscientiously offers to tend the sheep the next day and the dragon agrees, on one condition: he must not go near the green hill with the little house on top. Witch-maidens live there, and they collect eyes. That’s how the dragon lost his.

Damian promises obediently to avoid the hill, and of course the moment he’s out of the castle that’s exactly where he goes. The witch sisters who live there see him coming and immediately covet his bright eyes – but before they can catch him, Damian starts playing the flute. The witch-maidens are forced to dance along with everything else. One nearly gets hold of Damian, but he seizes her hair and ties it to a branch instead. The second witch makes a desperate leap – but no, he catches her and ties her up the same way.

“Restore my father’s eyes,” he commands. The sisters tell him the eyes are in a box on their mantleshelf, in the shape of two apples, but are guarded by a pair of imps. Damian must greet them with a cry of ‘Chuck! Chuck’ – by no means ‘Bo!’ – and cuddle them so they’ll let him pass. He doesn’t trust a word of their instructions, and cries ‘Bo!’ instead. The imps fall in the fire with shock and puff out of existence. That leaves Damian to take the apples unimpeded. The witches call for him to let them down, but he insists on restoring the dragon’s eyes before going near them again.

That evening he convinces the dragon to eat both apples and two golden eyes appear in his head. The first thing the dragon does is hug Damian; the second, to go vapourise the witches. When he comes back he gives Damian a ring of keys, and tells him that anything he fancies in the castle is now his. Damian finds whole rooms of gold and silver, heaps of precious stones, all kinds of treasure – but has no use for any of it. At last he takes a few gemstones, a beautiful suit of silver clothes, a rather impressive sword and a suit of armour. He’s on his way back to the dragon when he notices one more door, to which he has no key.

The dragon is very reluctant to let him in. First he pretends the key is lost, then he tells the prince that if he enters the room, he’ll never come back. Seeing how upset his adoptive father is, Damian tries to forget the door, but can’t get it out of his head. Eventually the dragon caves and gives him a tiny key. “Unlock that door if you must,” he says, “but remember that wherever you go my love goes with you.” Dragon dads are the best dads.

Damian is puzzled by this attitude. He only intends to take a quick look. On the other side of the door is a stable, and in that is a silvery mare. “So, my prince,” she exclaims, “you have come at last! We must be away faster than the wind!” The king, it turns out, has made another huge blunder. He’s announced that whatever man can leap across the great marsh behind the palace may marry Damian’s only sister – and a great many men have tried. The neighbouring kingdoms are up in arms to avenge their drowned sons. Damian may know his father’s faults firsthand, but he doesn’t want him to die. Jumping on the mare’s back, he returns home with whirlwind speed.

That’s not enough for the mare. She insists he buy a bladder from a butcher’s shop and put it over his head so it looks like he’s bald, then cover her up in the hide of a dead horse. Next, she has him buy ragged clothes to replace his silver suit. They are going to leap the marsh and mustn’t be recognised. Damian thinks that’s a terrible idea – he’s the last person who wants to win his sister’s hand – but the mare is determined and he reluctantly goes along with her plan.

The king is in a dreadful temper. He’s sick of watching suitors drown but too stubborn to change his own criteria. He doesn’t recognise his son, who is admittedly very well disguised, and is appalled when this ‘bald beggar’ manages what no one else could. “Whoever calls that fellow my son-in-law shall have his head cut off!” he shouts, but the whole crowd around the marsh is saying it and so he stumps furiously back home to punish the princess instead, because he can. She’s shut in the stable on a diet of bread and water. The queen, though, has a comfortable bed and a good meal sent down, so that’s all right.

Basically the no.1 rule for survival in this family is don’t tell the king.

Being in a murderous state of mind, the king heads defiantly off to war, despite being badly outnumbered. On the way Damian falls deliberately into a ditch to embarrass him. The moment the rest of the army has passed by, he jumps out again, whips off his disguise and races to the battlefield in shining armour to save the day. Well, save his father’s day. The opposing armies are beaten back and the silvery mare leaps into the clouds, making the king believe it was an angel sent by God to save him. Have I mentioned he has a bit of an ego?

