Review No.121 – Palimpsest

Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente

Bantam Books, 2009

Each time it begins with an unexpected encounter, a mistake, impulsive lovers met in outlandish circumstances. The same secret is passed from one skin to another and four strangers dream their way into Palimpsest, where chance binds their lives together even as they follow radically different paths. This city seems like a shared fantasy, an addiction for the lost and disillusioned, but to deny its reality is to court disaster.

Pamlimpsest is a strange experience and not one that’s easy to describe. The plot is deliberately obscure and relationships between the characters range on a spectrum from decidedly inadvisable to masochistically torturous. The writing, though, is beguilingly poetical, and rich with fascinating ideas. This is a complex, confronting book, but strikingly beautiful too. Valente’s other works include the Orphan’s Tales duology, In the Night Garden and In the Cities of Coin and Spice.

Breathing Words, Bleeding Ink

A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.

– Madeleine L’Engle

It is a truth universally acknowledged that people who write fiction spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about it.

A love of words is in my blood and a day that passes without my picking up a book occurs with roughly the same frequency as a blue moon, but just because I love to read doesn’t mean I’ll read anything at all. There are certain types of stories to which I gravitate instinctively, a comfort zone I’ve learned to recognise. As an immersive reader, every book I open is an investment I take seriously, and I am not obliged to like everything I read. There’s a reason I have a comfort zone. My rule is that I must finish a book in order to review it, and at times, that’s the only reason I keep going.

Other times, I feel obliged for a different reason. Recently I read The Picture of Dorian Gray, and if it hadn’t been a capital c Classic I’m not sure I would have finished it. The experience has left me thinking.

There is a strange hierarchy to the world of books. The status quo varies between generations and genres, but the implicit understanding is the same: some books are just inherently better than others, and if you haven’t read them or didn’t like them, you’re not doing it right. Add to that the startlingly pervasive idea that worthwhile books are supposed to be difficult, and the logical progression of thought is that books which are deliberately easy to read are of lesser value.

My short response is, that’s unutterable nonsense. My longer response involves impassioned life advice and parallel universes. You have been warned.

Writing a story is reading in reverse – guessing frantically at where the plot will go, trying to pin its nebulous edges with the right words in the right places, then revising that shape repeatedly until it’s ready for the world. It’s an intensely personal process. Once a story is released into the wild, it becomes a different sort of beast. The task of an author is to say what they mean as effectively as they can; the task of a reader is to take away from that what they need. Everyone brings their own prejudices and preconceptions to the media they interact with, and as a result will come away with their own unique perceptions of its worth. If there’s a consistent standard by which all books can be compared, I’m yet to hear of it.

Seriously, consider the question. How can you define a good book?

Do you judge a book’s worth from the number of sales? Things become popular for a reason, after all. Of course, popular things are often also the focus of intense criticism. Despite a readership in the millions, the Twilight series has been publicly savaged (which can have NOTHING to do with the fact most of those readers were teenage girls). The Da Vinci Code was everywhere not so long ago but was critically panned. I am yet to see an argument that the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy is high literature, despite its impressive sales. Even the pop culture leviathan that is the Harry Potter series has received its fair share of hate.

Is a book good, then, based on the length of time it survives in the popular consciousness? Shakespeare’s going strong centuries after his death. The works of Jane Austen have retained their wit in an unrecognisably different era. If you go by that standard, though, no modern book can be good simply because it isn’t old enough.

So let’s consider literary merit. By my standard, a truly good book should have originality of concept, intricacy of character and elegance of language. I know those criterion when I see them, can tell you some of the authors who most frequently achieve them, but I’ve read books with genuinely labyrinthine protagonists and exceptionally plotted convolutions that I didn’t care about, written in skilful prose that I would never read again. How can a book be good if I didn’t enjoy it?

By the same principle, what is extraordinary writing to me may seem flat and predictable to someone else. There are people out there, REAL PEOPLE, who consider Jane Austen’s novels all alike. I do not relate to these people’s literary standards on any level, but whatever Austen does for me, she is clearly not doing it for those readers and they have a right not to enjoy her work. I don’t think it’s actually possible to make an objective judgement about something so inherently personal.

A staple of public debate in Australia, and most likely everywhere, is the future of education policy. National standards of literacy come in for regular scrutiny. At the same time there’s a degree of angst over what kids are reading, particularly teenagers, because no debate involving child rearing is complete without catch-22 hypocrisy. It’s not an uncommon belief that the current crop of popular YA titles are the literary equivalent of fast food, all taste and no sustenance. Why are they not reading the right books? Don’t they want to learn?

The thing is, schools are not real life; they are a parallel universe existing solely to provide children between certain ages with the various forms of information that a particular group of officials, at a particular period in time, agree that they should know. In such discussions, books are little more than instructional tools to impart core language skills and in that specific environment, some do meet a measurable form of scholastic development better than others. Out here in the real world, though, books mean so much more. I did not consume the greater part of the children’s section of my local library because I wanted to grasp the finer points of grammar. I read because I wanted stories in the same way I wanted oxygen: to not have them was unthinkable.

It’s certain that there are teenagers who adore different forms of classical literature, just as it is certain there are those who despise them, each for his or her own specific reasons. I can’t speak for them. But I can speak for the teenager I used to be, who thought that reading a book because other people said she should was a terrible reason, who adored Charlotte Brontë but had no patience with William Shakespeare’s rampant misogyny. She knew he could not give her what she needed at that time, so she looked for authors who could, and she found them.

That is the point of reading.

It would be absurd to believe every book can satisfy the needs of every reader, or even the same reader at different times. That is what the plethora of genres and subgenres available to us are for, none worth less or more than the others except according to individual preference. Classics that are about ‘the human condition’ frequently leave out huge sections of actual humanity, including women, people of colour, those who identify as QUILTBAG or who live with disabilities, or happen to be all those things at once. Every book needs to be judged within the context of its times, but so do its readers, and what might have been revelatory in one era won’t necessarily reach someone today. That’s okay. A classic is only a story that has been known and loved for a long time. Today’s writers haven’t had the chance to develop that patina of nostalgia yet, but you give them time. Books that everyone said would never sell, books that were banned because they were too different to be understood, the ones that celebrated things people didn’t think should be said out loud – they have all become beloved household names. Authors who are dismissed today might be literary heroes in a hundred years.

