Fairy Tale Tuesday No.55 – The Padishah’s Daughter and the Young Slave

This Tajik fairy tale is from Sergei Palastrov’s 1986 collection of retellings Folk Tales from the Soviet Union, and begins with that commonest of themes, the royal father who’s desperate to get his daughter married off. She is equally determined not to marry until she’s good and ready. The padishah has his viziers search for a man who can live up to the princess’s standards, and when they fail, sets off to look for himself. He doesn’t bring his daughter, which seems rather counter-productive, but perhaps that’s all for the best because the man who stops him in his tracks is  elderly with a beard as green as seaweed. He is seated by a river, writing on white pebbles that he then throws into the river. When the padishah rides up to question him, the old man explains that he is telling futures. Whatever he writes will come to pass.

The padishah asks him what will become of his beautiful daughter, who intends to marry only the handsomest man in the world. The old fortune teller smiles wickedly, tosses a pebble in the river, and announces, “Your daughter will marry neither a pauper nor a labourer, she’ll marry a slave.” This is not what the padishah hoped to hear. Panic-stricken, he remembers a young male slave who is even now at work in his own palace and rides home straight away to avert the crisis. Luckily the princess is still unmarried when he gets there, and he goes into a huddle with his viziers to decide how best to keep things that way.

“Woe unto us, woe!” he wails. “That wretched slave intends to marry my daughter! What am I to do!” “Chop off his head,” suggest the viziers. Of course that’s their solution, they are VIZIERS. Why does he even have viziers, hasn’t anyone told him they’re always bad news? He takes their advice, though, and sentences the slave to death. When the slave assures them he really doesn’t want to marry the princess, the viziers say that’s an equally good reason for him to die. There is no way to win in this situation.

Fortunately, the slave has someone in his corner, though he doesn’t know it yet. An ancient man arrives at the palace, carried on a rug by his neighbours, to protest against the padishah’s cruelty. His advice is to give the boy some fool’s quest and send him off into the world, never to come back, and the padishah – who has a certain reluctant respect for the wisdom of his elders – orders the slave to bring him two pearls the size of walnuts with the light of the moon inside them. If he finds them, he’ll be granted his life and his freedom. If he doesn’t…well, the executioner’s always got space in his schedule, shall we say.

The slave sets off. For a long time he merely wanders, lost and ridiculous on a quest no one, least of all himself, expects to be achievable. Then he comes to the bank of a river, where he meets with a green-bearded old man. As has become his practice, the slave politely asks if the stranger knows where moonglow pearls are to be found. “You are as trusting as a child, I see,” the old man sighs. “I know who sent you and why. Oh well, I’ve got to help you.” It’s nice to see the freaky agent of fate taking responsibility for his actions for once, I must say. The old man steps into the river and emerges with an armful of glowing pearls. His advice is to give the padishah only the two pearls he asked for, and then wait to see what happens. The slave thanks him gratefully and returns to the palace.

The padishah, when he sees the pearls, thinks quickly. It doesn’t suit him to let the slave go free; he wants him dead, so he accuses the boy of stealing the two pearls from the palace treasure-box instead of finding them for himself. The slave quietly opens his bundle and lets the rest of the jewels spill onto the floor, leaving the padishah silenced.

For a little while, anyway. It’s not long before he’s gathered his viziers again for another conference. They’re still stuck on the idea that the slave means to marry the princess, so the padishah goes back to plan A, also known as plan Axe. His viziers, who are less convinced, don’t want to outright disagree with him when he’s in a mood like that. Their advice is to call in the same ancient man who suggested the quest in the first place, and it’s hardly surprising that when the padishah does call him in, the old man’s reaction is basically, you made a promise, mate. Furiously, the padishah tells his slave to go to the end of the world and work out how the sun and moon rise. Surely THAT’S impossible?

Well, not for a good astronomer, but the slave doesn’t know where to find one of those. For months he travels through mountains and deserts, relying on the kindness of strangers for food – and they’re not always very kind. Eventually he comes to a mountain so high he cannot climb it. He just sits on the ground and stares at it sadly for so long that a peri (that is, a fairy woman) who lives on the mountain takes pity on him, appearing to ask his business.

After he has explained his new quest, she tells him to close his eyes, and when he opens them again he finds himself at the top of the mountain in a green meadow. The peri leads him to a wide lake where the sun and moon come to bathe. “This lake does magic things,” she explains. “If you bathe in it right after the moon has taken a dip, you’ll become even more handsome than you are now and the padishah’s daughter will gladly marry you.”

The slave wearily explains that he really, really doesn’t want to marry the princess – all he wants is to be free. That being the case, the peri advises that he wait until after the sun has swum in the lake, because then he will be granted extraordinary strength. So the slave waits through the day by the lakeshore, until the sky darkens and the moon rolls into the water, making it sparkle silver. But the slave doesn’t want beauty; he continues waiting.

