Review No.234 – Throne of Jade

Throne of Jade (Temeraire No.2) – Naomi Novak

HarperVoyager, 2007

Originally published in 2006

As Napoleon’s forces overrun Europe, England cannot spare a single dragon from its Aerial Corps, but with the discovery that Captain Laurence’s dragon Temeraire is a Celestial – China’s most valued breed – the ire of a different empire has been roused. To avoid a war on two fronts, the government is more than willing to hand over Temeraire, but Temeraire himself will not go anywhere without Laurence. Entangled in a ruthless political game and beset on all sides, Laurence may need to choose between duty and loyalty – but what will Temeraire decide?

This is the sequel to Novak’s superb first novel Temeraire, which I reviewed last year, and is equally enjoyable. Not only is the characterisation excellent – even the most alienating characters are given depth – Novak explores a wide spectrum of issues with a mixture of quiet compassion and sharp awareness. I also love the way she writes battles. Claws and teeth and wings, oh my! The series continues with Black Powder War.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.118 – Catrinella, Come Up Higher!

This week’s fairy tale is a Russian story from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Enchantments and Curses. The titular heroine is an orphan, beautiful but broke, earning a living as a household servant. One of her daily duties is collecting firewood from the forest around the foot of an imposing mountain. It is rumoured to be a stronghold of Morez, the Frost Demon, though no one has ever gone up to look and the demon never comes down to them. The village can live with this arrangement and most local girls collect their wood there. On Catrinella’s very first day, however, a voice calls down the mountainside: “Catrinella! Catrinella! Come up higher!”

The girls scatter, panicked. But they cannot stay away from the forest, because that means bringing no wood home, and every time Catrinella goes near the mountain the voice cries out the same words. Since the owner of the voice never does anything other than shout, the girls soon lose their fear and start poking fun instead. “Only fancy, the demon Morez has fallen in love with you!” they tease Catrinella, more or less good-naturedly, but the sound of her name being called so desperately gnaws at her conscience. At last she throws down her sack and, ignoring the alarmed exclamations of her friends, starts up the mountain.

Following the sound of the voice, she climbs all day. By sunset Catrinella has reached the mountaintop, a frozen plateau where she finds the mouth of a cave. Within stand a company of young huntsmen on horseback, with hounds at their sides, all encased in ice. Freaked out and half-frozen herself, Catrinella starts backing away, but the voice calls out her name again. One of the riders is still conscious and capable of speech. His name is Prince Ilya and he unwisely pursued a golden-horned stag up the mountain with his hunters at his heels. Instead of catching the beast, they ran right into Morez, who did not appreciate the intrusion.

“Ice you shall remain,” Ilya quotes, “for a hundred times a hundred years. No sun shall have power to warm you, no fire shall have power to melt you, for I am stronger than the sun, and more powerful than any fire, except the fire that glows in the heart of the great diamond that is hidden in the Palace of Shifting Rooms in the Kingdom of the Uttermost East, where the sun rises to warm the earth. None may lay hold that diamond but a maiden who has no guile.” That is what Ilya hopes Catrinella might be. He dreamed she would be the one to set him and his company free, and promises her any reward she wishes if only she’ll take on the task. Very moved by his miserable state, Catrinella is willing enough, and asks the way to the Palace of Shifting Rooms.

Ilya doesn’t know. The dream did not include directions.

Fortunately the conversation is interrupted by, of all things, a bumblebee. He knows the way to the palace and is happy to guide Catrinella as long as she leaves now. They journey across mountains, through forests and deserts and across raging rivers. Woefully under-prepared for such a trek as she is, Catrinella survives mostly on honey and roots, recommended by her guide. At last they reach the promised kingdom of Uttermost East, wherein lies another mountain and a huge chasm.

“Being underground doesn’t agree with my health,” the bumblebee announces. He tells Catrinella about a path that leads into the middle of the mountain, and how a stone wall will block her way but can by dismissed by smacking it with one of her tattered shoes. The only thing he can’t tell her is where to find the actual diamond. That, Catrinella must manage on her own.

Descending into the chasm without triggering an avalanche is no easy task, but Catrinella persists. When she reaches the wall she whacks it as hard as she can and it falls apart with a satisfying crash. On the other side is a lush meadow and a horse that bounds joyfully over to greet her. Catrinella stops a moment to pet him, because adorable.

Most of her attention, however, is fixed on the shimmering building just beyond the meadow. The palace is a labyrinth of glass chambers, each surface reflected a thousand times over and radiating light without any need for windows or lamps. In fact, there are no furnishings at all, only glass. It is impossible to conduct a methodical search when the rooms have no distinguishing features, let alone when one moment the walls are wide apart and the next they’re closing in so tight it’s all Catrinella can do to move. There is no C-3PO in the control room to help, either.

Yet Catrinella keeps going. At long last she comes to a room different from all the others – a vast space where patterned golden pillars support an arched glass roof. It looks like a place you could hide something so Catrinella searches it thoroughly, but the diamond is nowhere to be seen. Attempting to leave, she finds a wall where the door used to be.

It is entirely reasonable at this junction to burst into tears and Catrinella is so distraught that at first she doesn’t realise she’s no longer alone. “What’s the matter here? What’s the matter?” an irritable voice suddenly snaps, and she looks up. A tiny white mouse has been drawn by the sound of her sobbing. Though not immediately inclined to sympathy, his interest is aroused when she explains her story. He points her towards one of the pillars, painted with a scene of willow trees. A kingfisher is perched among the branches, its throat swollen as if caught by the artist mid-swallow. Catrinella slaps the picture hard and the painted bird opens its beak, releasing a crystal box; and within the box is a diamond so bright it could be a shard of sunlight.

