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.

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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.