As dawn approaches the moon dwindles and this time it’s the sun’s turn to bathe, emerging from the lake in fiery brilliance. At last the slave can dive into the water, drinking and swimming and letting the strength of the skies soak into his body. When he grabs a branch to pull himself out of the water, he accidentally pulls the whole tree in. He discovers a shield, sword and armour hidden among its roots, and a horse nearby for the journey home. He showers the peri in gratitude, and her only request in return for her help is that he uses his strength with kindness. The slave promises he will…once he’s settled up with the padishah.

Whose daughter is still not married. The padishah is getting rather desperate. When a young knight shows up outside the palace and the princess actually takes a fancy to him, a feast is thrown in the hope of convincing the handsome stranger to stay and get married. Even after the slave reveals who he really is, the padishah is willing to cut his losses and take him on as a son-in-law. “Marry my daughter,” he tells his slave, “and I’ll give you your freedom.”

“Then you don’t rightly know what freedom means if you want to give it to me in addition to your conceited daughter,” the young man retorts. “When I wore the rags of a slave I did not seem a human being to you and your daughter!” Outraged, the padishah calls for his guards, but the slave throws them aside easily with his newfound strength, and his former master runs away. Leaving the palace behind, the man who was once a slave and is now a knight sets off to fight evil, defend the weak, and dammit, free the slaves!

Which means either the princess will marry a completely different slave, or the fortune teller by the river was a tricksy charlatan, but either way, it’s nice to see a pair of fairy tale characters so steadily refute tradition as this princess and this young hero both do. The retelling in this collection is rather down on the padishah’s daughter. I’m not, I think she’s fantastic for picking a standard and sticking to it, but I love the character of the slave too, who doesn’t seem to know he’s in a fairy tale at all. He doesn’t marry the princess. He doesn’t marry the peri. In fact, nobody marries anybody! And nothing awful happens as punishment to the princess at the end!

Maybe that fortune teller knew what he was doing after all.

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Review No.101 – The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters – G.W. Dahlquist

Viking, 2006

Miss Celeste Temple did not come to the city seeking intrigue and conspiracy; she intended to get married. When her fiance abruptly ends their engagement and compounds the insult by offering no explanation for his change of heart, however, Miss Temple is determined to find out why. The search for answers will cause her life to fatefully intersect with two of the most unlikely men – poetry lover, library patron and killer for hire Cardinal Chang and the dutiful German surgeon Doctor Abelard Svenson – and take the three of them to more sinister places than they could ever have imagined.

I was drawn into this book by an irresistable title and kept there by an engaging, intricate steampunk adventure. The plot is skilfully crafted, different events seen from different eyes slowly revealing an epic conspiracy. Dahlquist’s writing is clear and crisp, consistent with the style of the era, and his three protagonists are flawed, complicated, interesting people. I had a few reservations about the female characterisation, but never to the point I wanted to stop reading. The intrigue continues in a second novel, The Dark Volume.

Reviewing Who – Doctor Who: The Movie

Doctor: Paul McGann

Companion: Daphne Ashbrook

Script writer: Matthew Jacobs

Producer: Peter V. Ware

Executive producers: Philip David Segal, Alex Beaton and Jo Wright

Director: Geoffrey Sax

Originally aired: 27th May 1996

Take a deep breath, everybody, this is a LONG one.

On the planet Skaro the Master is finally brought to trial for his many lifetimes of destruction and is sentenced to a permanent death. That it is the Daleks, of all people, who are judging anybody for war crimes, is an audacious irony that immediately smacks down a few preconceptions. They are even willing to grant him a last request; that the Doctor should bring his remains home to Gallifrey.

The Doctor is, sensibly, deeply suspicious about the whole thing. He takes what precautions he can by locking up the futuristic urn that contains whatever is left of the Master’s body in a secure casket. Then he sets the co-ordinates for Gallifrey and settles down for a nice evening in. A cup of tea, a good book. A bit of jazz. Candles. Jellybabies. The TARDIS console room has undergone an extreme makeover since we last saw it, becoming an eclectically cluttered cavern from which cosy niches have been carved. Ensconced in his corner, the Doctor does not notice when the casket begins to rattle. Suddenly, it breaks. A silvery something slides into the central console and by the time the Doctor realises what’s wrong the damage has already been done, an emergency landing instigated. Guess where they end up. No, go on, guess.

What is it about Earth that the Doctor just can’t get away from here?