“Hold onto it tightly,” advises the mouse, just in time. The palace starts spinning wildly, knocking Catrinella off her feet; unseen hands snatch at the box, but she won’t let it go. The force of the assault throws her right out of the palace. This is a bad idea on the part of the diamond’s protectors, as the horse who lives outside has taken a fancy to Catrinella and happens to know a shortcut to Morez’s mountain. Astride his back with the crystal box under her arm, the mouse perched on one shoulder and the bee on the other, Catrinella rides with all speed back to the prison of ice. Inside the cave, she shuts her eyes and opens the box. It blazes ferociously, melting everything within the cave. In fact, it is so powerful Catrinella can’t close the box again and has to leave it where it is.

Restored to life, the company of hunters ride out onto the plateau. Ilya, his priorities firmly in order, leaps off his horse and kneels at Catrinella’s feet. “I have no words to thank you,” he declares devoutly. “I can but offer you all that I have and am. If you will come to my kingdom with me and be my wife, I will love and cherish you to the end of my days.”

What a surprise, Catrinella says yes.

They ride away down the mountain, men and girl, mouse and bee and all, spring spreading in their wake as the effect of the diamond melts the snow and brings long-dormant flowers unfurling between the rocks. The prince’s throne has not been claimed by anyone else in his absence and everybody is tremendously excited at his sudden return. As for the demon Morez, he arrives home to find his mountain on fire. He’s no match for the power of the diamond so he leaves it to burn and departs in disgust.

This story would have made a much better basis for Disney’s Frozen than ‘The Snow Queen’, if you ask me. It even has inexplicable but cute animal assistants! Between them those three are the ones who really save the prince, but they wouldn’t have done it without Catrinella’s motivation. Also, that’s hands down the most romantic proposal anyone’s delivered in any fairy tale I’ve ever read. Give pointers to your fellow royals, Ilya. They really need them.

Review No.233 – Her Fearful Symmetry

Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger

Jonathan Cape, 2009

The Poole twins exist in a world of two. When a letter arrives announcing the death of an aunt they did not know they had, who has left them everything she had, they are startled to realise their mother is a twin too – and that twenty years ago something so terrible happened between the sisters that they never saw each other again. Even after her death, Elspeth has not let go of the grievance. If the twins want to keep their legacy, they must leave America and come to live in her London flat for one year. Meanwhile, in England, Elspeth’s lover Robert is struggling to accept her death – and so, for that matter, is Elspeth…

Having enjoyed Niffenegger’s first novel earlier this year, I wanted to read more of her work. The same beautiful language, attention to detail and quietly melancholic atmosphere are all present, but where The Time Traveler’s Wife was tightly plotted with good momentum, Her Fearful Symmetry is much slower to get off the ground. What could have been a very effective modern ghost story comes apart in the second half, depending as it does on bizarre contrivances, and I was left bewildered by the ending. I also think it would make for a frustrating read if you are a twin.

An Update of November Squee

Cranky Ladies logoEarlier this year I participated in the blog tour for Cranky Ladies of History, a FableCroft anthology themed around historical women who lived memorably unconventional lives, and now I’m thrilled to confirm I’ll be part of the book! – or more accurately, Queen Elizabeth I of England will, via my story ‘Glorious’.

As my first historical fiction, this is particularly exciting for me! I have always admired Elizabeth enormously, as a woman who not only survived to adulthood in the misogynistic powder-keg of Henry VIII’s court but rose to the highest position of power in the land and held onto it until the day she died. She will be appearing with a superb company of monarchs and pirates, poets and warriors. Some I already know amazing things about – others I can’t wait to meet. Updates on the anthology will appear on the FableCroft website, while all the posts of the blog tour are collected here. Cranky Ladies of History is set for publication in March next year.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.117 – The Two Brothers

This Grimm fairy tale begins with a pair of brothers – as you may have expected from the title – who are career-coded for ease of reference. One is a goldsmith, rich and evil. The other is a broom-maker, kind-hearted and very poor. The latter brother also has two sons, twin boys who are in the habit of doing odd jobs at their uncle’s house and being rewarded with leftovers from the better table.

While out collecting wood one day, the poor brother catches sight of the most beautiful bird he’s ever seen. So of course the first thing he does is throw a stone at it. What happened to KIND-HEARTED? Luckily all he manages to do is dislodge a feather. He brings it to his brother, who identifies it as pure gold and pays a high price for it. The next day the broom-maker tracks the bird to its nest and steals all its eggs. These, too, are gold and worth a large sum to the rich brother. On the third day, the broom-maker finally succeeds in killing the poor creature, because there is no little old man there at the right moment to salvage matters. He sells the dead bird to his brother for a great deal of gold and goes home without a twinge of guilt.

Killing the goose (or whatever kind of bird it actually is) that lays the golden eggs is not quite so stupid a plan as it sounds, from a financial perspective. Unlike his brother, the goldsmith knows that whoever eats the bird’s heart and liver will find a gold piece under their pillow each morning. He has his wife set it roasting over the fire, but when she leaves the kitchen for a moment her nephews come running in and try to help. They turn the spit a few times. In the process a couple of pieces fall off and the boys eat them, thinking no one will miss the scraps.

I’m giving you one guess what those two pieces are.