There will always be people who are afraid of what teenagers are doing, because what teenagers like to do is probably new. It’s different. And there will always be people who believe new and different things are bad. As for teenage girlsthose people are terrified of what teenage girls read. A big part of growing up – and we are all still growing up, no matter our true age – is learning who to ignore, because if you listen long enough to the ‘advice’ that is slung from all sides the only thing you will learn is how to be ashamed of everything you are.

You know what? Screw that. Read whatever you want.

You will come across mind-numbingly awful books, and you will come across pretty mediocre ones, and people will tell you that you are doing it All Wrong. But keep reading anyway. Being human is hard. Reading books you love makes it easier. Because whatever you read brings you inside someone else’s head, makes you see through someone else’s eyes. Reading makes us more human. I know for a fact that it has made me a better person. Books have bored deep into my reserves of empathy and found more than I knew I had. There are books out there right now, waiting unread, that will make me sparkle. Books that will make me a happier person, a wiser person, a stronger person.

And I’ll find them in my own sweet time.

Review No.120 – The Quick and the Thread

The Quick and the Thread (An Embroidery Mystery No.1) – Amanda Lee

Wheeler Chivers, 2011

Originally published in 2010

Moving to the beachside town of Tallulah Falls to set up an embroidery shop next door to her best friend was supposed to be the beginning of a dream life for Marcy Singer. Instead, the former owner of her shop shows up inconveniently dead in her storeroom and she’s suddenly at the centre of a police investigation. All she wants is some peace and quiet to get on with her cross-stitch. If solving a murder herself is what it takes, well, there is a cryptic message etched into her storeroom wall…

I really needed a light book just now and The Quick and the Thread is exactly that. An American cosy mystery that is often more interested in embroidery than crime fighting, it takes a folksy, simplistic approach that grated on me a bit and I can’t say I really invested in any of the characters, but it’s a good-natured, undemanding read that doesn’t take itself very seriously. The series continues with Stitch Me Deadly.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.105 – The Elfin Hall

This is one of Hans Christian Andersen’s more obscure stories. It begins with several lizards gossiping eagerly about a ruckus taking place on the nearby elfin mound. One lizard is more knowledgeable on the subject than the rest, having consulted with an earthworm of his acquaintance who happens to live in the Mount, and reveals that such important guests are expected that all the will-o’-the-wisps have been seconded to light a procession – but he does not know who those guests might be.

During the conversation an elfin housekeeper emerges from the Mount and hurries down to the seashore, seeking the night raven. According to the footnote, when a ghost is staked by a priest and then released, it takes the form of a bird and how did I never hear of night ravens before this moment? The housekeeper asks that he attend the evening’s festivities, which would feel like much more of a compliment if she didn’t also need him to distribute the rest of the invites.

“All the world may come to the great ball,” she explains, “even men, if they talk in their sleep, or do anything in our way. But for the feast the company must be very select; none but guests of the very highest rank must be present. To say the truth, the King and I have been having a little dispute; for I thought that not even ghosts should be admitted.” Sure, that’s not insulting the present company at all.

The housekeeper rattles off a list of the less contentious guests, includes the Mer-King and his daughter, the classier type of demons, the hobgoblins and various other spirits that sound like fantastic – if terrifying – dinner guests. The raven obligingly flies off to spread the word.

Inside the Mount, the preparations are almost complete, but the Elf King’s daughters have still not been told the cause of all this celebration. At the last minute, the king deigns to share his plans. “Two of my daughters must get themselves ready to be married,” he says, “for married they certainly shall be. The old goblin from Norway who lives in the Dovre mountains and who has so many castles of freestone among them, besides a gold-mine – a capital thing, let me tell you – is coming here with his two boys, who are each to choose a bride.” Your mercenary is showing, majesty.

The Norse goblin duly arrives and is greeted with all appropriate pomp. His sons are less dignified, kicking off their boots and putting their feet up on the banquet table. The entertainment commences with the dancing of the king’s seven daughters, and continues as each girl steps up to display her own particular skill. The youngest daughter can disappear at will. The second can cast a shadow, which no other elf or goblin can do, while the third has been taught by a moor-witch how to brew ale. When the fourth plays her harp everyone does as she bids them, a talent the Norse goblin does not find attractive at all. The fifth daughter professes a passionate love of the north (rooted in the belief that when the rest of the world falls, the stones of Norway will hold firm), but perversely the goblin passes over her.

“I can only tell people the truth,” the sixth girl states flatly. “No one cares for me or troubles about me, and I have enough to do to sew my shroud!” Oh, honey, why is this story not about you? I want to know about you. Instead we move on to the seventh girl, last and oldest, who has an amazing memory for stories and a gift for telling them well. Charmed, the goblin proposes on the spot.

His sons were also supposed to find brides at this party, but they’re off harassing the will-o’-the-wisps. “What is all this riot for?” their father complains. “I have been choosing you a mother; now you come and choose yourselves wives from among your aunts.” Could that be phrased in a more creepy way? No, I really don’t think it could. Fortunately the boys could not be less interested in marriage. They get drunk instead and fall asleep on the banquet table while their father dances around the hall with his new bride. Only at cock’s crow, with dawn imminent on the horizon, does the Mount close and the celebration end.

I always have mixed feelings about Andersen’s fairy tales because on the one hand they are so beautifully intricate, and on the other they’re just so depressing. And this is one of his more cheerful ones, since at least no one dies a tragic death. The fate of these princesses, though, laid out so matter-of-factly by their father, makes being kidnapped by a dragon look like a fantastic plan B.

An Update from the Fringes of Reality

This is clearly my year to overly invest in prematurely cancelled television shows because for the past month or so I’ve been watching unhealthy quantities of Fringe. This is a science fiction slash procedural that basically throws every imaginable mad science into a blender and ran five seasons before getting axed last year. If you plan on watching, be warned, the next few paragraphs are one hundred percent SPOILERS.

