Fairy Tale Tuesday No.38 – King Thrushbeard

I encountered this story for the first time in an Abbey Classics copy of Grimms Fairy Tales and I have to admit I’ve held a bit of a grudge against the book ever since. Up until then, I don’t think any fairy tale had struck me as being really sexist – just badly told. ‘King Thrushbeard’, though, choked up my feminist filters with its narrative injustice. Also known as ‘King Grisly-Beard’, it is one of the more obscure works of the Grimm canon, but somehow it’s survived its way into the 21st century. Having already reviewed two of my other Most Hated fairy tales – Perrault’s ‘Patient Griselda’ and Ruth Manning Sanders’ ‘My Lady Sea’ – I’m ready to dissect this one.

It begins with a king who, having a beautiful daughter of marriageable age, is attempting to nag her into choosing a husband.He chooses the speed dating method of holding a feast, inviting as many important single men as he can, then lining them up according to rank and telling the princess to pick one. The scene could hardly be more ripe for mockery and the princess unsheathes her claws, making cutting jokes as she peruses the rows. One man who comes in for particularly personal remarks is a tall king with a pointed chin that reminds the princess of a thrush’s beak. Thrush+beard – yep, we’ll be seeing him again.

Of course, the princess doesn’t choose any of these men. Her father is so furious at her lack of diplomacy that he makes a spontaneous vow that she must marry the first beggar to come to his door. A few days later, a travelling singer is heard playing under a window outside the castle and the brooding king calls him in to play. When the singer asks for payment, the king hands over his horrified daughter. He then compounds his credentials as Worst Father of the Year by adding, “Now, as you are a beggar-wife, you can stay no longer in my castle, so off with you and your husband.”

So they leave. On their way out of the kingdom, they pass through a thick forest, some pasture land and a large town – all of which, she is told, belong to the king she called Thrushbeard. She sighs after a lost chance at wealth, but there’s worse to come. When they stop in front of a rundown little hut and she asks who that belongs to, the peasant introduces it as her new home. He expects her to settle at once into her new role as his wife – a word which here means, ‘indentured servant’ – but being used to life in the palace, she has no idea how to do any of the things he demands of her. She can’t cook, she can’t spin, she can’t make baskets. All she can do is damage herself trying.

Eventually her husband gets her selling earthenware pots at the town market and in that she does better, being quite capable of charm when she chooses. Only then one day, while she’s sitting in a corner of the market minding her own business, a drunken horseman ploughs through the pots and shatters the lot. “Who ever heard of such a thing as sitting in the corner of the market with earthenware pots?” her husband declares. Oh, who indeed? After that he hires her out as a kitchen-maid at, of all places, her own father’s castle. And if you think that might get her better treatment, you have seriously overestimated the worth of the men in this girl’s life.

She becomes the lowest lackey of the kitchen, dependant on scraps for her survival. One day, when a celebration is being held upstairs, she watches from behind a door and mourns over the loss of her old life. A passing prince in silk and velvet sees her standing there and approaches to ask a dance. In an apparent demotion, or possibly some confusion on the storyteller’s part, this is no other than Thrushbeard himself. He pressures her out of the shadows, but the inevitable happens and the pots she keeps in her pockets to catch scraps fall out, breaking and spilling food across the floor. It is a scene of utter humiliation. The princess attempts to flee, but Thrushbeard won’t let her.

“Do not be afraid,” he tells her. “I and the beggar-man with whom you lived in the wretched little hut are one. For love of you, I disguised myself, and it was I who broke your pots in the guise of a horse-soldier. I did all that to bring down your proud heart, and to punish your haughtiness, which caused you to mock me.” Oh, absolutely. Because nothing says love like ABDUCTION AND HUMILIATION.

The princess cries. Thrushbeard continues. “Take courage, the evil days are gone over; now let us keep our wedding-day.” Yes. The celebration is in honour of her marriage – she is whisked into grand clothes, her father emerges to deliver his benediction, and they remarry in front of a glittering crowd.

The princess is not, I will freely admit, the nicest of people. She’s arrogant and abrasive and it says something about the rest of the people in this story that I feel so fiercely protective of her. The demolition of a defiant spirit is a horrible thing to witness, and that Thrushbeard does this out of ‘love’ for her says more about his mental state, I think, than it does about hers. Grisly, indeed.

Review No.78 – Fifth Quarter

Fifth Quarter (The Quarters Novels: Volume 1) – Tanya Huff

Daw Books, Inc., 2007

In the Havalkeen Empire, assassins are the sheathed blades of the imperial army, trained to take down any obstacle with ruthless efficiency. When brother and sister team Bannon and Vree are sent in to end a siege by killing a rebellious leader, however, they find themselves enmeshed in an impossible situation. Their target is not the vulnerable old man they expected. He is an ancient body-jumping spirit who, instead of dying as he was intended to, steals Bannon’s body and forces Vree into a dangerous bargain – because it isn’t Bannon he wants at all. Gyhard, ageless and remorseless, wants a new life as the youngest son of the Emperor, and if Vree is ever going to get her brother back, she’ll have to help him take it.

This story was included in a double volume with Sing the Four Quarters and expands on some of the ideas introduced in that first book, although the cast of characters is almost entirely new. As with Sing the Four Quarters, Huff takes on a type of story that’s not really new and makes it her own in a decisively interesting way. The romantic interest was uncomfortable but convincing and the idea of assassins being an integral part of the army instead of loners is something I haven’t seen done like this before. The series continues with No Quarter, which can be found as a standalone or paired with The Quartered Sea in The Quarters Novels: Volume 2.

Review No.77 – Sing the Four Quarters

Sing the Four Quarters (The Quarters Novels: Volume 1) – Tanya Huff

Daw Books, Inc., 2007

As a bard of Shkoder Annice is not only a skilled musician, she can call on the elemental kigh with the power of her voice. Recently they have begun to react strangely to her, coinciding with a mysterious illness, and she discovers an unexpected cause: she has fallen pregnant, and in so doing has accidentally committed treason. Because Annice is not only a bard. Ten years ago she was cast off by her furious brother the king after she chose her vocation over a political marriage and in consequence was forbidden to either marry or bear children. Surely, though, he won’t hold her to an edict made when she was only fourteen years old. Then the father of her baby is arrested for plotting a war…

Huff takes the familiar and rather threadbare tale of the outcast princess and makes it her own in a light, enjoyable fantasy that casually throws stereotype on its head with a heroine who is bisexual, pregnant and engaged in a decade-long sibling squabble. The other characters are equally individual and believable, and a matter-of-fact writing style neatly plays up the ironies of the situation. This is the first novel in the Quarters series.