While disaster unfolds in the TARDIS, a different sort of danger is at large on the streets of San Fransisco, where three young thugs are on the run from an ominous black car. They climb over a wire fence into an abandoned yard where it can’t follow and scare off its driver with handguns, and are clapping each other on the back in self-congratulation at how tough they are when a group of armed men in black emerge around the yard. This wasn’t an escape; this was an ambush. One of the boys is cornered by a whole impromptu firing squad, but before any triggers can be pulled a light beams down like an answered prayer and a blue box materialises between victim and gunmen. The Doctor steps out. He barely gets the chance to turn around before the freaked out gangsters gun him down and flee, leaving him to die alone.

But he’s not alone, not quite. The boy, Chang Lee, emerges from behind the TARDIS, looking first for his friends – both of whom are dead – then returning to his bizarre saviour and calling an ambulance. The Doctor is the only one to see the strange silvery gel oozing through the lock on the TARDIS door…

Lee, who for all his hoodlum attitude is not a bad-hearted kid, travels with the unconscious Doctor in the ambulance. When asked for the patient’s name, he unknowingly gives the attending paramedic the Doctor’s favourite pseudonym, ‘John Smith’. Unknown to any of them, the Master has hitched a lift, shifting from gel to a phantasmic snake thing that conceals itself in the paramedic’s jacket.

At the hospital the doctors go to work on the Doctor. The initial X-ray that reveals his two hearts is dismissed as a double exposure, but his heartrate is alarmingly fast and so the hospital’s cardiology expert is called in – a surgeon nicknamed by her colleagues as ‘Amazing Grace’. She’s at the opera with her boyfriend at the time, gorgeously dressed in a blue ballgown, having a nice evening out.

Spoiler: all the nice evenings in this movie, they get wrecked.

But Grace is a professional. When her pager goes off she doesn’t hesitate or even get changed, just races straight to the hospital, scrubs up and heads into surgery. Her boyfriend doesn’t get it; he delays her with a brief, resentful phone call and hangs up on her when she tries to explain. She loves her opera, though. She has Puccini put on while she starts work on the Doctor, who recognises the music and opens his eyes. He realises what’s going on, and desperately tries to make her stop. ‘I’m not human,’ he keeps telling her, but no one pays any attention to that. They dose him heavily with anaesthetic and insert a camera into his body to begin surgery. Only he’s right, he’s not human, and trying negotiate her way through his unusually placed internal organs leaves Grace baffled. He suddenly goes into seizure. Both hearts stop, and he cannot be revived.

Grace is shattered by her failure. She goes back to the X-rays and is the first to realise they aren’t double exposures at all. Determined to get some answers, she calls in Chang Lee, who has waited all this time, and breaks the news of the Doctor’s death. Instead of answering her questions, he snatches up the bag of the Doctor’s possessions and takes off out of the hospital.

Remember that jacket the Master appropriated? It has gone home with Bruce the ill-fated paramedic. While he and his wife sleep, the snake thing emerges from a sleeve, slides across the floor and slides up the bed, diving straight into his mouth. Bruce as he was is gone. On the plus side, he stops snoring!

The Doctor’s body is taken to the morgue, where a couple of irreverent orderlies chat about their New Year’s Eve plans over his corpse. It’s December 30th 1999, and they’re planning a costume party to see in the millenium. One stays on duty in the silent morgue, settling down with a bowl of popcorn and the movie Frankenstein. It looks like he’s having a nice evening. Oh dear.

As lightning surges through a corpse and a mad scientist dances in black and white triumph on the TV screen, a different electricity plays across the Doctor’s body. The regenerative process has finally begun. His face goes through a series of horrible contortions and he changes, melting from the shape of a short elderly man to that of a tall young one, all long brown curls and wide worried eyes, like a Romantic poet transplanted into the unfriendly modern world.

In front of his movie, the orderly’s peace is interrupted by a loud bang coming from the morgue. He gets up to investigate and discovers the metal door of one cubicle buckling as if someone’s punching it from the inside. That’s because that’s exactly what they’re doing, and hell, the Doctor is strong right now. The door falls right off its hinges. In the bluish light of the morgue the Doctor steps forward, wrapped only in the sheet that covered his dead body. He shivers. The orderly faints. Shellshocked and half-frozen, the Doctor stumbles away from him, wandering through empty corridors until he comes to a part of the hospital that is seemingly under construction or else has been pretty heavily vandalised – it’s all bare concrete, puddles and debris. He sees his face in a row of broken mirrors and realises he has no idea who that face even belongs to.

It’s a confronting morning for everybody. Grace wakes up on the sofa of her office and heads out to solve her mystery, only to be told his body has gone missing, while Bruce’s wife wakes up to a deranged alien possessing her husband’s body, who promptly murders her. Meanwhile, the Doctor – who is not exactly the Doctor just now – is still exploring the hospital. He comes across the staff lockers, fully stocked up for the costume party, and through a process of trial and error that involves stripy scarves and cowboy hats, cobbles together an outfit that suits him. Then he finds his way next to the waiting room to, well, wait for something to happen.