The first season wasn’t terrible, but neither did it hook me in. It was very much monster of the week stuff, quite incoherent plotting held together by excellent acting, and I kept watching mostly because I am the kind of person who always needs to know what happens next. Then I got hooked, because parallel universes and time travel and politics, I am in for all those things! With sciencey shapeshifters as excellent icing! Season three was JUST SO GOOD. I would have been happy to spend every second episode in the alternate world, with their Fringe Division team. We got Charlie back, and the eternally adorable Lincoln Lee, and morally questionable decisions for all!

My good feelings continued about halfway through season four, then – well, this is another show I feel the strong urge to recap, if only to accurately document my wrath about what ended up happening. Olivia rewriting her life to be with Peter, for one thing. They’re a lovely couple, I wished them all the best, but she forgot she had a nephew. The showrunners seriously couldn’t have found another way? Nina becoming William Bell’s pawn instead of a fabulous villain in her own right, for another. This is the woman who was experimenting with psychotically unstable clones and considered glittery black as everyday officewear. I had HOPES. Having fallen so hard for the parallel universe, I also felt decidedly shortchanged at the arcs of those characters – Charlie vanishing without a trace, their Lincoln getting shot and staying dead, Walternate the abductor of pregnant women retconned as a halfway decent person.

I finished watching season five on Monday and still can’t quite decide how I feel about that. My writer brain kept pointing out gaping plot holes but got distracted by all the EMOTIONS. Does the story make sense if you actually look? Not really. Did I care while September discovered fatherhood and Olivia blacked out Manhattan to get her daughter back? EMOTIONS, I tell you. We even got a glimpse of the parallel universe, where Fauxlivia seems to be running Fringe and is happily married to Lincoln (and she somehow overcame VPE to have a son? How…who cares, it’s happiness! I’ll take it!).

In short, I wanted more from Fringe, but what I got was definitely worth watching.


The past week also involved a certain package from Twelfth Planet Press and an exceptionally pretty book for my shelf. There is now an actual page on my blog you can refer to for publications like this, which I’ll update as stories get released into the wild.


Fairy Tale Tuesday No.104 – Four of the Fearless

To be the protagonist of a fairy tale is to have the deck stacked against you, with suffering around pretty much every corner and an debatable definition of ‘happy’ waiting at the end. It takes courage, is what I’m saying, so this week I’m examining four different stories about heroes and heroines who don’t know the meaning of fear. Is it really bravery if that’s all you know? Is it even healthy? Settle in comfortably, because this is a long one.

Story 1: The Youth Who Wanted to Learn to Shiver

This Grimm fairy tale begins with two brothers, both of whom live with and work for their father. The elder is quick and competent but superstitious, the kind of person who avoids the churchyard after dark, while the younger – perhaps symptomatically of his general cluelessness – doesn’t even know what fear feels like. When his father asks him what trade he wants to learn, he asks to learn to shiver.

That, as his father points out, is not a trade – but it doesn’t seem difficult, either. Upon hearing the story, the parish sexton has the boy come out with him to ring the church bells at midnight. The boy climbs the tower obediently. As he reaches the belfry, a figure in white appears before him. “Who’s that?” the boy demands. “Make haste off; you have no business here tonight.” The figure in white is in fact the sexton, dressed up as a ghost. He does not reply. “Speak, if you are an honest fellow,” the boy warns him, “or else I will fling you downstairs.” He makes good on his word, knocking the sexton aside before continuing calmly into the belfry and ringing the bells as he was told.

When the sexton doesn’t return to bed, his wife wakes the boy and he relates the incident. She hurries into the belfry and finds her husband fallen in a corner with a broken rib. Though he was fairly warned, the blame is laid squarely on the boy’s shoulders and his father sends him away with a purse of money and strict orders to never come back. The boy takes his banishment well, still fixated on the idea of shivering. He mutters about it as he walks along the road and a man passing by overhears him. They strike a deal – if the man can teach him to shiver, the boy will hand over every coin he has.

The man directs him to a gallows tree, where ‘seven fellows have married the hempen maid’ and are hanging still. The boy is to sit there all night. It gets cold, though, and though he lights a fire he can’t get warm. He feels sorry for the corpses swinging around him and cuts each down, positioning them around the fire and cautioning them to beware the flames. Being foggy on the whole concept of death, it doesn’t register with him that they can’t hear – he assumes they’re being difficult. When their clothes catch fire, the boy hangs them up again and goes peacefully to sleep.

His self-appointed teacher returns in the morning for his payment and is taken aback by the boy’s vaguely disgruntled account of the night. Clearly, more extreme measures are required. The boy is back to muttering and attracts another traveller who can’t resist the challenge. This time he’s directed to an enchanted castle where piles of treasure are guarded by evil spirits. The king has declared that anyone who can withstand three nights in the castle will not only receive that fortune, but also the hand of his beautiful daughter. It’s not clear why. Maybe it used to be his castle? Or it’s just the principle of the thing. Evil spirits don’t get prime real estate in this kingdom.

The youth is more than happy to stand watch, taking with him a lathe and a cutting board. He enters the castle unimpeded, kindles a fire and sits down to wait, still depressed over his inability to shiver. Suddenly a shrieking voice erupts from the corner, complaining of the cold. The boy, unshaken, asks the unseen presence to join him by the fire and two large black cats come out from the shadows. “Shall we have a game of cards?” one suggests. The boy consents, but on seeing their claws he assumes they will cheat and kills them instead.

I now loathe this boy.

Immediately black cats and black dogs come streaming from all sides, howling their rage and pulling his fire apart. Undaunted, the boy takes his knife and beats them off; some are killed and the others flee. All this SENSELESS KILLING really takes it out of him and he decides to seek out a bed. Happening upon one, he lies down, but the bed is as cursed as everything else in the place and starts galloping around on its own. At length it tips him out on the mountainside. The boy shrugs that off and lies back down by his fire. When the king comes to check on him the next day, he mistakes sleep for death and is quite startled when the boy jumps cheerfully awake.