Reviewing Who – City of Death

Doctor: Tom Baker

Companion: Lalla Ward

Script writer: ‘David Agnew’ (David Fisher, Douglas Adams and Graham Williams)

Producer: Graham Williams

Director: Michael Hayes

Originally aired: 29th September 1979 – 20th October 1979

Episode 1: The story opens with a alien-looking landscape of endless rock, upon which perches a black spider-like spaceship on the point of take-off. Its pilot has serious qualms about this, but is surrounded by crackling voices crying, “Scaroth, you are our only hope!” like a choir of demented Princess Leias, and he defies the risk. For a moment it looks like they’ll manage it – then the ship appears to warp in mid-air and explodes into a violent ball of fire.

“Marvellous,” says the Doctor, before the image has quite faded. He’s romping about in Paris with fellow Gallifreyan Romana, under a springtime canopy of pink blossoms and blue skies. In his fourth incarnation, the Doctor is all brown curls, long stripy scarf and crazy energy, but serene and sailor-hatted Romana keeps up easily. These two are utterly comfortable together, finishing one another’s sentences, bantering about bouquets, and looking outrageous on French public transport. For once, it seems, there isn’t a crisis that needs their immediate attention – they’re going to have a lovely relaxing holiday in Paris 1979…

Then suddenly we are whisked away, coming face to face with a Scary Door that has Scary Door music. On the other side, in an underground laboratory, a depressed-looking man in a lab coat is bemoaning his strained budget to a second man in a nice suit. Nice Suit, rather bored, soon interrupts by handing over a wad of francs. While Lab Coat puts his eyes back into his head, Nice Suit – otherwise known as Count Scarlioni – summons a minion and orders him to ‘discreetly’ sell off a Gutenberg Bible.

Meanwhile, the Doctor and Romana have ensconced themselves in a café. He suddenly tells her that there is an artist behind her making a sketch and she turns instinctively to see, offending the temperamental genius, who screws up the drawing, throws it at their table, and stalks off in a huff. Then there is a kind of hitch and the scene repeats, rather like a faulty DVD. Only it isn’t my DVD that’s faulty. It’s time itself. Which couldn’t have anything at all to do with the count, who is muttering darkly about time and demanding his pet scientist perform more tests immediately. The Doctor and Romana don’t know that – nor are they all that interested. A crack in time? Meh. We’re on holiday, people! They end up in the Louvre, in front of the Mona Lisa. The Doctor is all enthusiasm, but Romana is not so easy to impress. Really, she points out, it’s just a woman with no eyebrows.

Just then, a second distortion in time sends the Doctor into a dramatic staggering faint halfway across the room and into the lap of a total stranger. This is an elegant-looking woman who turns to watch him leave with a few notes of portentously sultry jazz, but a bystander in a trenchcoat takes that interest one step further by trailing the Time Lords halfway across Paris. He’s not very good at it and the Doctor and Romana are fully aware of him behind them. They stop at another café to discuss the matter. The reason they are being followed, the Doctor explains, is that he nicked something from the Louvre – well, to be precise, from that woman he fell into at the Louvre. It is a highly advanced scanner disguised as a bracelet, which she was using to study the security systems.

ROMANA: You mean an alien is trying to steal the Mona Lisa?

DOCTOR: It is a very pretty painting.

I love this show just for conversations like that.

Unfortunately, it is interrupted by the arrival of the man in the trenchcoat. He wants to talk to the Doctor and has a gun to help convince him. The Doctor and Romana walk into the café with their hands in the air and no one bats an eyelid, though no one actually goes near them either.

Meanwhile Count Scarlioni is having a rather interesting conversation with the lady from the Louvre, who turns out to be his wife, not to mention his accomplice. He is entirely unworried when she mentions the trenchcoated detective who was watching her at the gallery but switches suddenly to absolute fury when he hears how the Doctor swiped her bracelet. The countess assures him she has taken care of things, and indeed she has – the café is now hosting two more men with guns and the detective, Duggan, has just lost his. The Doctor hands over the bracelet, the thugs obligingly leave, café life continues to go on as normal. These people are unflappable.

Duggan decides that the Doctor must be in cahoots with the count and countess and trying to prove his innocence with a fake stick up. He attempts an impromptu interrogation but gets such irritating answers that he’s about to give up and stalk out in disgust when the Doctor flips the conversation around to the Mona Lisa. That gets Duggan’s attention. Under the combined forces of cluelessness and Gallifreyan charm, he explains that all of a sudden masterpieces are showing up in the art world and his job is to find out how someone could make such extraordinary fakes. At the centre of it all is Scarlioni, but somehow he always remains clean…well, up until his thugs show up again in the café and insist that everybody at the table comes along to meet the boss.

Even the countess seems to have concerns. She goes down to the laboratory to find her husband, only to come up against a locked door. While she knocks and calls from the outside, ‘Carlos’ tears open his own face – revealing writhing green beneath…

Episode 2: The Doctor, Romana and Duggan are ushered through the Scary Door from the first episode into a dainty parlour, and by ushered I actually mean shoved. The Doc falls flat on his face but pops up again straight away like a cartoon clown. “I say, what a wonderful butler! He’s so violent!” He then cheerily dismisses the aforesaid violent butler (who ignores him), performs all the introductions with his usual flair, and even pours himself a drink. The countess doesn’t know quite how to handle this. You know she’s lost all control over the situation, butler Hermann and his gun notwithstanding, when Romana picks up an antique puzzle box off the table, solves it in ten seconds flat and produces that bloody bracelet with a calm flourish. Fortunately for the countess, her husband arrives at this point to dampen everyone else’s spirits with his air of sophisticated menace and totally intact face. She stops smoking for a moment to share her findings.
COUNTESS: My dear, I don’t think he’s as stupid as he seems.

COUNT: My dear, nobody could be as stupid as he seems.

It’s a rare moment of marital accord in a relationship that seems founded on bizarre jewellery, theft and intricate powerplay. Duggan attempts to break it up, literally, with a chair, but the Doctor stops him, which is how shortly afterwards the three of them end up sulking in a cellar. Well, Duggan is sulking – the Doctor has a plan and a sonic screwdriver, and Romana is busy calculating a mismatch of proportions between the room they’ve been locked in and the staircase outside. While the Doctor sonicks the door and sneaks out to snoop around the count’s laboratory, followed by a very grumpy Duggan, Romana continues to investigate her own mystery. They all quickly find somewhere to hide when the door to the cellar opens and the count’s pet scientist, Kerensky, descends the stairs. Without noticing the intruders, one of whom really wants to bash him over the head, he continues his experiments. Placing an egg between a pair of technicolour prongs, he activates his machine, accelerating the chicken through its life cycle in a matter of seconds.