That night Damian breaks into the stable to visit his sister. She’s thrilled to see him and laughs at his story. Overhearing, the king mistakes this for unbecoming hijinks and wants to execute her on the spot. His wife seizes his arm, panicked. “In heaven’s name, what are you about?” she cries. “Perhaps the poor girl is only laughing for grief!”

Um. Your excuses could do with some work, honey. The king settles for sending out a maidservant to tell the princess to shut up, but the maid gets caught up in the excitement of the prince’s return and the noise from the stable only gets louder. The king, working himself into a towering rage, rushes out to kill the lot of them, only to see his saviour standing there in shining armour. He still doesn’t recognise Damian as his son. The prince refuses to come out, saying he’ll visit the palace tomorrow. In preparation, the king has every room adorned in gold and silver and a glorious feast laid out. During the banquet, he even brings Damian his washing water, and has the queen bring a towel.

Afterwards, Damian stands up, saying he wants to tell a story. The king orders that anyone who interrupts shall have their head chopped off, and actually calls the executioner over to stand ready. So Damian begins with three princes, and three dreams – and the king interrupts. At every juncture of the very familiar tale, he has exclamations and questions and the executioner doesn’t know quite what to do. When Damian reaches the part about the bloody shirt, he holds up his missing finger and turns to the executioner to thank him for his life.

The king hides under the table. How did this man ever end up RUNNING A COUNTRY?

But Damian is all “bygones!” and pulls him out. He doesn’t want the king to grovel, and he definitely doesn’t want the throne. He does insist on the executioner getting a dukedom. Things change for the better in the kingdom, because whenever the king is on the point of losing his temper all Damian needs to do is hold up his stump of a finger and his father is instantly quieted.

What about his other father, though? The dragon who was an actual decent parent? Nudged into remembering by the silver mare, Damian rides back to visit and finds the dragon crying while he milks the sheep. “Father!” Damian whispers, the way he did when they first met. “Here is your son.” Huge hugs ensue. And every full moon after that, Damian comes back to visit.

Some dragons are villains, some are just cowards, and yet others are heroes. Claws can be fearsome or beautiful – it all depends on who tells the story. The reason I started writing Fairy Tale Tuesdays in the first place was because the stories I knew were so much more complicated, and so much better, than the versions I was seeing told. Tradition is made from what we choose to remember, so next time you read a fairy tale, remember this. The princess is not always waiting for rescue; sometimes, she battles kings and witches and Destiny itself. The prince is not always a hero. Sometimes, he’s the one who needs saving. The stepmother isn’t always a villain, and the dragon doesn’t have to die.

An Update of the Surprising and Fantastical

Publishing news! I will no longer be appearing in FableCroft’s new anthology Insert Title Here; my story ‘Twelfth’ will instead be published in a surprise spin-off collection called Phantazein, which is slated for release in October of this year. It’s very exciting! Also, Ticonderoga’s anthology Kisses by Clockwork is now officially out in the world and on my shelf – look at all the pretty!

'Kisses by Clockwork'

‘Kisses by Clockwork’

Kaleidoscope, the third anthology of the year featuring my work, is set for release next month, so brace for further updates!

Review No.114 – Fangirl

Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell

Macmillan, 2014

Originally published by St. Martin’s Press, 2013

As far as Cath is concerned, the whole point of having a twin is that you never have to face the world on your own. Her sister Wren, however, is determined to go in her own direction as they leave high school behind – a direction that includes drinking, dancing and a shiny new roommate to have adventures with. That leaves Cath to negotiate college alone. All the adventures she plans to have involve a keyboard. In Wren’s eyes, she’s an inexplicable hermit – but in the world of fanfiction, Cath is a star with a following in the thousands and a master work to complete.