The second night begins with an inexplicable ringing and rattling. It stops abruptly when half a man’s body falls down the chimney, and start up again with a howling counterpoint to bring the other half down too. The two parts come together to form a man. He is only the first – more men fall down the same way, bringing with them a skull and nine bones to play at skittles. The boy is invited to play, if he has money to stake on the outcome. And…they play skittles. All night. The boy’s a bit rubbish at it.

And so we come to the third watch. Six men come into the castle, bearing a coffin, in which the boy’s cousin lies dead. Showing for the umpteenth time he really doesn’t get what death means, the boy takes the body in his arms and tries to warm it by the fire. This actually works; the corpse sits up and tries to throttle him. At this, the boy wrestles it back into the coffin.

The castle dredges up one last challenge. A big man with a long beard comes striding in, declaring his intention to kill the intruder. The boy confidently declares that to be unlikely, as he’s the stronger – successfully goading his opponent into a contest of strength. The castle, you see, has a forge around the back, complete with weaponry. Taking up an axe, the big man breaks open an anvil to prove what a tough cookie he is. The boy seizes a second axe and slams it into a second anvil, trapping the man’s beard before proceeding to beat him half to death with an iron bar. Only when he’s promised the legendary treasure does he let the man go.

The next morning, the king is greeted with a living challenger and three chests of gold. Having fulfilled his end of the bargain, the boy is rewarded with the princess’s hand in marriage, and he’s STILL complaining about how disappointing it is not knowing how to shiver. At last a chambermaid, overhearing him, tells the princess she can fix that. She draws a pail of cold water, full of tiny fish, and while her husband is sleeping the princess pours the bucket over his head. He wakes up shouting “That makes me shiver! Dear wife, that makes me shiver!”

Well, someone ends up happy.

Story 2: The Lass that Couldn’t Be Frighted

This Scottish fairy tale comes from Thistle & Thyme, and introduces us to a highly capable young woman. Her mother being dead and her drunk of a father having abandoned her, she manages the family farm on her own. The villagers disapprove. They warn her she’ll probably be devoured by wild beasts or enchanted by malicious fairies, but she snickers a bit at both threats and goes right on managing just fine.

This girl, it should be said, is also pretty and soon enough the young men of the village notice that. One by one they come to make their offers, and one by one she sends them away. She doesn’t need their protection, or their money, and she’s sure as hell not in love. Sulkily, her suitors trail off. The only one not to try his luck is Wully the weaver’s son, who knows how to mind his own business.

One night the girl runs out of meal and takes a sack of grain to the mill to be ground for the next day’s porridge. To her surprise, the windows are dark and no one answers her knock. The miller and his family have gone away on a visit. Swinging her sack back over her shoulder, the girl keeps walking until she comes to the next mill. It’s a long way, and when she gets there she’s greeted with flat refusal. This mill, it turns out, is haunted by a grumpy goblin. If you go inside during the night he’ll not only steal your grain, he’ll beat you up too. “Hoots! Toots! To your goblin!” the girl shouts. “I’ll grind my grain, goblin or no goblin! Miller, give me the key!

He gives her the key, with all his household gathered around as witnesses to say whatever happens next is her own fault. She sets about getting the wheel moving, pours her grain in the hopper and sits down to rest her feet after all that walking. As she hasn’t brought much grain, it doesn’t take long to be ground. The meal streams into her sack, and she gets up to go. All with no sign of the supernatural.

Ah, spoke too soon. As she picks up her sack a goblin rises through the floor, a club in one hand, the other reaching for her grain. “No you don’t!” she shouts furiously. Grabbing the club, she takes a swing, and the goblin takes to his heels. The girl chases him around the mill, whirling the club indiscriminately. The goblin gets backed up against the hopper and the girl kicks him straight in to spin between the millstones.

If he was human, it would kill him pretty quickly; being a goblin, it just really hurts. He screams at the girl to let him go, but she’s holding a grudge about the almost theft and is tempted to leave him there. Only when he promises to leave the mill and never come back does she shut off the water, bringing the wheel to a halt. She drags him bodily out of the hopper and he limps off, never to be seen again.

The girl collects her flour, returns the key and goes home. By the next morning, the story has spread through the miller’s villager and into hers. Wully hears it and is sad, thinking the girl really doesn’t need anyone in her life, let alone him. Walking past her farm later that day, though, he hears screaming and dashes to the rescue, thinking she must be under siege by a gang of robbers at the very least.

It’s worse. She’s under attack by misogynistic narrative contrivance, in the form of a mouse. Wully enjoys the moment with thoroughly unbecoming satisfaction and won’t get rid of the rodent until she admits she may need a man to look after her. Then they get married, and he holds it over her for THE REST OF HER LIFE.

I say she just needs more cats. And someone who doesn’t find her phobias funny, or her strength intimidating.

Story 3: The Prince Who Was Afraid of Nothing

This is another Grimm story, bearing a strong resemblance to ‘The Youth Who Wanted to Learn to Shiver’, but with extra royalty. A fearless prince grows bored in his own kingdom and sets off to explore the world. On foot. Even blisters hold no dread for him. At length he comes to the house of a giant and walks straight into the courtyard, where a game of skittles is set up. Each pin is the same height as the prince, but being exceptionally strong as well as fearless (or rather, fearless because he’s exceptionally strong) he bowls easily.

The giant overhears his whoops of victory and comes out, indignant at the prince’s meddling. Blue blood does not guarantee decent manners; instead of apologising for his intrusion, the prince challenges the giant to a contest of strength. But the giant is clever. He tells the prince to prove his strength by fetching an apple from the tree of life. He has looked himself, because his wife yearns for the fruit, but has never found the tree.

The prince accepts the challenge without a second thought and strides off in a random direction. Fate appears to be squarely on his side, because before long he finds the garden where the tree grows. It is surrounded by an iron wall, and the wall is guarded by ferocious beasts…all of which are, fortuitously, asleep. Swinging himself nimbly over the wall, the prince shins up the tree of life and reaches for the apple. His hand passes through a ring hanging in the way, causing strength to surge through his veins. As if he needed it. He exits by kicking open the gate and the lion that lay before it, far from ripping him to pieces like the intruder he is, follows him adoringly.