The Doctor interrupts. Of course he does, he just can’t help himself. “What you’re doing is terribly interesting,” he says, popping up behind poor terrified Kerensky, “but you’ve got it wrong.” Well, he’s got a point – the fully grown bird between the prongs has fallen into a pile of bones, something Kerensky has been trying unsuccessfully to stop happening. The Doctor promptly solves the problem but before he can settle down for a nice sciencey chat Duggan knocks Kerensky unconscious. He wants to escape while the going’s good. The Doctor is more interested in finding out what Romana’s been doing all this time. While the boys squabbled and talked about dead chickens, she’s found a hidden room.

It’s a pity, really, because now would be quite a good time to escape. The Count is busy showing off to his cohorts in a very theatrical burglary rehearsal upstairs. He, as it turns out, owns a sonic knife, not to mention a device that can bend laser bars. Guess what their plans are for tonight?

Downstairs, Duggan has been overruled. He finds an outlet for all that pent-up rage by using his shoulder to hammer a gap in a five or six hundred year old wall. On the other side is the promised hidden room, lined by cobwebbed cupboards. Bug-eyed with interest, the Doctor opens one, revealing…the Mona Lisa. He opens another one. Another Mona Lisa. There are six doors in all, and six identical masterpieces. The Doctor sums the weirdness: “What I don’t understand is why a man who’s got six Mona Lisas wants to go to all the trouble of stealing a seventh?” Duggan finally has something to contribute apart from punching things – he is a detective, after all. He knows of at least seven people who would pay for the stolen painting just to have it as their own secret gloat, but none of them would buy it while it’s still hanging in the gallery.

The Count calmly confirms this theory. He has appeared behind them with a gun, only he doesn’t know he’s in the same room as Mr ‘Human Battering Ram’ Duggan, and soon enough he’s sprawled unconscious on the floor just like Kerensky. The trio head upstairs and Duggan knocks out his third resident of the night, intercepting the countess with a priceless Ming vase to the head before she has the chance to shoot them. They then split up, Duggan leaving with Romana while the Doctor slopes off to collect the TARDIS. It disappears from the Louvre (where I am sure it was illegally parked) and reappears, with unusual accuracy, in a Renaissance sitting room littered with painting equipment. Yes, the Doctor has gone to pay a call on his old chum da Vinci. Only it seems the painter isn’t home. Instead the Doctor is accosted by a bad-tempered bloke in armour and told to wait for Captain Tancready.

Almost immediately, the door opens, and in walks the count.

Episode 3: Also breaking into the Louvre that night, and with suspicious ease, Romana and Duggan find the Mona Lisa already stolen. Kerensky, meanwhile, has woken up and stumbled across the other six. He finally begins to have a few doubts about his employer, who is stirring on the floor and muttering mysteriously. He is, unbeknownst to Kerensky, echoing the words of his Renaissance doppelganger Tancready, who in his turn is questioning the captive Doctor. He wants to know how a man from Paris 1979 can just show up in Florence 1505.

DOCTOR: I don’t know, I don’t seem to be able to help myself. There I am, just walking along, minding my own business and pop! I’m on a different planet or even a different time. But enough of my problems, what are you doing here?

TANCREADY: I will tell you. The knowledge will be of little use to you, since you will shortly die. * Sweeps aside cloak, sinks into conveniently located throne-like chair, gives Doctor a brooding stare. * I am the last of the Jagaroth. I am also the saviour of the Jagaroth.

He goes on to explain that he, together with a few other survivors from the Jagaroth’s terrible war, landed on the Earth some four hundred million years ago; how they tried to leave but the ship blew apart, killing the others and fracturing the count himself throughout history. Having got all that off his chest, he realises that this questioning thing has got turned around and tries to return to his interrogation. The Doctor nimbly eludes him, bounding over to a version of the Mona Lisa propped up in a corner of the workshop. Following his line of reasoning aloud, he works out that Leonardo must have just completed it and has been persuaded to do up another six, like you are when a guy with a sword is involved – who, incidentally, has stood stolidly by during all this talk of aliens and time travel without changing expression once.

TANCREADY: I think it’s time we conducted this conversation somewhat more formally. (to the guard) Hold him here, while I collect the instruments of torture. If he wags his tongue, confiscate it.

I’m not sure the guard knows what ‘confiscate’ means but ‘torture’ lights up all the right brain cells. The Doctor tries to go all conspiratorial, but this guy is not paid to contemplate the ethics of working for a madman; he is paid to fight. The Doctor goes onto plan B, whipping out a Polaroid, blinding the guard with the flash of the camera and knocking him out with a handy pop on the chin, then briskly getting to work labelling all the canvases in the studio with the words ‘this is a fake’ in felt tip. He also leaves a note for Leonardo, but before he can actually escape Tancready returns. With the thumbscrews.

At this exciting point the count, back in Paris, finally comes to properly. He is helped to his feet by Kerensky, who is clinging on to his illusions as best he can. Told he has been serving the Jagaroth all along, he ventures: “It’s the Jagaroth who need all the chickens, is it?” The count is sort of stunned with contempt. While all that is happening, Romana is quietly sonicking her way into what should by now be recognised as the Stick-Up Café. Duggan arrives shortly afterward by breaking a window – cue another piece of infinitely quoteable dialogue.

ROMANA: You should go into partnership with a glazier. You’d have a truly symbiotic working relationship.

DUGGAN: What?

ROMANA: I’m just pointing out that you break a lot of glass.

DUGGAN: You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

ROMANA: If you wanted an omelette, I’d expect to find a pile of broken crockery, a cooker in flames and an unconscious chef.

And that is why I love you, Romana.

The count has dropped the pretence. Well, part of the pretence, he’s still got his face on. That’s of little comfort to poor old Kerensky, who is staring at the blueprints for a machine that will do the precise opposite of what he thought his work was meant to do – it will turn back time. All to bones, so to speak. Finally realising his boss is a raging megalomaniac, he refuses to comply. And he’s not the only one noticing there’s something weird about Scarlioni. The countess, gloating happily over the success of the Louvre robbery, accidentally triggers a rant about mapping the heavens and inventing the wheel. The count has a case of voices in the head, never a good sign. The other parts of himself are echoing in a rare moment of unison, begging to be reunited. As this is also affecting Tancready, the Doctor uses the moment of distraction to escape into the TARDIS and materialise the hell out of there.

Romana and Duggan are still waiting for him the Stick-Up Café, though by now it’s morning and they’re running on caffeine. In further evidence of her excellence, during a few minutes casual conversation Romana proceeds to deduct pretty much everything that the Doctor went back to 1505 to find out. By the time the Doctor reaches the café, they have returned to the chateau, and Duggan’s obsession with breaking windows has got them caught. Far from being annoyed, the count is very pleased to see them – well, he’s pleased to see Romana, anyway, whom he intends to use to finish work on the machine. Or else, as he politely explains, he’ll destroy Paris with the deeply unreliable one he already has. To prove what he can do, he tricks Kerensky into standing between the machine’s prongs and switches it on, reducing the terrified man within a matter of seconds to a crumpled skeleton.