The goldsmith’s wife works it out immediately. Knowing her husband will probably blame her, she quickly kills a cockerel and stuffs the heart and liver of the ordinary bird into the body of extraordinary one. The goldsmith cannot tell the difference from taste, but the absence of gold under his pillow is a bit of a giveaway. In the broom-maker’s house, meanwhile, the twins wake each morning to a growing fortune and their father blithely tells his brother. Realising what’s happened, the goldsmith takes his revenge by insisting the gold is cursed and the boys are miniature Satanists. The broom-maker pulls a woodcutter and abandons both children in the woods, deep enough that they will not find their way home. Excuse me, narrative, THIS IS NOT WHAT KIND PEOPLE DO.

But this story is not about him, or the goldsmith. Those two are decoy brothers.

So what befalls the twins? A hunter finds them lost in the forest and hears that they are human gold machines. “Well,” he says thoughtfully, “that’s really nothing terrible as long as you remain good and upright and don’t become lazy.” He takes them home, training them up to be hunters and saving all their gold as a trust find because he’s a genuinely kind-hearted person. When they are full-grown, he takes them out to test their skills. They manage to shoot down specific geese from a formation overhead (no birds are safe in this story) and he proclaims both young men to be full-fledged hunters.

Now that they are officially men of the world, they want to go exploring, so he gives each a gun, a hunting dog and a share in their fortune. “If ever you should separate,” he advises, offering one final gift, “stick this knife into a tree at the crossroad. Then if one of you comes back, he can see how his absent brother is doing, for the side of the blade facing the direction he took will rust if he’s dying but will stay bright as long as he’s alive.” The brothers take the knife and set off.

They do not bring much food with them – why should they, as skilled hunters? But that’s not so simple an equation as they thought. Their first target, a hare, cries out a protest and offers two of its young in exchange for its life. The baby hares are so adorable the hunters agree. Next they try to kill a fox, who makes the same bargain. By the time they reach the other side of the forest, they have a troupe of two hares, two foxes, two wolves, two bears and two lion cubs. Because what Germanic forest is complete without lions?

So the twins now have a menagerie of cute but nothing to eat. They have the foxes lead them to the nearest village (aka a chicken-stealing hotspot) where they buy enough food for themselves and all their animals, and continue travelling with the foxes as their guides. After some while of travelling together looking for useful employment – well done, foster dad hunter, you have instilled a solid work ethic! – they decide to separate. At the next crossroads they stick their father’s blade in a tree and turn their separate ways, with the animals dividing up accordingly.

One brother goes west. He soon comes to a city swathed in masses of black crepe, which strikes him as an eccentric choice in urban beautification. After settling his animals at an inn for the night, he inquires about the purpose of all that crepe and the innkeeper explains that it is mourning for the king’s daughter, who is about to die. “Is she that sick?” the hunter asks. The answer is no, she’s perfectly healthy, but on a mountain outside the city there lives a sanctimonious dragon who will only eat the ‘purest’ of maidens and enforces his strict diet by threatening to destroy the kingdom if he’s not well supplied. As literally the last virgin for miles around, the princess is next on his menu.

The shocked hunter wants to know why no one has done something about this situation, such as killing the dragon. The innkeeper assures him many knights have tried, but none have ever succeeded. The next day, the hunter sets off up the mountain.

At the top he finds a small church and three goblets on the altar with a ‘Drink Me’ style note announcing that whoever drinks of the contents will become the strongest man in the world and will also be able to draw the sword buried in stone outside. After testing his own strength against the sword, just to be sure, the hunter knocks back all three goblets and this time pulls the sword loose with ease. Who put all that strength potion there? Why did no other knight ever receive this kind of assistance? Why am I even hoping for an answer?

When the king’s daughter climbs the mountain – watched from a distance by her father’s marshal, presumably to ensure she doesn’t bolt – she finds the hunter waiting there. He ushers her inside the church, then stands watch for the dragon. The creature makes for a formidable sight, seven-headed and flaming, but is taken aback at the interruption to his routine. “What do you think you’re doing on this mountain?” he demands. “I’ve come to fight you,” the hunter explains. The dragon promptly opens all seven of his mouths and sets fire to the dry grass, intending to asphyxiate the hunter with all the smoke, but the menagerie of wood creatures come rushing to put out the flames and when the frustrated dragon lunges forward the hunter manages to cut off three of his heads at once.

Enraged by the pain, the dragon breathes flames directly at his enemy. The hunter deftly ducks away and cuts off three more heads. The dragon attempts another lunge; the hunter swings the sword again and this time just gets the tail. Realising he’s lost his advantage, he calls to his animals and they come to finish off the task by ripping the dragon into little pieces.

When it’s all over, the hunter opens the church doors. The princess passed out during the worst of the battle but cheers up enormously when the hunter carries her outside to see the dismembered dragon. She promptly proposes, and wins my heart at least by turning her coral necklace into adorable little collars for the hunter’s menagerie. The hunter himself is given her handkerchief. He uses it for wrapping up all seven of the dragon’s tongues. I’m pretty sure that’s not what lover’s tokens are for…

After the excitement of fighting and fainting and smoke inhalation, he suggests a restorative nap and the princess agrees. They lie down side by side, tasking the animals to keep watch – but they are all as exhausted as each other and one by one drift into sleep.