What happens is Grace, trying to call the police about bodysnatching. He recognises her, but before he can reach her she’s dragged aside by her boss. He doesn’t see this whole incident as a challenge to medical science; he sees it as potential bad publicity for the hospital and when Grace shows him the X-rays as proof, he sets fire to them. Furious, she quits on the spot. When she storms into the lift not long afterward, loaded up with her stuff in a box, she is joined by a barefoot stranger in a frock coat just before the door shuts. He stands just a little too close and keeps looking at her intently.

“Puccini!” he exclaims at last. He’s sure they’ve met before. “You’re tired of life,” he tells her, “but afraid of dying.” She gets out of that lift as soon as she can, hurrying towards her car while he bounds along beside her like an anxious puppy. He even follows her into her car, which would be creepy if it wasn’t for the fact he immediately doubles over in pain and starts pulling a length of wire from his chest. It’s Grace’s lost camera.

What is this?” he wails. “Please, I have two hearts. You have to get me out of here before they kill me again. Please, you have to help me. Drive!” Overwhelmed by the weirdness, Grace drives.

‘Bruce’ arrives at work in black leather and shades. He wants to get hold of the Doctor’s body – wow, that came out wrong – and isn’t much pleased to hear it’s gone missing. His next goal is to pick up the contents of the Doctor’s pockets. Unfortunately for Chang Lee, they know exactly who stole those.

Arriving home, Grace finds all her furniture missing. This is apparently her boyfriend’s way of telling her they’ve broken up, because he is a jerk. Pushing this problem aside in favour of the more pressing one standing beside her, she gets the Doctor to open his shirt so she can check out his hearbeat. It might be a romantic moment if he’d stay still long enough to notice and she wasn’t so freaked out that he really does have two hearts. The Doctor’s absent minded name-dropping, from Puccini to Leonardo da Vinci, doesn’t help, nor does his own theory about his physical condition. “I was dead too long this time. The anaesthetic almost destroyed the regenerative process.”

Meanwhile, Lee returns to the abandoned yard where he was almost killed to try out the key from the Doctor’s things. He takes one look inside and backs straight out to do the traditional double-take. When he goes back in, the Master is waiting for him. His explanation for all the crazy that Lee’s seen is that this is really his spaceship and the Doctor is a body-stealing maniac who must be stopped. It’s lucky Grace isn’t there to hear him, because she’s currently studying the Doctor’s blood samples through her own personal microscope and struggling to come up with any answers of her own. The Doctor himself is busy trying on her boyfriend’s boots. (The mystery of Brian; he takes the sofa but leaves a box of his shoes.) When he finds a pair that suits him they go for a walk to brainstorm in the park. Grace’s best theory is that he’s the result of some weird genetic experiment. He doesn’t think that’s right. Memories return of his father, watching a meteor storm in the Gallifreyan sky…mid memory he stops and jumps up and down. “These shoes fit perfectly!” He’s sweet, this Doctor, but a little scatterbrained.

The Master is the opposite – really horrible, but good at getting things done. He’s been mouthing off against the Doctor and bribing Lee with gold dust from the TARDIS stores, building an advantageous alliance. The TARDIS seems to like Lee, so the Master takes a gamble and brings him into the Cloister Room, which is basically a massive Gothic chapel complete with flaming torches and bats. Bats. The TARDIS has an ecosystem! Not that the Master cares about that, all he cares about is the Eye of Harmony, the sunken wellspring of power lidded in stone. He tells Lee to remove one of its four mooring staffs and the Eye begins to open…

In the park, the Doctor staggers, memory hitting him all at once. Blazing with excitement, he seizes Grace and kisses her exuberantly. “I am the Doctor!” he shouts. She’s like, okay, whatever, let’s get back to the kissing! He’s happy to oblige, unaware of the plotting taking place in his TARDIS. Above the open Eye an image of his previous incarnation melts into his new self. The Master tells Lee that the Doctor’s retinal structure proves he’s half human. We don’t believe him, because, the Master.

But the opening of the Eye has finally affected the Doctor – he pulls away from Grace and starts shouting incoherently about the Master, the Eye of Harmony, danger, death and time travel, and something about the urgent need for an atomic clock. It’s no wonder when she freaks out completely and runs back across the park to lock herself in her house, where she calls an ambulance to get this lunatic the hell out of her life.