Episode 4: “The unfortunate effect of an unstablised time field,” Scarlioni says brightly. He would be quite happy to do that to all of Paris if Romana does not show him how to stabilise it. Given the circumstances, she agrees, and Duggan is locked up out of her way.

Upstairs, the Doctor has arrived, shown into the parlour by a glowering thug and met by the countess. Being an appalling show-off, she can’t resist producing her husband’s first draft of Hamlet, and being an equally appalling name-dropper, the Doctor can’t resist telling her most of it is in his handwriting. She thinks he’s mad. It’s mutual. He thinks she’s mad, deliberately blinding herself to what she is living with.

DOCTOR: A man with one eye and green skin, eh? Ransacking the art treasures of history to help him make a machine to reunite him with his people, the Jagaroth. And you didn’t notice anything? How discreet, how charming.

She laughs as the Doctor is led away by Hermann, but then suddenly stops as inside her very selective head a bell starts to ring. Digging about in her husband’s library of precious texts, she opens a box of Egyptian scrolls and finds one with a green Cyclops of a man among the gods…

In the cellar, meanwhile, the count is attempting the same threat on the Doctor that he used on Romana. The Doctor, however, has worked out one crucial detail that Romana hasn’t – that if the explosion of the spaceship never happens, neither will history – and he flat out refuses to co-operate. Not that it does any good, because Romana has already completed the stabiliser. With his three troublemakers locked away, Scarlioni heads upstairs to farewell his wife. She is waiting for him. With a gun. Well, he does have rather a lot of them lying around, what did he expect? Distraught, she demands the truth, and he gives it to her. He shows it to her, tearing off his face to reveal the Jagaroth beneath. The gun drops in her shock and he uses the opportunity to rid himself of the accomplice he no longer needs; her bracelet gives off a violent pulse and she falls to the floor, dead.

Everything is falling into place for Scarlioni. In a last-ditch effort to stop him, Duggan smashes open the locked door of their cell, but the count is already between the prongs of the machine. He disappears and the machine explodes, taking with it any chance they have to follow him…or so he thinks. He doesn’t know much about Time Lords. The TARDIS follows him to the inhospitable desert from Episode 1. They see the Jagaroth spaceship in the distance and head towards it, across the rocks and between the primordial soup that is waiting on a massive dose of radiation to form life as we know it. Guess who’s here in his nice suit, with his shiny gun, trying to stop that from happening? Just when it seems that Scaroth, last of the Jagaroth, cannot be stopped, Duggan knocks him out with what may be, as the Doctor puts it, “the most important punch in history”. Scaroth goes flying and vanishes, Romana’s inbuilt limitations kicking in to bring him back to where he started, in Paris. Unluckily for him, Hermann is there in the cellar to witness his arrival. What is a violent butler to do when a green Cyclops shows up in his master’s laboratory…?

In the fire that results from the destruction of the count’s machine (not to mention the count) all of the Mona Lisas bar one are destroyed. Of course, it’s one of the ones with ‘this is a fake’ drawn under the paintwork in felt tip. Duggan isn’t happy about that, but he has a bigger question on his mind.

DUGGAN: Where do you two come from?

DOCTOR: From? Well, I suppose the best way to find out where you come from is to find out where you’re going and then work backwards.

DUGGAN: Where are you going?

DOCTOR: I don’t know.

ROMANA: Nor do I.

DOCTOR: Goodbye.

Bemusedly, Duggan watches them go from the top of the Eiffel Tower: a girl in a sailor hat and a man in a long stripy scarf who turn to wave up at him, laughing, then run away together to who knows where…

The Verdict: This is one of the very few Doctor Who episodes that have been filmed outside Great Britain and you can tell that the director got a bit overexcited about it, including lots of footage of the Doctor and Romana running about hand-in-hand through the streets of Paris. The first episode, at least, doesn’t have much sense of urgency – in fact, for once we get a glimpse of what it might be like in between adventures, when the Doctor doesn’t have to save the world from its latest peril. Tom Baker had longest run of any Doctor in the show’s history (so far!) so the quality his stories is very variable, but as far as I’m concerned this is one of the best. It is an unapologetic romp, complete with zany characters, crazy science, and four episodes of gorgeously zinging dialogue. I mean, Douglas Adams. Do I really need to say more?

Join me in May for a very different sort of Doctor, who would rather a stick of celery to a jelly baby and is perhaps a touch too idealistic for his own good. “There should have been a better way,” is one of Peter Davison’s most remembered quotes as the Fifth Doctor, but when he lands in the middle of an android rebellion, I somehow don’t think it’s going to be as simple as scribbling this is a fake…

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.37 – The Laird’s Lass and the Gobha’s Son

This Scottish fairy tale is from Sorche Nic Leodhas’s 1962 collection Thistle and Thyme and begins by introducing us to a lord (henceforth known as ‘the laird’) and his daughter. She is every bit as beautiful as you might expect, sweet natured and kind as well, but more than anything she is stubborn. That’s rather sweet in a fluffy little girl, and she’s thoroughly spoiled by her fond family. Then she grows up. And there is a Disagreement.

You see, her father thinks she should get married. That’s not the point of contention, she quite agrees, but unluckily for him she’s been looking around and has developed some firm ideas of her own about what kind of husband she’d like. When she sees the son of the gobha (that being a blacksmith) in the castle courtyard, she leans out the window for a better view, scandalising her maid. She likes the look of him and intends to get another look as soon as she can. Being a proactive kind of a girl, this happens sooner rather than later. As she’s perfectly aware her parents wouldn’t ever give their permission for her to call at the gobha’s shop, she ‘borrows’ a dairymaid’s spare dress and goes without asking permission from anyone.

When she arrives at the shop, she finds the gobha’s son alone. He’s in the middle of shoeing her father’s mare, which is the excuse she uses for her being there. They stare at each other, they smile, they flirt a bit, and then the girl goes on her way again very pleased with what she’s seen. The interest is mutual, with the boy trying to find out at the castle which maid it was who came flitting into his father’s shop that morning, but there’s a great many of them and the girl wasn’t even a maid, of course, so no one can tell him.

By this time she’s returned the dress, put on her own, gone to her father and calmly informed him to stop looking for a husband for her because she’s come up with one on her own. The laird is at first amused, then – realising it isn’t all some awful joke – appalled and enraged. When his daughter refuses to change her mind, he decides the best thing to do is send her to Edinborough and very quickly marry her off to a distant cousin who, if not quite what he was hoping for, is at least not a blacksmith. “I’ll go if I must,” his daughter tells him. “But you can tell my cousin that I’ll not be marrying him. I’ve made up my mind to wed the gobha’s son!” Who, incidentally, has only just worked out who his pretty visitor really is, after seeing her emerge from church with her family. He has not the same expectations of getting his own way that the girl has and is thoroughly miserable at the loss of his hopes.