Remember the marshal? When the dragon fails to fly away, he decides to investigate and finds the sleepers peacefully settled amidst the carnage. He sees an opportunity. Drawing his own sword, he beheads the hunter and carries off the princess. When she wakes, he threatens to murder her if she doesn’t back up his story that he killed the dragon. Only once he has her properly terrified does he take her home to her father and even then, her agreement is deliberately vague. The marshal tries to claim the promised reward of her hand in marriage, but she insists on a delay of a year and a day. She hopes that by then the hunter will have returned for her.

That’s…awkward, given he’s dead and all. When the animals waken and see what has happened, they all turn on the hare, who was the last to fall asleep. The only thing that stops them killing him on the spot is his assurance that he can bring their master back to life. With the frenetic speed of the panicked and guilt-ridden, he dashes away and rapidly returns with a magical root. When the lion places it in the hunter’s mouth, he immediately comes back to life – unfortunately, in his distress, the lion put his head on backwards.

The hunter doesn’t even notice at first. He thinks the princess has ditched him and is deeply depressed. The animals explain the situation as best they can, which is not very well, and the lion rips off his head so they can put it around the right way. The hunter doesn’t even care. Instead of pressing his claim on an apparently unwilling woman, he departs like a true gentleman and travels the world with his animals as a multi-species dance troupe.

Twelve months later, he passes through the city again and sees it is now draped all in crimson. The same innkeeper tells him it is in honour of the princess’s impending marriage. The quietly furious hunter sets a wager with him: that he can partake of the wedding feast without leaving the inn. His hare bravely races through the streets, pursued by the city’s dogs; he loses them at the palace and sneaks into the princess’s room, where she recognises him by his collar and greets him delightedly. At his request, she orders the baker to carry a loaf of bread to the inn. The hare takes it from him in the street outside and carries it to his master.

Next, the hunter wants a piece of roast meat. And some vegetables. And a little something sweet to finish. Course by course each animal slips into the palace, and comes out again with a gift from the princess; until the bear comes for dessert and the guards try to stop him. He slaps them irritably aside and goes straight to the princess, who gives him enough sugarplums that he can satisfy his own sweet tooth as well.

Last of all, the hunter orders wine. His lion saunters down the street, sending citizens scattering in all directions, and is sent to the royal wine cellar with the king’s own cupbearer. He insists on tasting each wine he’s offered – none of them are good enough. “How can a stupid beast understand anything about wine?” demands the cupbearer, and gets knocked over by the exasperated critic. After that he finally brings out bottles of the king’s private vintage and the lion – by now a bit drunk – has him carry them back to the inn. The hunter dines cheerfully with his menagerie, deciding the princess must like him after all.

When the meal is finished he bounces up from the table, announcing he’s going to marry the king’s daughter. The innkeeper points out she’s marrying someone else today. Even after being shown the dragon’s seven tongues, he bets his house that the hunter isn’t her real saviour. Meanwhile, the king is asking his daughter why tempestuous animals have been treating his house like a drive-through all day. She won’t explain herself, but advises he send for the hunter at once. The servant has perfect timing, arriving at the door just as the hunter makes his bet with the innkeeper. Pushing his victory for all its worth, the hunter insists on being sent fine clothes and a carriage before coming to the palace.

While the king is by now truly bewildered, he trusts his daughter and goes to receive her eccentric guest. In a deeply awkward turn of events, the hunter ends up seated next to his murderer, who doesn’t recognise him now he’s not covered in blood and ashes. The wedding ceremony is going ahead: it begins with the dragon’s seven heads being carried out on display, as the king praises his marshal’s courage. The hunter puts a spanner in the works, wondering aloud where the dragon’s tongues are. “Dragons have no tongues,” the marshal mutters. “Liars should have no tongues,” the hunter retorts, producing the princess’s handkerchief and its grisly contents. He then takes off each animal’s coral collar, showing how they were once all one necklace. The marshal’s treachery is revealed and as punishment the outraged king has him torn apart by four oxen. While he was undoubtedly a bad person, that’s way over the top. Prison time is an option, your majesty.

Anyway, no one thinks about that because they’re so excited about the princess marrying her true rescuer. The hunter dismisses his bet with the innkeeper and gives him a generous pile of gold in thanks for the timely gossip. Married life in the royal family suits the hunter splendidly – he rides out often with his gun and his animals to practice his favourite activity – but there’s one cloud on the horizon. Nearby is a forest rumoured to be enchanted. The hunter, by now officially appointed king of the realm, is the sort of person who is magnetically attracted to this kind of place. One day he rides into the forest in pursuit of a white doe, and does not return.

This is because he gets completely lost and is forced to make camp. While he’s sitting by a fire, surrounded by his animals, he’s startled by the sound of a human voice. He looks around at the dark trees, then up – and sees an old woman clinging to a branch above his head. She’s too afraid of his animals to come down and tosses him a switch, telling him to tap each beast to prove they won’t hurt her. Instead, the touch of the switch turns them to stone. She then jumps lightly down, strikes the young king himself with the switch and drags all the new statues to join her already impressive collection.

But what, you may be wondering, has become of the brother who went east? He, too, hit upon the idea of forming a dance act with his animals and has had moderate success. Passing the crossroads where he parted from his twin, he stops to check the knife and is greatly alarmed – for though half of that side of the blade is bright, half is rusty, meaning his brother must be in mortal danger. His anxious search leads him to the gates of the same city his brother now rules, where he’s mistaken for the young king. He puts no one right about that, thinking a bit of royal privilege may make his task easier, but when he’s obliged to share a bed with his brother’s wife he lays a sword between them to show how totally not into her he is. Luckily she’s not a restless sleeper.