It’s not that easy to get rid of him, though. He tells her that the opening of the Eye has already compromised the molecular integrity of the Earth by stepping through the glass of her window. Which makes absolutely no sense, but who cares, it looks cool! They end up sitting awkwardly side by side on her window seat, the Doctor watching TV broadcasts of the freak weather conditions already troubling the planet and Grace checking compulsively for the arrival of the ambulance. Then one piece of news really grabs his attention. An atomic clock is being opened in the city in honour of the new millenium.

The doorbell rings. It’s the ambulance, and guess which possessed paramedic is standing on the doorstep? Grace sees salvation; the Doctor sees transport. They both climb inside unquestioningly. En route, however, they get stuck in traffic and the Master’s shades fall off, revealing his snake eyes. He spits venom at Grace, catching her wrist, and the Doctor reacts by spraying him with a fire extinguisher then grabbing Grace and making a break for it. They race through the lines of the traffic jam until they come to a policeman on a motorbike. The Doctor offers him a jellybaby, using the distraction to steal his gun, with which he threatens to shoot himself if he doesn’t get the bike. Before they go anywhere, though, he wants to be sure Grace is on his side. The thing is, she’s not all that sure herself.

“Grace,” he tells her, “I came back to life before your eyes, I held back death. Look, I can’t make your dream come true forever, but I can make it come true today.” And he gets through. She takes the gun and shoots the policeman’s radio, threatening the poor man until he hands over the keys. By the time the Master and Lee start their pursuit, the Doctor and Grace are gone. The Doctor, it turns out, is not a great driver.

GRACE: Doctor, I only have one life! Can you remember that?

DOCTOR: I’ll try!

But Lee knows shortcuts. When the bike draws up outside their destination, the ambulance is already there, and it’s empty. Inside, Grace introduces the Doctor as Doctor Bowman from London, a crazy British guy who might do anything, like lean very close and whisper in your ear, “I’m half human, on my mother’s side,” whilst stealing your name-tag. We still don’t believe it, because really?!

Using the pilfered tag, they climb up to the very impressive clock, so that the Doctor can open it up and take the one tiny component he needs. On the way down, they are stopped by a highly suspicious aide. The Doctor bamboozles him with vital details about his future and another jellybaby. Unfortunately the smooth ride stops there, because the Master’s in the crowd below with Lee and spots them. The Doctor sets off a fire alarm, grabs Grace and lowers them both off the roof onto a handy police car. They return to their bike and set off for the TARDIS. It occurs to Grace on the way to ask for pointers on her future, but the Doctor’s all, ‘Spoilers!’

When they reach the TARDIS the Doctor retrieves his spare key from a secret compartment and opens the door to the sound of the cloister bell ringing. That’s never a good sign. What’s worse, the TARDIS is out of power. Grace refuses to let the Doctor give up, though – this is, after all, her planet that will be pulled into the Eye of Harmony if something isn’t done fast – and the two of them cobble together a plan to jumpstart the TARDIS. Aaand then Grace knocks the Doctor unconscious. Remember when the Master spit that venom at her? Turns out it’s multi-purpose.

The Doctor wakes up in the cloister room, in chains, with a suddenly black-eyed Grace strapping him into a very ominous looking device and the Master sashaying down the stairs in full Gallifreyan regalia. Grace being beyond reach at the moment, the Doctor focuses on Lee, trying to convince him that a guy who goes around possessing people is a dreadful father figure. As the Master retorts, he slips up, revealing his story about stolen lives is all a lie. Lee refuses to reopen the Eye. The Master, proving why he should never ever be allowed companions, casually snaps Lee’s neck and goes with the back up plan, this being to de-possess Grace and force her to open the Eye instead. The point of all this is to have the power he needs to absorb all the Doctor’s life force, restoring himself. It’s a good plan. Only thing is, he’s frozen while the transfer is in place.

As the clocks of Earth tick down to midnight and a new millenium, storms radiate out from the TARDIS, a precursor to the end of the world. Grace takes her only advantage and runs back to the console room to finish the Doctor’s work, re-routing the power. The central console starts to move. Time warps backward, reversing the Eye’s damage, returning the Doctor’s lives. There’s no time to celebrate; Grace dashes back to the cloister room to free the Doctor, but while she’s undoing the manacles the livid Master grabs her and throws her over the side of the stairs. She’s killed instantly.

He then lays into the Doctor. I’m sure it comes as a shock to no one that when it comes to kicking the crap out of people, he’s your man. The Eye is still open, though, and the Master gets too close. He falls. The Doctor, being the Doctor, offers a hand to help him out, but the Master won’t take it and is dissolved by the Eye’s light.

Time continues reversing a few crucial minutes. Lee and Grace wake up on the floor, imbued with golden regenerative energy, and the Eye shuts itself. Frankly I have no idea what’s going on any more, but let’s assume it’s good news.