On the day before she is due to travel to Edinborough with her mother, the laird’s daughter sneaks downstairs at the crack of dawn for some time alone to think. On her way through the kitchen she meets with the cook, who has just found a tiny shoe that she assumes must belong to a child. The girl offers to find its owner and that is exactly what she does, though honestly he’s not really what she was expecting; the sound of crying leads her to an unhappy little old man sitting by the side of a nearby lane. The girl coaxes out his story, a sad business of stones and mean dogs that nick other people’s footwear, and promptly returns his property. He’s overjoyed. Grateful for her kindness, he asks if he can be of any help to her, and she tells him all about the gobha’s son and her unwanted wedding. The little man hits on a key point she’s maybe not considered. “Does the gobha’s son want to wed you?” The girl certainly doesn’t lack confidence: “He would if he knew me better.” So that’s sorted. The little man gives her two berries and tells her, like a dodgy sort of doctor, to swallow them before bed. This will solve all her problems…eventually.

Well, the laird is not completely stupid. He locks his daughter in her room that night should she decide to run away. When her mother opens it the next morning, she screams so loudly that the laird comes running. The bed is empty! Or is it? Under the covers is a little white dog with a cheeky grin and his daughter’s blue satin ribbon in its hair. The laird doesn’t want to believe it’s really her, insisting everyone search the room from cupboard to chimney. It’s no good, of course. Eventually he just has to accept it, his daughter has turned into a dog.

That puts paid to the wedding plans. The laird tells everyone that his daughter is ill and actually calls his own physician to see if there’s anything to be done, but the Scottish medical fraternity aren’t too experienced with spells and the physician insists it must all be an optical delusion. Then they get in an old woman with a reputation for dealing with this sort of thing. She, at least, does believe them but she hasn’t the least idea how to lift the spell, and nor does the gypsy woman who comes in next. The laird is running out of ideas, his wife is running out of coping mechanisms, and their distress is so self-evident that the servants all assume the girl’s ‘illness’ is fatal.

News reaches the gobha’s son, who is heartbroken. He is wrecking a perfectly good piece of iron when an unexpected visitor arrives in his doorway. It is the little man, on a tiny horse, which he wants shod. While the job is being done, the little man tries to initiate some conversation, but the gobha’s son doesn’t have the heart for even the most basic pleasantries. Bringing up the laird’s daughter, however, does the trick. When he asks why the boy doesn’t just go up to the castle and cure her, the gobha’s son is furious and indignant. How on earth could he cure her when so many have already tried and failed? Wouldn’t he be there on the spot if he thought he could do anything? Satisfied that the boy’s feelings are sincere, the little man produces the answer – two more of those strange berries, and a bit of advice.

So the gobha’s son cleans himself up quickly and dashes to the castle. Everyone is getting rather desperate there, even the laird’s daughter; she is so fed up with being a dog that she nipped her father that morning for being a pompous idiot. It isn’t the best time for the boy that the laird blames squarely for the whole mess to turn up on the doorstep, but when he says the magic word – ‘cure’ – the laird is only too happy to show him up. Only the boy has terms. He wants the laird’s permission to marry his daughter. The laird says no immediately, but it’s a bluff he can’t hold. If it’s a choice between having a daughter married to the gobha’s son or having a daughter who is a dog, it’s pretty clear which is going to give him more hell. So he says yes.

The gobha’s son is shown up to the room where the dog is locked away. He feeds her the berries and in a blink he’s got the laird’s daughter standing in front of him. It’s so good to see her as human again that even the laird can’t hold her tactics too much against her. He soon finds out that the gobha’s son is actually a pretty nice young man and ends up making him steward over the estate. And so the girl got her way, just as she said she would, happily married to the boy she chose for herself.

Fairy tale marriages are not, contrary to popular perception, always very happy, or romantic for that matter. This one, though, is adorable. It is a classic tale of nice boy meets stubborn girl meets little old man with magic meets little white dog meets boy again – and neither of the girl’s parents have to lose their heads in order for the marriage to happen! These two are one of my favourite fairy tale couples and I have reviewed their story this week in honour of a Very Romantic Event taking place in my family. Best wishes to my brother and his wife to be, may yours be a very happy ever after.

Spinning So Fast

It was around this time last year that I was in the rather lovely position of deciding where to put my shiny new author copy of To Spin a Darker Stair. ‘Oracle’s Tower’ was originally submitted for the FableCroft anthology Epilogue; it was a long shot that only ended up getting published because my marvellous editor, Tehani Wessely, decided to take a chance on it. Now I have a new place on my shelf to clear. The table of contents for The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2012 was announced on Ticonderoga’s website today and ‘Oracle’s Tower’ is on the list.

I…honestly, I’m a bit speechless. It’s an amazing honour that came out of the blue and has been like a luminous moth fluttering about the back of my head ever since, brightening me up at random moments with writerish wonderment. Also, is this not THE most awesome cover?

years-best-fantasy-and-horror-v3-slide

Take a look at all the incredible writers I will be sharing it with.

  • Joanne Anderton, “Tied To The Waste”, Tales Of Talisman
  • R.J.Astruc, “The Cook of Pearl House, A Malay Sailor by the Name of Maurice”, Dark Edifice 2
  • Lee Battersby, “Comfort Ghost”, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine 56
  • Alan Baxter, “Tiny Lives”, Daily Science Fiction
  • Jenny Blackford, “A Moveable Feast”, Bloodstones
  • Eddy Burger, “The Witch’s Wardrobe”, Dark Edifice 3
  • Isobelle Carmody, “The Stone Witch”, Under My Hat
  • Jay Caselberg, “Beautiful”, The Washington Pastime
  • Stephen Dedman, “The Fall”, Exotic Gothic 4, Postscripts
  • Felicity Dowker, “To Wish On A Clockwork Heart”, Bread And Circuses
  • Terry Dowling, “Nightside Eye”, Cemetary Dance
  • Tom Dullemond, “Population Management”, Danse Macabre
  • Thoraiya Dyer, “Sleeping Beauty”, Epilogue
  • Will Elliot, “Hungry Man”, The One That Got Away
  • Jason Fischer, “Pigroot Flat”, Midnight Echo 8
  • Dirk Flinthart, “The Bull In Winter”, Bloodstones
  • Lisa L. Hannett, “Sweet Subtleties”, Clarkesworld
  • Lisa L. Hannett & Angela Slatter, “Bella Beaufort Goes To War”, Midnight And Moonshine
  • Narrelle Harris, “Stalemate”, Showtime
  • Kathleen Jennings, “Kindling”, Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear
  • Gary Kemble, “Saturday Night at the Milkbar”, Midnight Echo 7
  • Margo Lanagan, “Crow And Caper, Caper And Crow”, Under My Hat
  • Martin Livings, “You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet”, Living With The Dead
  • Penelope Love, “A Small Bad Thing”, Bloodstones
  • Andrew J. McKiernan, “Torch Song”, From Stage Door Shadows
  • Karen Maric, “Anvil Of The Sun”, Aurealis
  • Faith Mudge, “Oracle’s Tower”, To Spin A Darker Stair
  • Nicole Murphy, “The Black Star Killer”, Damnation And Dames
  • Jason Nahrung, “The Last Boat To Eden”, Surviving The End
  • Tansy Rayner Roberts, “What Books Survive”, Epilogue
  • Angela Slatter, “Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean”, This Is Horror Webzine
  • Anna Tambour, “The Dog Who Wished He’d Never Heard Of Lovecraft”, Lovecraft Zine
  • Kyla Ward, “The Loquacious Cadaver”, The Lion And The Aardvark: Aesop’s Modern Fables
  • Kaaron Warren, “River Of Memory”, Zombies Vs. Robots