He spends several days making inquiries about the forest, then insists on going there himself. As before, a white doe appears and he chases it. Just like with his brother, it disappears and he’s obliged to make camp overnight. He encounters the same old woman, but does not have his twin’s trusting temperament and refuses to strike any of his animals with her switch. “Either you come down,” he tells her, “or I’ll come get you!” She laughs at this, rightly – the lead bullets of his gun do her no harm. Then he loads up his gun with three silver buttons off his jacket, and those have an effect. She falls from the tree with a scream and he pounces on her at once, demanding to know what she did to his brother. Reluctantly, she leads him to the pit where she keeps her statues. He orders her to restore them all to life. A touch of her switch does the trick – the brothers embrace joyfully, then tie up the witch and burn her alive.

That is so – not necessary. Could they not have just turned her to stone? The concept of justice in this kingdom is utterly screwed up.

The brothers return home, swapping stories about their adventures. The one who is still a hunter unwisely reveals he temporarily took over his brother’s life, including his place in the princess’s bed, and is not given a chance to explain any more – overcome by a fit of blinding jealousy, the young king cuts off his head. He is instantly remorseful, however little that’s worth. The hare, accustomed to sudden death in this man’s presence, rushes off to fetch the root of life and the hunter is restored so swiftly that he doesn’t even know he died. No one enlightens him.

The young king arranges that they should enter the palace from opposite gates, baffling the princess and her father with their mirror arrivals. At first the princess cannot tell the two men apart. Then she spies the coral collars on her husband’s animals and decides this one must be hers, but still doesn’t know how she’s been deceived. That night she asks the young king why he’s been coming to bed with a sword lately and he realises how trustworthy his brother really is.

This story does not end with a happily ever after and well may it not – these brothers do not appear to have the aptitude for quiet lives. I am deeply disappointed in the first hunter, he starts out the story behaving so well only to get all hilt-happy at the end. There are regional variations on the twins of fortune theme, including Greece’s ‘The Twins’ (in which the rescued brother confesses to having killed and resurrected his twin) and Spain’s ‘The Knights of the Fish’ (in which the issue never comes up because they just trust each other). What I find most interesting about this version is how it contains the elements of so many other stories, from the golden goose to the sword in the stone. Who knows what the brothers may encounter next? I’m sure they can handle it, if they can only keep from each other’s throats that long.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.116 – Rake Up!

This Danish fairy tale is taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Mermaids and begins with a mermaid who has established an unexpected career in agriculture. Her herd of cows usually graze on seaweed, but that’s not working for them and at length they demand some real grass. The mermaid swings atop one of the cows and leads the herd to a nearby field. “Now, my darling grey cows, and you, my huge bull Mark, eat your fill,” the mermaid says, and they do exactly that – until the humans come along to spoil everything.

You see, near the field is a small town. No one there owns any cows, therefore the grass is of no particular use to them, but the sight of the mermaid happily combing out her hair while her beasts graze ignites their latent xenophobic possessiveness. Forming a mob, they block the mermaid’s path as she tries to return to the sea, throwing stones and beating the cows with sticks. They are terrible people. The bull Mark wants to retaliate with his considerable force, but the mermaid has queenly good manners and won’t let him hurt anyone. She and her herd are instead locked away in a yard while the townsfolk debate what to do.

One man wants to kill them all. He is, appropriately enough, the town butcher. A tailor protests, not because he is ethically superior but because he’s scared of Mark. A third man, this one a lawyer, comes up with an alternative suggestion: making the mermaid pay damages for the eaten grass. “Don’t mermaids possess riches?” he points out, and the crowd starts cheering.

They go to the mermaid with their demands. “I can’t pay,” she says blankly. “I haven’t any money.” This is a cultural misunderstanding on her part – she is wearing a heavily bejewelled girdle that will do quite nicely. There are easily enough precious stones there to set up all the townsfolk for life, but given how little worth the mermaid seems to place on her girdle, they assume she must possess far greater riches. “In three days time,” they tell her, “come to the shore where we shall be waiting, and bring us three more such girdles.” She agrees to the terms and they let her go back to the sea.

The cows wade into the sea, disappearing underwater, until only the mermaid and her bull are left on the beach. “Rake up, my bull!” the mermaid instructs, and Mark goes to work with his horns. Sand fills the air. The crowd of onlookers who followed them down to the water quickly retreat, but Mark keeps raking and sand keeps flying, settling like drifts of snow upon rooftops and streets, piling against windows and blocking doors. When the town is half-buried, the mermaid tells Mark to stop and he gives a smug bellow for anyone listening before following her into the sea.

That’s what you get when you mess with a mermaid. The townsfolk clean up as best they can, but two days of shovelling is not enough to make a dent and soon patience is in short supply. The lawyer throws down his shovel, announcing he’ll go to the city and sell the mermaid’s girdle. A distrustful chorus is raised. In the end the butcher and tailor accompany him, to make sure no one cheats anyone else.

On the way to the city, they stop and the lawyer draws the girdle from his pack. The stones shine winningly in the sunlight. “Thousands of pounds we shall get for these gems!” he gloats. “What, only thousands? Nay, millions!” This attitude does not inspire trust from his companions, each of whom insist on carrying it the rest of the way – the argument turns into a fight, each man grabbing a side of the girdle and pulling with all his might. Unsurprisingly, it breaks. Jewels roll everywhere. When the men hurry to gather them up, they find only dried seaweed. They can do nothing but return to town, empty handed.