The TARDIS drops all three of them off in a quiet San Fransisco park festooned with fairy lights. Lee, told he can keep the gold dust, takes off before the Doctor can change his mind, waylaid only by another of those cryptic ‘I know everything about all time’ remarks that will presumably save his life at some point. The Doctor then turns to Grace to finally give her that pointer she wanted, but she stops him – she’d rather shape her own future. He asks her to come with him. She asks him to come with her. They look at each other and they know that the adventure is over, it’s time to say goodbye. They kiss one last time and walk in opposite directions – him towards the TARDIS, her towards the city. “Thank you, Doctor,” she calls, just before he disappears. “Thank you, doctor,” he smiles, and he’s gone.

Inside the TARDIS, he makes a few last repairs, then settles back in his armchair with his abandoned book, tea and jazz for a nice evening in. You just know that’s not going to last…

The Verdict: If you thought Colin Baker had it hard, spare a thought for poor Paul McGann. He’s the official Eighth Doctor, yet he only gets one televised story, most of which he spends in a state of shellshocked amnesia. Fortunately his legacy is greater than that, thanks to a long-running series of Big Finish audio adventures that firmly establish his place in the show’s history. He’s the vulnerable Doctor, sweet and impulsive and sincere.

He’s probably best known, though, for THAT KISS.

For seven regenerations the Doctor was pretty much sexless, an avuncular loner no more interested in his companions that way than they were interested in him. Then suddenly he’s all handsome and people are noticing that, and it’s just a bit awkward really. Even McGann was uncomfortable with it at the time. How things have changed! I used to be firmly against the Doctor having any kind of romantic relationship, but River Song wore me down, so I look at this story on the rewatch rather differently than I used to. Grace was good for the Doctor. Actually, Grace is good full stop. She’s highly intelligent, extremely sensible, and you know that though the Doctor’s gone from her life, she’ll be just fine. Which is as it should be.

Join me in September for the first episode of New Who, when a hard-headed, battle-scarred new Doctor in black leather crash lands in the life of Rose Tyler, blows up her workplace, and shows her what it means to really run. Doctor Who will never be the same again.

Updating the Update

In honour of Brisbane artist Kathleen Jennings making the shortlist for the World Fantasy Award (congratulations Kathleen!), FableCroft Publishing are running a special offer on the boutique anthology To Spin a Darker Stair, which features her illustrations as well as short stories by myself and Catherynne M. Valente. Until the award is announced or the books run out, you can buy a copy for $5 AUD, including international postage. If you’re in the mood for a little dark magic, why not take a look?

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.54 – The Prince with the Golden Hand

I misremembered the title of this one, from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ A Book of Dragons, and was disappointed to discover it wasn’t a princess who had the titular golden hand after all. What she does have is golden hair, which just isn’t the same. Her parents, following a long tradition of bad decisions, keep her cloistered away from the world until they decide it’s time to marry her off. Let’s have a quick think about how overwhelming an expectation that would be for an enforced introvert, shall we? At least they let her choose from the gathering of suitors. And her choice is…get the hell out of here.

“I will choose tomorrow,” she tells her father. “But give me this one day of freedom. Now that I am so soon to be married, surely I am old enough to run and play in the garden by myself?” Call ’em on it, lady! The king agrees and she runs into the garden alone. This is probably the most exciting experience of her life to date, so of course a dragon has to come swooping by and wreck everything by kidnapping her.

The king sends out his heralds to alert the potential heroes of the land to the situation, offering the usual reward of marriage and half a kingdom to whoever proves successful. Two of the resulting applicants are brothers, the sons of a neighbouring king. They travel for two years, coming in time to wild country, where a mountain stands in their way. Leaving their horses behind, they climb it on foot. At the very top is a silver palace, balanced (quite precariously, I should think) on a cock’s foot. At one of its windows sits a girl with hair so brightly golden it glitters in the sun.

The princess is found! The end of their quest in sight, the brothers begin to run uphill, but their approach has not gone unnoticed. The silver palace begins to spin, conjuring up a ferocious wind. No sooner have the brothers regained their feet from that, than a savage cold descends and freezes them where they stand. Their bodies are soon buried by snow.

For years their parents wait for news. At the end of three years, the king stops hoping his sons will ever come home, but the queen is dogged. She questions every traveller who comes their way, even after the princes’ horses make their own way back without their masters. One day a holy man stops at the palace and, when she asks him as she has all the other travellers, to pray for her boys, he tells her they are dead. “But you shall have another son,” he adds, “the like of which the world has ever seen.”