Review No.76 – Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity – Elizabeth Wein

Electric Monkey, 2012

As a rule, I don’t tend to read stories of World War II – not even the ones spiced up with sorcerers and werewolves, of which this is not one. There is so much of inescapable horror about that period in history. But some are just worth it. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is one of these, and so is Code Name Verity.

She has two weeks before they shoot her. Two weeks as a prisoner of the Gestapo in Occupied France, pouring out everything she can remember of the British War Effort onto paper salvaged from a ruined hotel. She is cursed as a coward and collaborator by her fellow prisoners and taunted by the Nazi guards, but she has a story to tell and she won’t stop writing until it is done. It begins with Maddie – her friend, her fellow officer, her pilot in this final disastrous mission – on that Sunday in the summer of 1938 when a plane fell out of the sky. And it is not over yet.

I decided to read Code Name Verity because two different people whose taste I trust raved over it, and all I can say is that they were right. Elizabeth Wein has written an extraordinary book. It is intense and gut-wrenching and fiercely, incredibly alive. It is even funny, drawing on those moments of brilliant black humour that are found in bureaucratic insanity and impossible situations. There is no way it could have been written better.

Review No.75 – A Discovery of Witches

A Discovery of Witches – Deborah Harkness

Headline, 2011

When Diana Bishop, a historian specialising in the study of alchemy, finds an enchanted book in her pile of requests at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, she is unnerved by the promise of its power. Diana turned her back on the magic that is in her blood a long time ago. But returning the manuscript can’t reverse a chain reaction of events already set in motion. Oxford is soon teeming with other ‘creatures’, among them Matthew Clairmont, a vampire with a very personal interest in the manuscript that it seems only Diana can access. As her life becomes more entangled with Matthew’s, and more crowded with creatures, her magic begins to resurface – whether she wants it or not.

An excellent title and intriguing blurb were enough to make me pick up A Discovery of Witches, but it was a struggle to finish it. I took a deep dislike to the character of Matthew from the start – his possessive, controlling behaviour towards Diana was disturbing, as was Diana’s quick acceptance of his heavy handed presence in her life. There were clever elements to the story, including a house haunted by witches and the application of alchemical allegories to modern science, but I cannot say I enjoyed this book at all.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.36 – The Snow Queen

This story, taken from Andrew Dakers Ltd.’s collection Andersen’s Fairy Tales, starts the way  many authors wish they could. “Attend! We are now beginning. When we get to the end of the story we shall know more than we do now.” It’s a high standard, that, but I think it might just be possible.

And it begins with the wickedness of a certain magician. He is so wicked that he creates the sort of mirror that even Snow White’s stepmother would refuse to hang on her wall. When a person looks into it, it makes all things that are good appear lesser, and all things terrible or useless appear great. This magician also teaches a school of magic – not specified as Durmstrang, but you get the general idea – and through the word of his students tales of the magic mirror spread. Everyone knows how magicians gossip. In fact, they are so proud of their master’s achievement that they make a kind of travelling show of it, carrying it throughout the world to amuse the evil and depress the innocent.

That’s not enough for them, though. Ambitions fed by their previous success, and possibly alcohol, they decide to take the mirror into Heaven itself. There is, however, something they don’t take into account, and that is the difficulty of holding glass whilst flying at high altitudes. As they soar above the world, the mirror slips and falls, shattering into millions of pieces. Is the magician upset? Not at all! Unlike ordinary glass dropped from a great height, these projectiles wouldn’t kill you if they pierced you – you would simply see the world as the mirror did. People try to use it in window panes, and in spectacles, and make much amusement for the black magic community.

And this is only the prelude.

Our story really starts when we meet best friends Kay and Gerda, who live in houses that are so close together that the children can cross between the attics over a bit of guttering. They are very poor, but their parents have used the rooftops to build a garden out of flower boxes, so that in summer it is a triumph of roses. In winter, it’s basically miserable. That’s when Kay’s grandmother tells them stories of the white bees that are the driving snow, and their restless queen. Then one night, while Kay is alone in his room, he sees a beautiful woman made of ice beckoning at his window…and when he leaps away, frightened, a bird’s beating wings pass by into the dark. For him, there is much more to the Snow Queen than simply a pretty story.

Months later, in the height of summer when the roses are all in bloom and he is reading with Gerda at her house, a sudden pain makes Kay cry out. Something has pierced his heart, and his eye. The pain quickly fades and he thinks that whatever it was is gone, but of course it hasn’t. Two splinters of the magician’s mirror have become lodged in him and they take effect immediately. He calls Gerda ugly, he tears out her roses. He starts to mimic people in the street, magnifying their quirks and flaws for other people to laugh at. He isn’t a magician’s zombie, going forth to wreak havoc – he just doesn’t care who he hurts any more. Which is arguably even more dangerous, because it can’t be seen. As far as his family and Gerda are concerned, he’s just growing up a horrible person.

When winter comes again he abandons Gerda to play with the other boys in the town square. Seeing them hook their small sledges up to passing carts for a free ride, he tries the trick himself with a magnificent white sledge that happens to be passing by. It would seem these shards of mirror don’t just make you heartless, they make you stupid. Sure enough, it proves to be a terrible idea. The sledge leaves the square, going faster and faster, passing along unfamiliar roads into heavy snow. When at last it stops and Kay sees who it is he’s hitchhiked all this way with, he recognises her at once. It is, of course, the Snow Queen herself.

She is all sweetness and concern. “We have driven fast!” she exclaims, “but no one likes to be frozen. Creep under my bearskin.” Poor idiotic little Kay duly climbs up in the sledge beside her. When she kisses him once on the forehead, a freezing pain goes through him – then he doesn’t feel the cold at all. With a second kiss the Snow Queen takes Gerda and his grandmother completely out of his thoughts. He looks at her, and instead of the frightening aspect he saw at his window a year ago all he can see now is beauty…though as we know, his eyesight is not really 20/20 any more. He rattles off mathematical equations for her, because apparently evil magic comes with savant-level number skills, and she smiles, and they drive away into the endless snow.