The mermaid is a woman of her word. On the third day she comes to the beach as agreed, bringing the promised jewels. “Your girdles!” she calls. “Come and fetch them!” No one comes near; in the distance, the lawyer shakes his fist. The mermaid laughs and dives deep.

Given how often fairy tales portray the other – be that minority groups, non-humans or just non-pretty people – as evil or at the least untrustworthy, it’s rather wonderful to encounter a story in which such attitudes are so roundly criticised. The mermaid is dignified and courteous in the face of other people’s awful behaviour, but at the same time she’s nobody’s victim. Something else worth noting? The only descriptor of her looks is ‘queenly’. She doesn’t need to be hyperbolically beautiful to be stone cold fabulous.

Review No.232 – Hell Fire

Hell Fire (Corine Solomon No.2) – Ann Aguirre

Gollancz, 2010

Corine Solomon knows her life is a mess. Having nearly died rescuing her ex’s mother from a ruthless drug cartel, she’s now on a road trip to her childhood hometown – which just happens to be where her own mother was murdered. Last time Corine was in Kilmer, she was a teenage runaway. Now she’s all grown up and determined to shake loose some answers. But underneath Kilmer’s picture-book pretty exterior, there are more secrets festering than even Corine could have suspected…

Ignore the cover. This is standard operating procedure for reading urban fantasy. Corine Solomon does not, to my knowledge, have flame tattoos all over her back; what she does have is a confrontational and mildly cantankerous personality. Though I don’t always like her, she’s interesting. This book focused more on her personal history than the first instalment, but it didn’t pack quite the punch I was expecting – the fragmented nature of the plot and the inadequate explanation of its premise diminished the narrative’s power, which is a shame, but I found Hell Fire an easy and enjoyable read. The series continues with Shady Lady.

Review No.231 – Kingdom of the Gods

Kingdom of the Gods (The Inheritance Trilogy No.3) – N.K. Jemisin

Orbit, 2012

First published in 2011

Consider this a housekeeping post-it: I have been misnumbering my reviews since JULY and while this really frustrates me, I can’t be bothered going back to fix them up. Perhaps it is a sign I should stop numbering them at all. In the meantime – this is definitely No.231! On with the review!

Three children meet in the dust and dark beneath the palace of Sky. One is Sieh the Trickster, once a godling slave to the Arameri family and now bitterly bewildered by the disappointments of freedom. Shahar and Dekarta are the descendants of his tormentors. An idle game turns into an unlikely friendship, but where love and power meet there is the worst kind of danger. The world is changing. Chaos may yet swallow them all.

To really understand this book, you have to read the first two in the series – and I’d also suggest avoiding any blurbs, as the one included at the end of The Broken Kingdoms made me expect a completely different protagonist. The narrative voice of this story is Sieh, a decided departure from Yeine and Oree in any number of ways. Sieh is much more raw, ungainly and guilt-ridden and making inadvisable decisions at every turn. He’s just so frustrating. Familiar characters look different and often less likeable through his eyes (though Yeine and Lil are brilliant from every angle). This book feels heavier than the previous two, more volatile, as I’m sure Jemisin intended it to be. The world-building is spectacular as ever, the language nuanced and beautiful. It is a fitting end to a remarkable trilogy.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.115 – The Hidden Girls

Marriage, as I have said before, is a loaded concept in fairy tales, coming as it so often does as a reward or punishment (or, in particularly creepy cases, as both). I’m sure it will come as an ENORMOUS SURPRISE to know the scales are most often weighed in favour of male characters. As I have also said before, so many times, this is a problem that can generally be fixed, or at least improved, by respecting each female character’s agency and treating them like you know they’re really people.

Some stories, though, have layers of alarming subtext that you’re presumably not meant to think about en route to the pretty dress finale. This week I’m looking at the same fairy tale, told three different ways – three variations on what it takes to survive being the heroine.

Version 1: Mossycoat

This is taken from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s collection British Folk Tales – a selection and begins with a girl who’s being courted by a very persistent pedlar. She does not want to marry him but doesn’t want to reject him outright either. She consults her mother, which is a terrible idea because the widow is a mercenary opportunist and insists the girl milk her suitor for all he’s worth before making her lack of interest plain. “You tell him,” the widow says, “that you won’t marry him unless he gets you a white satin dress embroidered with sprigs of gold as big as a man’s hand; and mind you tell him it must be a perfect fit.”

The daughter passes on her mother’s demand, the pedlar accepts the challenge, and within a week he’s back with the requested dress. His second task is to bring a silk dress the colour of ‘all the birds of the air’, which…sounds better than I think it would look, but it takes him an even shorter time to produce and I must admit, I’m impressed by his sartorial connections. The two women he’s trying to please remain unmoved.

For his third task the pedlar brings the girl a pair of tiny silver slippers, again a perfect fit, at which time the girl agrees to marriage and arranges for him to return the next morning at ten. Unknown to him, the widow has been busily sewing the whole time and that night finishes making a coat of moss and gold thread. A magic coat. “When you’ve got it on,” she explains, “you have only to wish to be somewhere, and you’ll be there that very instant. And you’ve only to wish if you want to change yourself into something else, like a swan, or a bee.” If you were making a magic coat, lady, why not GET THE DRESSES YOURSELF.

At dawn the widow wakes her daughter. It’s time to go fortune hunting – “and a handsome fortune it must be”, ugh, you’d break your neck trying to find depths in this one. Really it’s not so much of a hunt as a siege, because the widow gives very precise directions as to where the girl’s fortune will be located: a hundred miles away, at the house of a wealthy gentleman. The girl arrives plainly dressed but with her fancy wardrobe packed up in her bag, and gains employment as the undercook. She goes by the name of Mossycoat.