And he’s right. The queen’s third child is born – surprise! – with a hand of gold, and is so precocious that three days after his birth he jumps out of his cradle and demands to know what’s making his mum so sad. She explains about his lost brothers, and he immediately resolves to save them. You know how some people swear you can do anything with enough willpower? This prince is in with that. He grows so fast that by the end of a month he’s a young man, trained to ride a horse and wield a sword. He also grows pure golden hair and a moustache to match, but instead of being shut away for safekeeping, he’s permitted to ride off in search of his lost, presumed dead brothers.

At length he comes to a field of poppies. On the far side of the field is a cottage balanced on a cock’s foot – ah yes, I said a cottage, not a castle! – all tangled up in briars. The smell of the poppies almost sends the prince to sleep, but he rides on until he comes to the cottage, and he orders it to turn around and open up so he can get in. He does it so authoritatively that the cottage obeys him. Inside is an ancient woman at work with a spindle, flanked by two beautiful girls respectively weaving and embroidering. Having exchanged greetings, the prince proceeds to explain his quest to them, and ask if they can help him find the dragon.

“If you take my advice, you won’t look for him,” the old woman says firmly. “I have not been out of this cottage for a hundred years for fear he would carry me off. Eh dear! I was a pretty girl a hundred years ago!” Which is heartbreaking, not to mention the logical extension of a society in which beautiful women are snatched and stolen like hoarded treasure. That’s not the prince’s problem, though; his answer is that the dragon won’t want to carry him off, he’s not pretty enough. How very modest. And ridiculous. The old woman strikes a bargain with him, her expert advice in exchange for a promise. It turns out that there are four wells in the dragon’s house – the Waters of Heroism, Revival, Resoration and Youth – and she wants a drink of the latter, which  seems only fair as it was the threat of the dragon that stole the best years of her life.

The prince agrees to the terms. In exchange he is given a pincushion. Not just any pincushion! When he throws it in front of him it will lead him to the dragon’s mountain, which is where the prince will meet his real obstacles – the dragon’s parents. In defence against his mother, the blazing South Wind, the old woman gives a flagon of restorative drink; in defence against his father, the icy North Wind, she gives a protective hood. The prince thanks her politely and sets off in pursuit of the pincushion, which can fly.

In time he comes to the dragon’s mountain, where he faces the same bitter cold as the first two princes, but the hood protects him. As he climbs he comes across a small mound in the snow, and uncovers the bodies of his brothers. It’s a strange moment for him, who never knew them, and he stops to say a prayer over them, but the pincushion gives him no time for that – onward it flies, and onward he goes, into the path of a scorching wind the kills every other living thing on the mountain. The old woman’s drink gives the prince the strength to keep going. As he sets foot on the very top of the mountain, the pincushion jumps into his pocket and goes still; this, apparently, is all the guidance he’s getting.

In front of him lies the silver palace, at one of its windows the glittering hair of the princess who has been held captive all this time by narrative irony. Unfortunately, there’s a chasm in the way. The prince, though, as you may recall, has a way with houses like this, and orders the palace to turn around and open up for him. It twists obediently on the spot, bridging the chasm. The prince strides inside.

He finds himself in a hall of mirrors. In every one is a reflection of a running girl with glittering hair, all whirling around him, until suddenly the real one catches his arm. The princess, very nobly, tries to make him leave before the dragon returns. The prince, also nobly, refuses. The old woman’s flagon being emptied, though, he asks for a drink. The princess gives him water from the Heroic Well, and…you know, some people would think being born with a hand of gold and growing up within the space of one month was enough crazy for anyone to deal with, but now he’s Superprince with epic powers that include accidentally breaking chairs by sitting on them too hard.

He’s gone through two already when the palace begins to spin wildly and the dragon himself bursts in, riding a winged horse. Because he’s not exactly your ordinary dragon: he has the legs of a tiger, the talons of an eagle and a snake for a tail, which must be terribly confusing. He does, however, breathe fire. He leaps at the prince with a roar of rage, but is caught by the golden heroic hand and smashed through a wall. This is totally a superhero movie now.

The prince throttles the dragon to death. Then, calmly, he goes about filling three bottles from the wells of Revival, Restoration and Youth. Killing the dragon is only one item on his to-do list – no.2 is rescuing the princess, riding away with her on the winged horse, and no.3 is returning to the bodies of his brothers on the way down the mountain. He revives and restores them, and swings them up onto the extraordinary winged horse to ride off and fulfil item no.4 – making good on his promise.

The old woman is still spinning, but abandons her work straight away when she sees the prince at her door. He gives her the water from the well of Youth and she seizes it, tossing it back over herself. It turns her into the beautiful girl she once was, before a dragon drove her into hiding, and she is so delighted with the results that she offers the prince a reward. He can’t think of one; all he really wants to do is marry his glittering princess. His brothers come up with their own ideas – they want to marry the old woman’s handmaidens. “Well,” the erstwhile old woman shrugs, “take them! By their smiles I can see they are willing. And now that I am young again, I can’t be bothered with grown-up daughters. So now I will wish you good-day!”