He does not come back.

It is believed by the boys he was playing with that day that he must have drowned, and Gerda mourns, but deep in her heart she never really believes it’s true. One spring day, standing at her window and thinking about Kay, she decides it’s time to find out for herself. She puts on her shoes, kisses her own grandmother goodbye, and goes down to the river. There she makes a child’s bargain with death – “I will give you my red shoes if you will give him back to me!” – but the beloved shoes simply wash back up on the shore. Stubbornly, Gerda clambers into a boat that is by the side of the river to throw them in deeper. Her weight and motion are enough to push it away from the shore, out into the water…and just like that, her quest has begun.

Gerda, logically, is terrified. She cries. But after a while she works this event into her own logic, deciding that the river will take her to Kay, and begins to take an interest in the countryside passing by on either bank. Eventually she passes a pretty garden and a cottage guarded by wooden soldiers – mistaking them for living men, she calls out for help. Instead an old woman with a crutch comes out from the house to hook the boat before it can take Gerda away. She is very kind, telling Gerda to come inside and wait for her friend, and apparently neither grandmother saw fit to teach these kids about stranger danger because despite some misgivings, Gerda agrees. The house is admittedly very beautiful: stained glass windows fill the kitchen with coloured light and as Gerda helps herself from a bowl of cherries, the old woman combs her hair. “I have long wished for such a dear little girl,” she murmurs. “We shall see now if we cannot live very happily together.” And the more she combs, the less Gerda remembers.

The old woman is, of course, an enchantress. Not of the gingerbread house variety – she is simply lonely, and determined to keep the little girl that the river brought her. So determined, in fact, that she sinks her roses into the earth so as not to ever remind Gerda of her real home. All other flowers are present in the garden and at first Gerda is delighted with her new playground, spending her days in the sunshine. As time goes on, though, she feels instinctively that something is missing.

Then she sees the only rose that the enchantress forgot, a painted flower on her own hat. Immediately Gerda knows what was lacking. She searches the garden frantically, finds no roses, and drops down among the flowerbeds to cry…and where her tears fall, the roses return. So does Gerda’s memory. “Oh, how could I stay here so long!” she cries. “I left my home to seek for Kay. Do you know where he is? Is he dead?” The roses are unexpectedly informative. “Dead he is not,” they reply. “We have been in the ground where the dead lie; but Kay is not there.”

So Gerda has hope. She goes around the garden asking each flower if they have seen Kay, but they can tell her nothing of him. At the end of the garden she finds a rusted gate that springs open at her insistence. Barefoot and alone, she runs out, and finds the rest of the world in the latter part of autumn. She does not hesitate, however – Kay is out there, and she means to find him. On she goes, and in time meets with a passing raven. When he asks where she is going, she tells him her story and asks him, as she did the flowers, if he has seen her friend. The raven thinks maybe he has. Gerda goes a bit crazy with joy, crushing him in a bear hug, but the news isn’t all good – Kay’s dumped her, he’s with a princess now. Apparently. “It is so difficult to speak your language!” the raven complains. “If you understand raven speech, then I can explain things so much butter. Do you?”

I swear, he said butter. I SO HOPE that is not a typo.

Gerda explains that though her grandmother used to speak a little raven, she herself cannot. Human language therefore will have to do. “In the kingdom wherein we now are sitting,” the raven explains, “there lives a princess so clever that she has read all the newspapers of the world, and forgotten them too.” This princess decided one day, on the basis of a favourite new song, that she’d like to get married, and in true fairy tale royal manner sent out a proclamation with the necessary requirements outlined. It’s essentially a job advertisement, and crowds of young men come to try their luck, but none could meet the princess’s expectations – until a shabbily dressed young man arrived at the palace and managed to keep his head in the face of all its splendour. He came, not to win the princess’s hand, but simply to hear her wisdom. Needless to say, that did the trick.

Sure that this is Kay, Gerda goes straight to the palace. With the assistance of the raven’s girlfriend – who is a tame bird with free run of the place – she is smuggled in around the back and creeps into a beautiful bedroom where a golden pillar grows from the ground like a tree, dangling twin beds from its branches. In one lies the princess. Gerda runs to the other to wake the boy inside, but when he sits up, she is dismayed to find herself facing a stranger.

Her tears wake up the princess, who is kind-hearted as well as clever. She’s very understanding about the whole breaking and entering thing, and even appoints both ravens to positions at court as a reward for their generosity. Her prince, in his turn, insists Gerda take his bed for the rest of the night. He can always, you know, kip with his wife. The next day Gerda is kitted out with beautiful new clothes and a carriage to continue on her journey. The royal couple (plus ravens) wave her off like old friends.

So, no Kay, but what with the transportation, royal outfit, and even a muff, things are looking up. Not for long, though. The carriage drives into a dark forest and is promptly set upon by a gang of robbers. They kill the coachman and attendants sent with Gerda and drag the terrified little girl out to be eaten.

But at the last minute, the most unlikely of people intervenes. It is a little girl, a robber child, who wants a playmate. She jumps on her mother’s back and bites her ear until she agrees, and as the other robbers find this terribly amusing, the girl gets her own way. She climbs into the carriage with Gerda and it is driven deep into the forest, to a castle. Yes, these robbers have a castle. I suppose if every random individual who visits the princess gets a carriage and goes that way, they have a sweet trade going on. Admittedly, the castle is not in great shape – the robber girl sleeps on straw in a corner with a collection of pets, and on arrival drags Gerda over to greet them. Her former favourite, before she got hold of a human being to play with, is a reindeer. Every night the robber girl tickles his neck with her dagger for kicks. She is a tad psychotic, but she also likes stories. She makes Gerda tell her the story of Kay and falls happily asleep while the other robbers drink and sing. Gerda, of course, does not sleep at all. She lies awake thinking about death. But though Gerda may not have a dagger, she has skills of her own, and as she lies there she overhears a conversation between wood pigeons. They have seen Kay. “He sat in the Snow Queen’s chariot, which drove through the wood while we sat in our nest. She breathed upon us as she passed, and all the young ones died excepting us two – coo, coo, coo!”