The other servants dislike her on sight, insulted she be given so prestigious a position above any of them. They don’t let her do the job. Instead she’s given the grimiest and most unpleasant tasks around the kitchen and repeatedly hit upon the head with a milk-skimmer when anyone’s particularly annoyed.

Not much a fortune, you might think. Certainly the girl has reason to think so. After months of scouring pans and cleaning grates, and being given milk-skimmer-induced headaches, she hears that invitations are going out for a grand house party taking place nearby. For three days there’ll be hunting and sport, and for three nights there will be dancing. The lord and lady who are Mossycoat’s employers will be attending with their son and all the servants wish they could go too. They take out their frustrations by mocking Mossycoat, imagining her showing up in her dirty rags, but it’s more wishful thinking on their parts – both the lord and lady like her pretty face and their son has taken a particular interest, to the point she actually is asked to attend the dance with them. This is weirdly egalitarian. Mossycoat says no but is unwise enough to tell the other servants of her exclusive access and they predictably react with insults and physical abuse.

The next night, the same invitation is extended and Mossycoat gives the same response – but she has plans. She puts all the other servants under a sleeping spell, takes a long and luxurious bath, then slips into her white satin dress and silver slippers. Underneath, she wears the mossycoat. She wishes herself to the dance and just appears in the ballroom, where she immediately catches the eye of her employers’ son. Not that he recognises her as the pretty servant from his own house; he thinks she’s a Mysterious Stranger and ushers his mother over to question her. All Mossycoat will reveal about her home is that people hit her on the head there. So the young man approaches her himself and pesters her until she agrees to one dance with him. When he pressures her for another dance, she wishes herself back home and disappears before his eyes.

Changing into her work clothes, she returns to the kitchen and wakes the servants. They all think they fell asleep on the job and Mossycoat threatens to tell the mistress if they continue being horrible to her. Meanwhile, the young gentleman she ditched last night is obsessing over her and wondering how he can find out where she lives. “I’ll die if I’m not able to marry her,” he declares to his mother. She’s a little more cautious in her enthusiasm, but her son is too caught up in plotting that night’s dance to listen. Mossycoat is asked to attend one more time and the servants forget they’re supposed to be nice to her, ganging up for some more bullying instead.

She gets her own back soon enough, sending them all to sleep with another spell and changing into her bird-coloured silk. The moment she reaches the ballroom, she’s ambushed by her new suitor. As before, she agrees to one dance then insists she must leave. He tries to catch hold of her but just gets one slipper. The next day he lies around in bed being lovesick. He convinces his parents to send out an announcement that whoever the slipper fits will be his bride, which brings a rush of hopeful candidates. Included among them are a number of household servants. Not Mossycoat, though.

When the mistress realises, she orders her undercook upstairs to try on the slipper. No surprise, it fits. The young man leaps up from bed to embrace her, but Mossycoat wants to savour the moment and insists on a couple of costume changes first, so he can appreciate just how fabulous she looks. She then reveals to her soon-to-be parents-in-law how badly she was treated in their kitchen and gets all the servants sacked. Her mother moves into the grand house, Mossycoat is given everything she wants, and I feel deeply cynical.

Version 2: Cat-Skin

This Grimm brothers version one-ups the first by making everybody royalty. A dying queen insists her husband promise not to remarry unless he meets with someone as beautiful as herself, and he keeps his word, despite his advisers desperately searching for someone who can meet such high expectations.

Why they are so frantic is unclear, because he already has an heir. She has the beauty and the famous golden hair but instead of retiring and making her queen in his place (which would have been the best plot twist) her father decides she must marry the Prince of the Enchanted Island. She knows this prince is a terrible person, for reasons she’s not inclined to share, so stalls as best she can. “Before I marry anyone,” she announces, “I must have three dresses; one must be of gold like the sun, another must be of shining silver like the moon, and a third must be as dazzling as the stars: besides this, I want a mantle of a thousand different kinds of fur put together, to which every beast in the kingdom must give part of his skin.” She feels pretty safe, since who could achieve all of that?

Except hah, no, she’s not safe at all. The king sets his weavers and hunters to work and far too soon all the clothes are made. Left with no choice but to run away, the princess draws on her ‘heroine of the story’ magic, hiding the new dresses inside a nutshell. Somehow. She then packs three items of golden jewellery, throws on the fur cloak, smears her skin with dirt and, while everyone else lies sleeping, departs the castle for good under the name of Cat-skin.

She walks as far as she can. Coming to a large wood – the hunting ground of a different king, though she doesn’t know it at the time – she curls in the hollow of large tree and sleeps. It’s noon when she wakes, and only then because the aforementioned king no.2 shows up with his dogs. His huntsmen describe Cat-skin as ‘a most wonderful beast’ and the king orders they bring it back to the castle, but as the men lift her the princess wakes. Very frightened, she cries out. “I am a poor child that has neither father nor mother left; have pity on me and take me with you.” The men immediately modify their attitudes, calling her ‘miss’ and giving a job in the kitchens.

The servants here are not actively horrible to her, but the work is not fun and not easy, especially for a princess unaccustomed to hard labour. One day when a feast is being held upstairs, she gets the cook’s permission to take a peep. Once out of sight, she washes up quickly and changes into the golden dress. The king is captivated and dances with her. Side note: there is no reference to him pushing. It definitely seems like she wants to dance with him. Not for long, of course, the cook is expecting her – at the end of the number she slips away, changes back into her fur mantle and returns to work.