And that’s it, really, she just walks out to start her new life, leaving her daughters to join the others on the back of the one winged horse (how is there SPACE?) for the return flight to the princess’s home. Her parents have mourned her as dead for years and now suddenly she’s back, with her strange boyfriend, his back-from-the-dead brothers, and their insta-brides. But who cares! Weddings all around!

There’s only one problem left. The princess, who has, after all, had to defend herself against the advances of a dragon all this time, has made the vow that she won’t wed anyone who can’t answer her three riddles, and though the dragon is gone she must still honour her own terms. She asks each one, and each time the prince guesses the right answer, because these are things only another human could understand – her shadow, her bed, her shoe. The final hurdle overcome, he sends the winged horse to bring his own parents to the triple wedding, fulfilling item no.5 – proving his mother’s fiercely defended hopes to be true.

I feel so terribly sorry for this princess. Her part in the story is a string of injustices that are never really rectified. Hopefully her prince is heroic enough to give any daughters they may have all the freedom they want. There’s so much glorious weirdness in this Slavic fairy tale, though – all the local architecture seemingly being balanced on bird feet, the old woman who dances off into the world to remake her life without fear, the sat-nav pincushion – that I like it anyway.

And if the prince and princess do have daughters, who will therefore be princesses too…maybe one of them will inherit a golden hand.

An Update from the Edge of the Witch’s Cauldron

July was one hell of a month. Which is not to say it was hellish, only somewhat draining. But you know, it was also a month in which Hogswatch came to Brisbane, Jane Austen became an official part of British currency, and I finally got my hands on Sarah Rees Brennan’s Unspoken. The universe obviously knows when I need a pick-me-up. I also kind of gatecrashed a book club in order to defend the good name of Douglas Adams. That was one of the ways July was nice, actually, because though no one in the book club liked poor Douglas at all, they listened to my Alice in Wonderland comparisons very politely and offered me biscuits.

Now it is AUGUST. The year is officially more than half over. If that doesn’t alarm you, congratulations, you must be a terrifically organised person. If it does, take a deep breath and find the ‘keep calm’ meme to suit your individual needs. Either way, here are several things that will improve your month:

  • Yesterday I paid a visit to 10 Bailey Street in West End, Brisbane, where an exhibition called ‘Once Upon a Time: reinterpreting the fairytale‘ is currently on display. This is a thing I obviously had to see, and you should too, because it’s a dangerous rainbow of gorgeous, on a spectrum of adorable whimsy to dark mystery.

my head is a junglelady of the broom

paper castle

  • It is Science Fiction and Fantasy Month at Logan North Library, concluding on the 31st with a booksale, author panel and roaming stormtroopers.
  • The film version of Cassandra Clare’s demon-hunting, snark-infused YA debut City of Bones will be released in Australia on the 22nd. I love the book too much to expect a matching love for the film, but from everything I’ve seen so far it looks very promising.
  • The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2012, published by Ticonderoga, should be available by September. It includes my short story ‘Oracle’s Tower’, first published in FableCroft’s To Spin a Darker Stair, and I will post full details on that as soon as I can.

In the meantime here are some photos of random magic in West End, including positive proof that there are witches in this city.

seahorse love story cauldron of the urban witch

Review No.100 – Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

Wordsworth Classics, 1999

A confession: I have read Jane Eyre before. A great many times before. It is one of those books so beloved to my literary landscape that I’m always taken by surprise when I realise maybe not everyone else in the world has read it too. Jane Eyre was first published in 1847, the controversial creation of an unlikely rebel; one hundred and sixty six years later, it’s an indisputable classic. I can think of no better book to mark the occasion of my hundredth review.

In 19th century England the cracks between rigid social hierachies are wide enough to swallow you whole. Jane Eyre exists in such a space – orphaned, unloved, unprotected – and bridling against the injustices of her neglectful aunt. When, as punishment for her rebellion, she is exiled to a puritanical boarding school, Jane refuses to be crushed. Her spirit of defiance will take her far from familiar ground, to a house shrouded in lies, a man drowning in the past, and a love that may cost her everything.

My copy of Jane Eyre has very thorough notation, including translations for all the dialogue that’s in French. It also has an introduction by Dr Sally Minogue about psychological symbolism that I disagree with violently. (Minor spoiler: Jane is her own person. Bertha is her own person. One is not a reflection of the other’s mental state, they are individuals.) You see, this is a book that demands passionate opinions; like its heroine, it is fierce and defiant and full of life, with a Gothic power that is intensified by its deep humanity. It has remained a classic all these years because it’s too good to be anything else.