The prince returns triumphantly to the giant, who in turn hastens to give the apple to his wife. Though he neglects to inform her he didn’t pluck it himself, she guesses from the absence of the ring on his arm. Assuring her he merely left it at home, he hurries back to the prince, but this token doesn’t come so easy. They wrestle for it, without either party gaining ground. Cunningly, the giant proposes a temporary peace while they cool themselves in the stream. The prince blithely strips off, leaving his clothes – and more importantly, the ring – piled up on the bank. The moment he dives in, the giant takes the ring.

It’s not entirely unguarded; the lion gives chase and rips the ring away, returning it to the prince. The giant retaliates by jumping the unsuspecting prince while he’s dressing and putting out his eyes. Then, leading him to a precipice, the giant leaves him to die. His idea is to rob the inevitable corpse. The lion thwarts this plan too, seizing a mouthful of the prince’s shirt and dragging him away from the edge. Stubbornly, the giant tries again with a deeper abyss, but the lion shoves him over instead. His body breaks on the rocks below.

Immediate peril being averted, the lion leads his charge to a different stream and flicks water onto his ruined eyes, healing them instantaneously. These are miracle waters! Completely healed, the prince continues on his way.

The next place he stops is as inadvisable as the first. It is an enchanted castle, home to a girl described as ‘of fine stature and appearance, but quite black’. That’s the first sign this story’s about to get very bad. She’s been cursed by a wicked enchanter and the only way to save her is to stay in the castle for three nights without making a sound. The prince is happy to try his luck. He’s less happy later that evening, when evil spirits swarm from every nook and cranny to beat the crap out of him.

He makes it through the night without opening his mouth. Come morning, the girl comes to bathe his wounds with more miracle water. As she departs, the prince notices her feet are now white. CUE TEETH-GNASHING RAGE. Throughout the next two nights, the prince endures similar mistreatment, and each time the girl’s skin bleaches a little further. By the third morning, she’s entirely white. The enchantment now being lifted, servants appear out of nowhere to arrange a wedding feast – because this curse is RACIST AS HELL.

Story 4: The Dauntless Girl

This fourth tale is taken from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s British Folk Tales – a selection, which introduces us to Mary the indomitable housemaid. One evening the farmer she works for is drinking at home with his friends when they run out of whisky, and as no one wants to brave the long dark walk to the village to get more, Mary’s boss sends her out instead. He also puts her at the centre of a wager with his sceptical, sexist cronies. They can’t believe any girl could be as fearless as the farmer claims, so they decide to test Mary’s mettle.

The next night she is sent out to the church at midnight and asked to bring back a skull. This order probably rings some warning bells from the word go, but she sets out obediently enough. Unknown to Mary, one of the farmer’s friends has hired the local sexton to hide among the bodies in the dead house so as to frighten her away.

He’s not very good at it. “Let that be,” he moans, when she picks up one skull. “That’s my mother’s skull bone.” Mary obligingly stoops for another, only to be stopped by a groan of, “That’s my father’s skull bone.” Exasperated, she chooses a third. “Father or mother, sister or brother,” she says firmly, “I must have a skull bone and that’s my last word.” With that she slams the door of the dead house shut and walks home.

The men are impressed and a little alarmed by her efficiency. Returning to check on the sexton, they find him lying on the floor, having apparently died of fright. The farmer feels too guilty to accept his winnings, so passes on the wagered guinea to Mary.

Word of her determination spreads and one day a squire comes to the farm, planning to poach her. His house is being haunted by the ghost of his mother, who is frightening away all the servants. Mary has no problem with ghosts, but wants that extra skill reflected in her wages before agreeing to anything. The girl has sense.

She’s also excellent at handling recently departed relatives. Instead of pretending the squire’s mother isn’t there, she lays a place for her at the table and offers her every dish. She makes such an impression that when the squire leaves on a business trip, the ghost appears to Mary alone and asks her to come down to the cellar. There she reveals two bags of gold, one large and one small – the former, her son’s inheritance, and the latter, Mary’s reward.

Mary has other ideas. When the squire gets back, she takes him down the cellar and reveals the bags. “The little one is for you,” she explains, “and the big one is for me.” The squire chooses not to argue, and by crossing the silverware at mealtimes, Mary prevents the ghost from setting him right. After thinking the matter over, the squire decides that a dauntless girl would make for a fantastic wife, and proposes. Mary accepts. So she ends up getting all the gold, and the house, and a husband who appreciates her skill set. Win.

What I find interesting about these stories is the ways in which they view fearlessness, and how gender impacts plot. Where the boy from the first story is mostly oblivious as opposed to actually brave, the prince is a traditional macho hero whose innate specialness overcomes all obstacles. Meanwhile, the girl from ‘The Lass that Couldn’t Be Frighted’ is given a ridiculous Achilles heel to make her less threatening. Mary survives rather better. Her fearlessness is really rock hard pragmatism and a confidence in her own capability. Guess which one I like best?

Review No.119 – The Wild Girl

The Wild Girl – Kate Forsyth

Vintage, 2013

Dortchen Wild is twelve years old when she meets a young scholar collecting folk tales. His name is Wilhelm Grimm and together with his poverty-stricken, ramshackle family, he lives next door to the Wilds’ apothecary shop. Dortchen dreams of one day winning his heart, like the princes and princesses in the stories she loves so much, but as the infamous Napoleon’s troops sweep across the German kingdoms in a bloody wave of revolution, the old certainties of Dortchen’s world begin to crumble. In these dark days, nothing is simple, and nothing is safe.