It’s the cook’s turn to take a look at the festivities, so Cat-skin is given the task of stirring the soup. She deliberately drops her golden ring into the king’s dish, so that he finds it later as he’s finishing his meal (and luckily not choking to death on unsanitary objects hiding in the food). He calls on the cook to explain it, who in turn calls on Cat-skin, but she insists on total ignorance and the king lets the matter go.

Next time there is a feast things play out much the same way. Cat-skin shimmies into another glowing dress, rocks up to dance with the dazzled king, then slips away unseen. Left to tend the soup, she drops in her golden necklace, but refuses to admit that to the baffled king. Possibly it is simply an excuse to see him, or maybe she’s leaving clues. Regardless, at the next feast, there’s the king’s favourite gatecrasher – and he’s determined to find out who she is. He slips a ring on her finger as they dance and manages to keep her at his side for a while, but she ducks away at last. Pressed for time, she can’t take off the dress; instead she throws her fur mantle over the top, running to tend the soup. This time she drops her brooch into the dish, but doesn’t notice the king’s own act of jewellery-swapping.

Ordering her before him for a third time, he sees the ring on her finger and seizes her hand. When she tries to pull away, the fur cloak comes askew, revealing her glittering ballgown underneath. Her true identity revealed, the king proposes and they marry. Her father is not invited to the wedding.

Version 3: All Fur

I’m putting a trigger warning on this one, for attempted sexual abuse and attempted incest – if you don’t want to read it, skip straight to the last paragraph. This is another Grimm brothers’ version from a different book, and begins in almost exactly the same way – a beautiful golden-haired queen making her husband promise to remarry only if he finds her lookalike, and the councillors of court fruitlessly attempting to do just that. But one day, the king looks at his daughter and realises how much she resembles her mother. In that moment he decides he will marry her.

His councillors are appalled; the princess is horrified. What can she do to save herself when his word is literally law? She pulls the same trick as the princess from ‘Cat-skin’, insisting she cannot marry without one dress golden, another silver and another bright as the stars – and of course, the fur mantle. As before, the king manages to acquire each item with terrifying speed. He gives them to his daughter and tells her the wedding will take place the next day.

While everyone else is sleeping, the girl flees. She takes with her the dresses and three golden trinkets: a ring, a tiny spinning wheel and a little reel. Wearing the cloak, she takes the name All Fur and runs as far away from her father as she can go.

She, too, falls asleep in a wood and wakes to the inquisitive eyes of a different king’s huntsmen. Upon realising she is human, they take her home to be a kitchen hand – but when the young king holds a feast, she appears amidst the crowd in her golden gown and dances like the princess she is. Later, preparing the king’s soup, she drops her golden ring into the dish. Like Cat-skin, she denies all knowledge and insists she is ‘good for nothing but to have boots thrown at her’. King Two sends her back to the kitchen unenlightened.

She dances at the next feast, and hides her golden spinning wheel in King Two’s soup. Once again, he can’t get any explanation from her. Confused and suspicious, the cook is very reluctant to allow her upstairs for a third time. She pleads so persistently he eventually lets her go anyway, but once in the ballroom there’s King Two to contend with. He has the dance stretched out for as long as he can and slips a ring onto All Fur’s finger while holding her hand; when she runs back to the kitchen, she has no time to take off the dress and does not notice her newly acquired jewellery. When King Two finds the reel she has left in his soup and summons her, he zeroes in on the ring. Like in ‘Cat-skin’, there’s a slightly disturbing reference to his tearing away the fur cloak, making her reveal her identity. Of course she’s beautiful underneath her disguise and they marry. She did give him the clues; I so hope she’s happy.

What is interesting to me about the tellings of these three stories is how the protagonist goes from stereotype gold-digger in the first, to resourceful escapee in the second, to desperate refugee in the third, while the basic framework of the story remains much the same. What changes is the context. Plot contrivances that make no sense in ‘Mossycoat’ become devastatingly logical in ‘All Fur’. The latter two heroines are given excellent reason for their actions and we are allowed to share their feelings, not kept at a careful distance as we are with Mossycoat. Perspective matters. If you look through the heroine’s eyes, instead of just looking at her, the view can be radically different.

Review No.130 – The Amethyst Curse

The Amethyst Curse – Chantelle Thomson

Self published, 2014

It has been nearly a hundred years since Alexandra Taylor became one of the undead. In all that time, she has never met another vampire – until the one who turned her in the first place, and subsequently abandoned her, shows up on the doorstep demanding to be allowed into her life. He brings with him a previously unimagined world of rules and expectations, throwing Alex’s understanding of herself into total disarray. Then a dead vampire shows up in her neighbourhood, and Alex realises just how far out of her depth she really is.

This is Brisbane writer Chantelle Thomson’s first novel, a copy of which was sent to me for review. It’s rare to see a vampire story set in Australia, let alone one that focusses so closely on vampiric culture. Alex is a difficult protagonist to like and sometimes to understand – she has no qualms about embracing her vampire nature, in fact it’s human reactions she struggles with – while the supporting cast (most of whom are also vampires) are very limited. There’s a tendency towards telling rather than showing and some awkward phrasing that made me double back a few times, but the vampire world is well thought out and it’s a nice touch how Australian conditions are consistently acknowledged as an extra difficulty for sun-phobic creatures to navigate. This is the beginning of a planned paranormal romance series.