I loved Fangirl. Rowell has a delightfully wry, matter-of-fact sense of humour that made me laugh out loud, and a believably flawed, utterly loveable protagonist in Cath. My only complaint is that the book ends too abruptly – in my copy it’s wrapped up with a brief author FAQ at the back, but I don’t know if all versions have that. This one also has several illustrations from Noelle Stevenson, author and artist of the webcomic Nimona, who could not have captured Fangirl more perfectly. Rainbow Rowell’s other works include Eleanor and Park and Attachments.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.99 – The Juniper Bush

There are times when I find a fairy tale that’s too wonderfully peculiar not to review, and this Swedish story – taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ A Book of Cats and Creatures – is a perfect example. It begins in the traditional fashion, with a king who is trying to marry off his three sons all at once. I don’t know what the princes want, but their father requires potential brides to be royal, rich and beautiful, in that order. Unfortunately, he knows of no girls who can fulfil all his expectations and turns to his sons for ideas. His youngest, who is for some reason nicknamed Boots, suggests they consult the good fairy.

“What good fairy?” the king wants to know. “That one over there,” Boots tells him, pointing at the door. An old woman has just walked through the door. The king asks her whether she is, in fact, a good fairy. “Well,” she replies vaguely, “I’m not a bad one.” No, this is not a pantomime! I’m quoting the ACTUAL DIALOGUE.

The old woman goes on to offer her two cents on the bridal conundrum. She advises the three princes to each take an axe and go into the forest, walking until they find a clearing where three pines are growing. The tallest tree is for the oldest prince, Fedor. The second tallest is for Peder, the middle child. The shortest is for Boots. The princes must chop down their assigned trees, and when they fall, the trunks will point them towards their destined brides.

Making a life changing choice based on the say so of a total stranger who just happens to have wandered into your house might sound like a really terrible idea, but the princes are obedient souls and duly head off into the woods. Fedor’s tree points north, Peder’s points south, and Boots’…falls sideways into a juniper bush. His brothers decide this means he’ll end up marrying a wood demon and, laughing unsympathetically, return to the palace to prepare for their different journeys.

Boots sits sadly on his fallen tree, looking at the juniper bush. Rats and mice are milling about under its branches, running out to peek at Boots then dashing away again. At length an elderly mouse climbs up the prince’s knee, bows and asks him with great courtesy to step inside the bush to meet with their queen. Boots crawls under the bush – I told you he was obedient – and finds a door there. Though neither he nor the bush appear to change in size, he fits through easily.

On the other side, a mouse wearing a tiny golden crown sits on an ivory throne. She orders her loyal rodents to bring Boots a feast, which they do – if in increments – and when he has finished eating, gives him a robe that glitters like stars and can be folded until it almost disappears. “Now you must go,” she instructs the prince, “because your brothers have found their brides and are on their way home. When the wedding day is fixed, then come and fetch me.”

Well, at least she’s not a wood demon!

When Boots gets home his brothers are boasting about the beauty of their chosen brides. Each has also brought home a gift as evidence of their wealth – a silver casket studded with pearls and a golden goblet, respectively. The older princes are feeling quite smug until Boots shakes out the shimmering robe. His father puts aside the other gifts and dresses himself in the robe at once, strutting back and forth so his courtiers can admire the effect. Satisfied that the goodish fairy has guided them well, he decides all three princes should get married on the same day and sets about preparing for a triple wedding.

Soon the day arrives when the brothers must collect their brides. Returning to the juniper bush, Boots finds an honour guard of rats and mice – all armed with swords and muskets – lined up to greet him. Inside, the queen is waiting with another feast. Boots, too bewildered by his situation to even argue, allows himself to be fed and tucked up in a bed. When he wakes, tiny attendants bathe him and dress him in beautiful garments of silk and velvet. Mice are exceptional dressmakers. Disney says so, it must be true. They even give him an appropriately sized sword in a jewelled scabbard before bringing him over to the queen for inspection. “You’ll do,” she decides, and climbs inside a tiny carriage.