Though the characters and plots are unrelated, this book is the thematic sequel to Forsyth’s earlier novel Bitter Greens. Both are about real women, storytellers whose work lived on but whose lives are largely forgotten. I have mixed feelings about The Wild Girl – on one hand, so little is known about Dortchen Wild’s life that the basis for much of Forsyth’s plot feels decidedly tenuous and given the very dark turns this story takes, being so unsure of what’s the truth makes me uncomfortable. On the other hand, I admire Forsyth’s determination to resurrect Dortchen’s story and in order to do that, she had to work with what clues she had. History forgets women like Dortchen too easily – The Wild Girl is a powerful effort to remember them.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.103 – The Sun Princess and the Prince

I encountered this Lithuanian fairy tale in Folk tales From the Soviet Union: The Baltic Republics, compiled by Robert Babloyan and Mirlena Shumskaya and published in 1986. It begins ‘beyond the nine mountains and the nine forests’, where a young prince is growing up in an unusually wholesome environment. Both his parents are alive and not obviously evil, the kingdom is not poverty-stricken or at war, and no one’s tried selling him off to a sorcerer, but being a small child – and a rather spoilt one at that – he chooses to focus on the one negative in his life, that he has no siblings.

Admittedly, his parents are pretty squirrelly about the subject and avoid answering any of his questions. There is also a walled courtyard beside the palace, lined with lethal diamond spikes, that the prince has always been warned away from. They may as well just put up a sign saying WE HAVE A BIG SECRET.

One day, as the trigger-happy little prince aims his bow at a raven seated on the wall, the bird spills the beans. Before the prince was born the king and queen had three daughters, who are now kept locked up on the other side of the diamond spikes, and the raven just happens to know where the key is hidden. “Once you are in the garden,” it advises the prince, “open the window of your sisters’ chamber and let them breathe some fresh air.”

That night the prince unlocks the secret door. His sisters are delighted to see him, and happier yet at being released. Starlight! Flowers! Oxygen! Their joy is shortlived, however; suddenly the ground shakes and the three girls are seized by a whirlwind. Their horrified brother can do nothing to save them.

The next morning the king is thundering at all his courtiers. Bravely, the prince goes to confess, and finally – when it’s too late – gets the rest of the story. “Before you were born the wise men who read the stars warned me that your sisters would be carried off by a dragon. That was why I built that wall and kept them under lock and key,” the king rages. “But you disobeyed me and defied my orders. So, worthless youth that you are, leave my kingdom and do not return until you have brought back your sisters.”

Brilliant plan, that! Why lose only three children when you can lose all four? The queen gets no say in this, by the way, and barely manages a goodbye before the gates are shut on the prince’s back. With no idea where his sisters have gone, he starts walking down the road. He walks. And he walks. At last, lost and luckless in the middle of nowhere, he approaches a hut to ask for shelter and explains his predicament to the woman who answers the door. Being an old lady in a fairy tale, she of course Knows All. Most of what she knows is ‘lol, you’re useless at this hero stuff’.

More exactly: “The way that lies before you is far and dangerous, and you are timid of heart and unused to work. Stay with me for three years, learn to earn your own living, and then I may be able to help you.” The prince has nowhere else to go, so for three years he uproots trees, ploughs fields and generally does all the other work of a farmhand. When his apprenticeship with the old woman is complete, she gives him a ball of yarn to guide his way and a piece of bread that grows no smaller no matter how much he eats.

The thread leads him to a copper mountain and the copper forest that grows upon it. When he tries to break off a branch to make a staff, a witch with four eyes appears from nowhere to punish his vandalism. The prince distracts her by throwing the ball of yarn and dashes up the mountainside, and its top he sees his eldest sister seated at a spinning wheel. At first she’s delighted to see him, but as evening falls her mood turns anxious and she hides him away inside a large ornamental chest. This is because her husband is coming home. Yes, she is now married! To someone who flies in as a falcon and becomes a young man. “What would you do, Falcon, if my brother came to pay me a visit?” the princess asks. “Would be glad to see him,” the falcon man replies, “and would thank him for delivering you from captivity.”

Satisfied her brother will be safe, the princess releases him from the chest. No one sees fit to explain how a girl cursed to be captured by a dragon should end up married to a shapeshifter instead, but the falcon man is under a spell too – an evil sorceress enchanted him to take the shape of a bird for another six years unless he can find the Sun Princess in the meantime, and though he flies around the world three time a day, he’s never been able to reach her. The prince immediately offers to find her himself. As an expression of appreciation, the falcon man gives him a kerchief which will apparently be in some way useful, for reasons he does not actually go into.

The prince continues on his way. The old woman’s yarn is still unrolling, leading this time to a silver mountain, a silver forest and two annoyed witches. Tossing the yarn again, causing them to collide, he runs up the mountain and sees his middle sister sitting embroidering. She’s not so easily convinced he’s her brother (good on you, sceptic sister!), but when he tells her about the copper mountain and the reunion there, she welcomes him into her home.

Like her sister before her, the princess grows worried at nightfall. “Bear, my husband, might come and claw you to death,” she tells her brother baldly. He promises to hide, but she needn’t have worried. When her husband comes home, casting off his bear shape as he crosses the threshold, she tells him the prince has already left so she can gauge his reaction. Seeing he’s fine with it, she calls her brother out of hiding and in the ensuing conversation the bear man explains his situation is very similar to the first princess’s husband: curse, shapechanging, the elusive Sun Princess as an escape clause. The prince insists he can find her and the bear man gives him a pot of porridge as a farewell gift. With instructions. Anyone who touches the pot, apart from the prince, will be stuck to it.

Onward rolls the yarn, over hill and beach and ocean. The prince follows it past the gnashing teeth of sea monsters and more obstructionist witches to the golden palace of his youngest sister. Like the other two princesses, she is married to someone she doesn’t really trust – a cursed young man who tosses aside the scales of a pike as he enters the palace. Like the other two brothers-in-law, he’s better than she believes him to be. Upon hearing of the prince’s quest, the pike man offers a golden casket that should only be opened in a time of great trouble, and wishes him good luck.

The prince travels ever further and at last comes to the kingdom of the Sun Princess. The gates of her palace are framed by columns of fire, but the prince rolls his ball of yarn between the flames and passes through safely. A voice enquires after his purpose. “Are you here to woo the princess?” it adds, pointedly. “What if I am!” replies the prince, and is answered by airy laughter. A very precise whirlwind deposits him on the doorstep of a hut; its nine doors open, and he finds himself pushed inside a dungeon. As a little note of irony, the only light comes through a tiny heart-shaped window.