Coo, indeed. They can go so far as to tell Gerda that the Snow Queen has very probably taken Kay to Lapland, and the homesick reindeer chimes in then to tell her that the Snow Queen lives in a castle near the North Pole, on an island called Spitzbergen. Now Gerda knows where to find Kay, the difficulty will be in getting there. In the morning she tells the robber girl everything, and receives unexpected support. “I should very much like to tickle your neck a few more times with my sharp dagger,” the robber girl sighs to her reindeer, “for then you do look so droll; but never mind, I will untie your cord and let you go free, on condition that you run as fast as you can to Lapland, and take this little girl to the castle of the Snow Queen.” You will notice that ages are very flexible in this story; characters who are called children are also old enough to get married and rule kingdoms. Don’t try to make sense of this. It’s an Andersen thing.

The robber girl helps Gerda up onto the reindeer’s back and even gives her back her furry boots – though the muff, she keeps. With that, Gerda’s off. The reindeer, needing no further threats to get as far away from the robbers’ castle as he can, runs with all he’s got and at last they reach Lapland. Specifically, they reach a Lapland woman, who is sitting outside a glum little house boiling fish. The reindeer tells her his own unhappy tale, then Gerda’s, to which the Lapland woman is very sympathetic. “Poor thing!” she commiserates, “you still have a long way to go! You have a hundred miles to run before you reach Finland. The Snow Queen lives there now and burns blue lights every night.”

She then writes a note on some dried fish for Gerda to take to Finland for further consultation. The reindeer carries her onward underneath the shimmer of the Northern Lights, and with startling speed they arrive at the house of the Finnish wisewoman to whom they were recommended. Outside it is freezing cold, but inside is like a sauna. The wisewoman reads the letter, tosses it into her stockpot – waste not, want not! – and considers the problem.

“Will you not mix for this little maiden that wonderful draught which will give her the strength of twelve men, and so make her able to overcome the Snow Queen?” the reindeer suggests hopefully. He’s invested in this quest of Gerda’s, after all. The wisewoman scoffs. “The strength of twelve men! That would not be of much use!” She instead take out parchments and reads intently. Possibly she reads this story, because suddenly she has All the Answers. Kay, she explains, is content with the Snow Queen, his senses warped by slivers of the evil glass. Until they are gone, he will always be under her power. There is nothing that she can give Gerda that is more powerful than the gift she already possesses: her loving heart. If that isn’t enough to save Kay, she says, we’re all stuffed. Or something along those lines.

What she can give are directions. The reindeer carries Gerda as close to the Snow Queen’s castle as he can and leaves her there, barefoot once more, her boots forgotten at the wisewoman’s house. She runs towards the castle and a regiment of snowflakes rise to intercept her – huge and terrifying guards made out of living snow. Gerda begins to pray, and this being an Andersen fairy tale, Heaven obliges with a legion of burning angels. They quickly deal with the snow guards, but for reasons unexplained leave Gerda to continue alone. They probably have a queue of virtuous heroines to assist.

Meanwhile, what’s happened to Kay? Inside the dazzling white expanses of the Snow Queen’s castle, he’s sitting in the middle of a frozen and shattered lake, fitting its sharp fragments together into different shapes. There is one he seeks to make – the word ‘Eternity’ – because he has been promised by the Queen that when he makes it, he will be his own master. And have a new pair of skates because, priorities. She leaves him there while she flies away to make her mark on warmer countries, and that is when Gerda arrives. She recogises Kay at once, despite the damage done by the relentless cold, and throws herself at him in joy. She has, after all, been through the wringer to get here. Kay, however, does not respond at all. Gerda, heartbroken, cries – and as her tears fall on him, they thaw the ice, washing away the glass.Only then does Kay realise who Gerda is. He is both delighted and bewildered to see her, feeling as though he’s woken from a long and unpleasant dream. The children’s tears united are so magical that when they fall on the shards of ice, they form the promised ‘Eternity’. Even by the Snow Queen’s own law, Kay is now free.

Gerda then literally kisses him better, thawing him out completely, and they leave the palace hand in hand. The reindeer is waiting for them, with a lady friend. So the long journey home is begun, stopping at regular intervals on a roll call of thanks. The wisewoman gives them advice, the Laplander gives them a sledge. Onward into the woods they go, and are accosted by a girl wearing pistols and a scarlet cap. It’s the robber maiden, who got sick of the grotty castle and went off to have adventures of her own. She greets Gerda as a long-lost friend, though she totally rips into Kay. “A fine gentleman you are, to be sure, you graceless young truant!” she cries. “I should like to know if you deserved that any one should be running to the end of the world on your account!” Gerda, ever Kay’s defender, quickly distracts her by asking after her other friends. The robber maiden, up to speed on all the palace goss, explains that the prince and princess have departed for foreign lands and the raven, sadly, is dead.

She then demands that Gerda and Kay share their full story. I don’t know what her response, ‘Snip-snap-snurre-basselurre’, actually means, but it sounds impressed. She rides cheerfully away and the other two walk onwards into spring until at last they find themselves in their own town. If their respective parents have noticed they were missing, Andersen doesn’t think that’s worth mentioning – in fact, from the sounds of things, they don’t have to explain anything to anyone. They just walk into Gerda’s house, which has not changed at all, and sit side by side underneath the roses while the Snow Queen’s palace fades away in their memories.

It’s interesting that most of the key characters in this fairy tale are female. There are no knights to save the day and the prince doesn’t even get a speaking role – it’s really all about Gerda. Kay is  the only important male character and his is an odd role somewhere between victim and villain. Andersen doesn’t seem to know quite what to make of him, alternately mourning his affliction and blistering him with criticism for being weak-willed and cruel. Re-imaginings of ‘The Snow Queen’ tend to go with the latter attitude. I do not. Why bother telling us about the mirror in the first place if you’re only going to turn around and say it’s all Kay’s fault for being struck by random evil magic?

To be honest, though, it’s neither Gerda nor Kay that I love about this story. It’s all the wonderfully weird people they meet along the way that pull me in. Most of all I love the robber maiden, who rides off into the world with pistols and a stolen horse, and I admit, I desperately want her to meet up with the robber philanthropists in ‘The Giant with Three Golden Hairs’.

Review No. 74 – Tooth and Claw

Tooth and Claw – Jo Walton

Tor, 2003

Brought together by the early death of their beloved father, the bonds that hold the Agornin siblings together are about to be tested. Bon Agornin’s elder son is troubled by a shocking deathbed confession, the younger made reckless by the unjust loss of his inheritance, the unmarried daughters forced to leave their home to live at the mercy of wealthier relatives. Separated by their fears and secrets, they have all been left vulnerable. And this is dangerous indeed, because they are all dragons. In their world death by consumption is very literal, reputations can be ruined by the slightest unwary touch, and no one is safe from the long claws of the law.

This book was described as ‘Jane Austen with dragons’, an improbable combination of two fabulous things, which of course meant I had to read it. Walton takes her inspiration more from Victorian novels than Austen’s Regency period, but the combination of her sly wit, real heart and rounded characters – not to mention the sharp contrasts between a familiar expression and its inverted dragon meaning – make it completely worthy of such a recommendation.