Throughout all this Boots has done exactly what he’s told, but at this point it sinks in he’s marrying a mouse. Trailing after the queen and her escort, he hopes that this is all a dream and he’s not really going to rock up to the wedding with a rabble of rodents. In a display of uncanny timing, the queen stops her carriage and calmly orders Boots to behead every mouse and rat in the procession, starting with herself. He’s then to gather up the heads and throw them through the door under the juniper bush.

Boots is shocked and a little guilty. “What were you thinking a moment ago?” the queen demands, turning angry at his reluctance. “A rag tag mob of rats and mice…a wretched rabble…well, get rid of the rabble! Are you such a coward that you fear to strike off the head of a mouse?”

She has hit a sore spot. Boots draws his sword immediately and cuts off her head in one stroke. The rest of the company swarm him, not in vengeance but demanding he do the same to them, and Boots swings his sword in circles until he’s surrounded by lifeless little bodies. Though he feels dreadful about the slaughter, he follows through on the last of the queen’s instructions, throwing all the heads under the juniper bush. As he does so, there is a thunderous clap of MAGIC that strikes him senseless.

When he opens his eyes, a carriage has drawn up beside him and a beautiful girl is leaning out the window, calling his name. Seeing that he doesn’t recognise her, she reintroduces herself as the  queen of the juniper bush. She was cursed by an evil sorcerer, as happens from time to time, who turned all her people into woodland creatures and her kingdom to a forest. Now that Boots has broken the spell, the bush has become a palace and the forest a spread of verdant fields. All the prince’s attention is occupied by the beautiful juniper queen, however, who tells him to climb inside the carriage so they can continue on to their wedding. Her escort – now cavaliers in plumed helmets and courtiers in carriages of their own – accompany them along a brand new road, and erstwhile beetles and stones form an adoring crowd shouting their queen’s praises.

On the border between the juniper queen’s country and that of the king, the old lady Boots picked out as a good fairy is sitting waiting by the road. He jumps out to greet her exuberantly, kissing both her cheeks and asking for her blessing. She predicts a happy ending.

At last the couple reach the king’s palace, where Fedor and Peder stare in disbelief. They’re not pleased at being outshone, but the juniper queen hits it off with their brides straight away. The wedding celebrations go on for a week. Then Boots and his queen return to her kingdom to reign happily ever after.

Fairy tale kings generally have slightly odd ideas about marriage, but this one spells out his priorities with unusual clarity. He doesn’t care if a potential bride has a wonderful personality, a serene temperament or wicked skills with a siege engine – hell, he doesn’t even account for one of his sons choosing a girl on their own. If a candidate doesn’t fit the triptych of superficial charms, she’s out of the running. Which makes it quite satisfactory that the bride he likes best started out as a mouse with attitude, and ends up as a neighbouring monarch with an impressive army. That fairy knew exactly what she was doing.

Review No.113 – The House at Riverton

The House at Riverton – Kate Morton

Pan Books, 2007

In the winter of 1999, Grace Bradley is coming to the end of a long, extraordinary life. From novice housemaid at Riverton Manor to reknown archaeologist, surviving two world wars and the seismic generational change that ensued, she has many stories to remember – but the one that has haunted her all her life is given sudden, unexpected life when a passionate young director starts retracing the events of the famous tragedy of Riverton. One night in 1924, the Hartford sisters witnessed a young poet commit suicide by the lake. They would never see each other again, and only Grace knows why. For seventy five years she has kept the secret faithfully, but at last she’s ready to speak.

Originally published as The Shifting Fog by Allen&Unwin in 2006, this was Queensland author Kate Morton’s first novel. It’s an elegantly constructed, evocatively convincing story that focuses equally on Grace in her old age as it does on her remembered youth, and while many of the characters, including Grace herself, are not entirely likeable, the light and shade of their personalities are well portrayed. Morton’s more recent works include The Distant Hours and The Secret Keeper.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.98 – The Lass Who Went Out at the Cry of Dawn

The last two Fairy Tale Tuesdays have been somewhat grim, what with all the crushing and devouring, so this week I’m reviewing something a little brighter. In this story from Sorche Nic Leodhas’ collection of Scottish folk lore, Thistle and Thyme, a girl goes out one morning to wash her face in the morning dew – a beauty treatment handed down through the generations – and never comes back. Her younger sister decides to do something about that. With a purse of her father’s gold and her mother’s sewing kit (plus a knife her mother thinks might come in handy too), she heads off to start searching.