Nor is the prince alone. In the dark around him are twenty eight old men, all of whom set out once upon a time to woo the Sun Princess, and met with deathless imprisonment instead. The eldest of their number has been in this dungeon for SIX HUNDRED YEARS. The prince attempts a pep talk about banding together, but no one’s buying it.

A handful of oats are suddenly thrown through the window and the old men scrabble on their knees for each grain, the only food they ever get. The prince is appalled. When a jug of water is also lowered through the window, he throws it back out. “What have you done!” the old men cry. “Now we won’t get any water to drink till tomorrow, and if the Sun Princess is angered, why, she’ll not give us any.” The prince, however, came well prepared. Remember the kerchief? All you need do is spread it out to produce a fabulous feast, enough for all the prisoners to share.

The princess’s lady-in-waiting, Bright Dawn, is watching. She reports the kerchief to her mistress, who tells Bright Dawn to go bargain for it immediately. Her dazzling beauty blinds the old men and they hurry away to hide, but the prince faces her without flinching. “Tell the Sun Princess that the kerchief is hers,” he says, “and that I wish her health and happiness.”

The Sun Princess only laughs when she hears his message. As she samples each dish, she assumes her newest prisoner will be fighting for oats like all the rest. When her second lady-in-waiting, Evening Star, goes to watch through the window, she instead sees everyone feasting just like the day before. Not only that, the golden casket is playing beautiful music and the prisoners are getting up to dance.

Evening Star demands the casket, and the prince tells her to come get it. The panicked old men beg him not to sell, but he is busy charming his guest, because he actually has a plan. When Evening Star tries to rise, she finds herself stuck to the porridge pot. Though she thrashes wildly, she can’t get free, and the old men watch on with bitter satisfaction. The prince continues giving her mead, so she’s blind drunk when at last her mistress comes looking for her. So beautiful is the Sun Princess that the old men cower to protect their eyes and the prince forgets all his clever ideas. “Take whatever you wish,” he declares, “my casket, Evening Star here, or me, your obedient servant.” “I’ll have all three,” says the wickedest princess of them all.

She brings the prince into the palace and gives him keys to all forty of the rooms, but he is allowed to open only thirty nine. Should he ever unlock the fortieth door, he will regret it. He’s so smitten with his beautiful, psychotic bride that he forgets all about his brothers-in-law – and considering how large a part they’ve played in his survival to this point, that’s a pretty crappy thing to do – but he does ensure the twenty-eight captives are released. Then he gives himself over completely to being an adoring husband.

The Sun Princess’s palace is full of wonders. One door leads to a menagerie of terrifying beasts, another to jewel-like butterflies, yet another to Winter herself. But of course, the greatest allure of all is the mystery of the fortieth room. Convincing himself that the Sun Princess would forgive him anything, the prince eventually unlocks the door and finds only a mossy pillar wrapped in chains. As he turns to go, it begs him for water.

Even living in this place hasn’t sapped the prince of all his morality. He gives it ladle after ladle from a bucket on the floor and with each drink the pillar stretches until suddenly the chains fall and the prince realises it’s not a pillar at all, it’s a giant. “Many thanks to you, my good youth!” he bellows. “Now the Sun Princess will be mine!” He leaps into the air and catches up the princess, leaving only the fiery trail of her hair in their wake.

In her absence the world goes suddenly very cold and very dark – not just for the prince, who against all logic loves her, but for everyone else too. Saddling up the fastest horse from the royal stables, the prince sets off in pursuit, and after three days searching reaches the giant’s castle. A three-eyed goat is standing watch over the princess while the giant sleeps. The prince’s plan is to sing the goat to sleep, which might actually have worked had he remembered the third eye. As it is, the goat only closes two eyes, and no sooner have prince and princess legged it than the giant is woken by loud bleating. “Wake up, giant, the prince has carried off the Sun Princess!” “We’ve plenty of time,” the giant mutters drowsily. “We’ll dig some potatoes first and then go after them.”

YES. REALLY. I could not make this stuff up.

So he digs up a whole sack of potatoes and still catches up to the fleeing couple. Out of gratitude for the water, he does not kill the prince, but he makes it clear that mercy won’t be extended a second time. Before she’s dragged away, the Sun Princess tosses the prince a ball of yarn. Though they escape again in exactly the same way, the giant soon follows with a rush of icy wind (and a sack of potatoes) and this time he cudgels the prince on the head before snatching up the princess. Her last act is to throw the prince a kerchief.

The world descends into a chaos of ice and famine while the prince lies insensate. Ravens are swooping down to peck out his eyes when all of a sudden Falcon, he of the first kerchief, frightens them away. He’s lifted some healing water from the Sun Princess’s palace en route and uses it to waken the prince, then advises he go to the witch Laume. “Get her to take you on as her herdsman,” he says. “And do all her cat tells you to. The giant keeps his strength in the egg of a wild duck that lives by the side of the sea. You must ride the witch’s horse there, catch the duck and take away the egg.”

As before, the ball of yarn leads the way, and the prince stops at a hut festooned with cobwebs and surrounded by rats. The witch Laume is willing to take the prince on – if he herds her twelve mares safely for three days, he may have whatever he wishes in return, but if one goes missing he’s a goner. Now the death threats are out of the way, come inside and have a spot of lunch!

While the prince is at the table, a cat jumps on his knee and mutters in his ear, “Give me a bit of the meat you are eating, prince, and I will help you.” It turns out the mares are actually Laume’s daughters (the families in this fairy tale are messed up) and when the cat turns double agent, he discovers that the witch has ordered her daughters to become fish and hide from the new herdsman. The next day the prince sets out and all seems to go well – but unbeknownst to man or cat, it seems Laume has also drugged his food, because as soon as he eats the cheese the prince falls asleep and when he wakes the mares are gone.

Fortunately he has other allies. Shaking the kerchief, he summons up his brother-in-law Pike, who goes after the hidden fishes. They are forced to resume their horse shapes and be led home, where they are beaten by their vicious mother. “Never did any of my herdsmen get away from me alive,” she swears, “and this one won’t, either!” She orders them to become woodpeckers the next day and hide in trees to elude the prince, but he calls on Falcon to aid him and once more returns with the full herd. The poor girls are whipped and raged at and told they are a disgrace to the family. If they can’t stay hidden as grubs on the third day, they’ll suffer for it.