At length she hears tell of a wizard who lives on the gloriously named Mischanter Hill and has been known to abduct young women before. The missing girl’s sister loses no time getting there. It’s a formidable slope, so at the foot of the hill she stops for a breather and encounters a tinker pulling along a heavily loaded cart. Taking pity on his predicament, she offers him her purse of gold to buy a horse. The grateful tinker offers a word of advice in exchange: everything she sees and hears at the top of the hill is not to be trusted, and she’d really be better off going home.

She has no intention of doing that. Even the tinker, having known her for five minutes, didn’t expect she would. Bidding him a courteous farewell, she continues on her way.

The punishing incline forces her to take a second break halfway up and she meets a man in such ragged clothes he’s trying to pin them together with thorns. The girl gives him the pins from her mother’s sewing kit. “Gold and silver are a match for evil,” he responds, mysteriously. He also tries to dissuade her from reaching the wizard’s castle, and has about as much success as you’d expect.

At the top of the hill stands a pair of gates. The girl knocks calmly and the wizard himself comes to open them. His countenance is visibly evil (I don’t know what that looks like, possibly a long moustache for twirling?), but he pretends to be polite. When the girl asks for him to hand over her sister, he tells her to come inside while he looks around. You never know what might have fallen behind the sofa…

He leaves her alone and the walls abruptly catch fire, filling the air with smoke. The girl is about to run from the blaze when she remembers the tinker’s advice and realises it’s all an illusion. She’s barely sat down again when she hears her sister crying out for her. It’s so hard not to follow, but she’s sure it is another trick and binds her arm to the chair with her mother’s thread to stop herself chasing the voice down. Only when the sobbing subsides does she cut herself free.

The wizard is startled and displeased to see her still waiting when he returns. He tells her the castle is full of maidens and she will have to pick her sister from the others. The room he leads her to has seven statues, all alike, one of whom is theoretically her sister. Remembering the ragged man’s advice, the girl takes her mother’s silver thimble from the sewing kit and puts it on the thumb of each statue. When it turns black, she knows it is touching another illusion; only when it turns silver again does she know she’s found her sister. “I’ll just take this one,” she tells the wizard firmly, and the statue is restored to flesh and blood. Seizing each other’s hands, the girls make a break for it.

The wizard is not prepared to lose so easily. He conjures up a huge wolf and sends it to run them down, but the younger sister spins around with a golden needle from the sewing kit held out like a sword. When the wolf leaps for her throat, she stabs him between the eyes and he falls down dead. Thank you, farsighted mum!

Livid with rage, the wizard flies in pursuit himself. All the girl has left to fight with is her knife, given with both parents’ blessings. She throws it directly into the wizard’s heart. As he falls, the castle collapses into a heap of stone and dust, and the sisters walk slowly down the hill.

On the way they meet a beautifully dressed young man, oddly adorned with pins. “The wizard laid a spell on me that I’d be mending my clothes with thorns until the end of time,” he tells the younger sister ruefully. “But now the spell is lifted, and I’m a free man once more.”

Next they see a second young man standing beside a grand coach. “You’ll not be remembering me,” he remarks to the younger sister, and returns the purse of gold. With all the curses now lifted, the quartet climb into his coach and set off for the girls’ home. This must be one hell of a road trip, because by the time they get there the older sister has fallen for the young man with the pins, and the younger sister is engaged to the ex-tinker. I don’t think any happily ever after would dare fail her.

I’m a sucker for a tough as nails heroine, and this girl takes down her enemies with a sewing kit. Rescuing her sister. Because she is AWESOME. Her mother is also awesome, for recognising that every girl on an adventure needs needles, thread and a really sharp knife.