But Falcon digs them out, and the prince comes back to claim his reward. Though Laume is in a literal frothing rage, beating and cursing her daughters, she cannot contravene her own terms and the prince demands she give up her smallest filly. Weak as it looks, this horse is her favourite grandchild (whatever the affection of an abusive murderer is worth) and as strong as all the others put together.

The prince carries his new mount away. With every mile they go she becomes bigger, until she’s large enough for him to ride. She asks where he wants to go and when he tells her, soars away into the clouds, flying all the way to the shore where the wild duck swims. Having no bow and therefore no means to catch the bird, the prince is prepared to break down in tears, but Pike comes through again and drags the duck to shore. The prince tears it in half (ugh), seizes the egg from inside and remounts his horse, riding towards a fire on the horizon, where the giant’s castle stands. “I have come to free the Sun Princess!” he cries.

The giant comes striding out, cudgel in hand. He is about to strike when the prince takes out the egg and throws it to the ground, killing the giant instantly. As the Sun Princess runs from her prison, light returns to the world and her marriage belt becomes a rainbow. So happy is she that she even releases the three brothers-in-law from their spelled shapes and soon five chariots set off for the prince’s homeland. One for each of his sisters, riding with their husbands; one for the prince and Sun Princess; and one for their infant son, New Moon.

WHICH IS NO ENDING AT ALL. What about the witch’s abused daughters? What about this prophesied dragon, who never shows up? Or if he did, it was for lightning strike matchmaking. What about the raven? What about those traumatised old men and the sorceress, who sounds an awful lot like a certain vindictive monarch? I thought Princess Blue-Eyes had a mean streak, but she looks positively adorable in comparison to the Sun Princess.

Review No.118 – The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

Penguin, 2008

Originally published in 1891

To the high society of the 19th century, the wealthy young aristocrat Dorian Gray appears to lead a charmed existence. His angelic face inspires admiration and adoration wherever he goes, a charisma that only grows as the years go by. What no one suspects, however, is that Dorian Gray has a second, secret face – and the truths his beauty hides are terrible indeed.

I can see why The Picture of Dorian Gray is considered a classic, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it. Wilde has a deft touch with dialogue, and many of the exchanges in this book glitter with memorable wit; what the characters are talking about is generally awful. There are times Wilde seems to agree with Dorian’s ideas (at one point jumping into the narrative in the first person) while other times he beautifully highlights his protagonist’s hypocrisy. This very nebulousness of intent is part of what makes the book so disturbing, and may well be intentional.

The flaws of Wilde’s time are definitely on display. It’s good to see some period LGBTQ representation, though it’s pretty coded in parts to elude the censors of the day, but a distinct streak of misogyny – whether sincere or not – pervades the book, and the racism is worse. This is a deeply sardonic, skilfully realised cautionary fable, but I wouldn’t read it twice.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.102 – The Blackstairs Mountain

Not to be confused with ‘The Legend of Black Mountain‘, this Irish fairy tale is from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Witches. A little girl and her widowed grandmother live on a hilltop; the windows of their cottage look out across a valley to the looming bulk of the Blackstairs Mountain, where witches are known to live.

This therefore being a somewhat insalubrious neighbourhood, the widow and her granddaughter have developed a witchery-proofed security system. Every night before they go to bed, they loose the band that works their spinning wheel and lay it aside (never trust a spinning wheel); pour the washing water into a channel to flow away under the front door; cover the burning turf in the hearth with ashes; and lastly, put the broomstick through the bolt sockets of the front door (never trust a broomstick either). In this way, grandmother and girl can sleep safely.

They live by spinning and selling thread. One day they take their work to market, despite the stormy weather, and as they come home that night they lose their way in the heavy rain. By the time they reach home, they’re so worn out they forget all about the four tasks. They are on their way to bed when a heavy knocking makes them suddenly remember. A voice screams from the other side of the door, calling out to the washing water and the spinning wheel band, the broomstick and the turf coal. It demands to be allowed inside, and the door flies open.

A crowd of witches burst into the cottage, bringing with them the actual Devil. It’s all too much for the grandmother, who falls in a dead faint – and while that’s an understandable reaction to Satanic incursions, it leaves her granddaughter alone in their midst. The Devil settles comfortably by the fire and pulls out his nose to play it like a trombone. Dancing to the music, the witches knock over the furniture and smash the crockery and tip the dresser through a window. They even start a game of leaping back and forth over the unconscious old woman, but the girl is largely ignored. For some time she looks on, horrified – then she pulls herself together and slips out the door.

Is she escaping? No, a moment later she comes racing back into the house shouting as loudly as she can. “Granny, Granny, come out! The Blackstairs Mountain and the sky above it is all on fire!”

The Devil stops his music and leaps through the broken window. The witches run after him, shrieking lamentations as they hurry back to their mountain. The girl wastes no time; the moment the last witch is out of the house, she has the door bolted with the broomstick. When the other three tasks are completed, she goes to her grandmother and wakes her with a splash of cold water. She’s just sitting up when a furious howl rises from the Blackstairs; the witches know they have been tricked, and are coming back.

There is a sudden silence. All the more terrifying for their restraint, four quiet knocks sound at the door. “Washing water, let me in!” a voice wheedles from the other side. “Turf coal, turf coal, open to me, open!” But not one of the domestic conspirators is in a position to obey. The spell of safety holds. Outside the witches scream and rage, while the girl and her grandmother huddle on the floor like they’re back out in the storm. At last the witches give up and return to their mountain, leaving the wreckage of their impromptu party in their wake. The girl and her grandmother never forget the ritual again.

See, this is how I came to love fairy tales as a child: a little girl gets to outwit the forces of wickedness and save the day on her own. She also overcomes the inherent traitorous qualities of a broomstick and a spinning wheel, which gives me all sorts of meta joy. The witches have a whole mountain to hold their parties on, they’ll cope.