Review – Hansel and Gretel

Hansel & Gretel – Neil Gaiman

Bloomsbury, 2014

The story is as old as dark forests and dark thoughts. Two children hear voices in the night, and in the morning are led away between the tall trees, far from the paths they know. Even if they can find the way home, they know they won’t be safe – but the world is so hungry, and there’s so much worse in the woods than wolves…

This is pretty much a straight retelling of the Grimm brothers fairy tale, with murkily atmospheric illustrations by Lorenzo Mattotti. Gaiman gives the story a wider context, though, that gives it greater depth. The notes at the end explain the fairy tale’s history, which is as bleak as you might expect. Maybe not a good bedtime story for smaller children, but older ones with a taste for scary adventures might like this one.

Disney Reflections No.4 – Messing About In Boats

This is Disney Reflections, a series of monthly posts in which I compare Disney animated fairy tales to the original stories.

Made in 1989, The Little Mermaid is the first of the Disney Renaissance fairy tales. I have such feelings about this movie. SUCH FEELINGS.

The fairy tale: While I made reference to ‘The Little Mermaid’ several times during the Fairy Tale Tuesday project, I never posted a full write-up and it’s startling how hard it was to find a book in my collection that had it. The one I eventually found prefaces the story with a black and white sketch of a prince brooding over his lute while the titular mermaid hides in the shrubbery.

This makes it seem like the story will be funny. Be very sure, it’s not.

On her fifteenth birthday, each of the sea king’s six daughters is permitted above the surface for the first time and thereafter whenever she likes. The sisters have been raised on their grandmother’s stories of the strange human world, playing with pretty things fallen from wrecks, and one by one they ascend for their first glimpse. Waiting is torture for the youngest princess. When her day finally comes, it coincides with the sixteenth birthday of a handsome prince and she emerges alongside his floating party – a magnificent sight, the deck bright with lamps and fireworks bursting colour across the sky. The prince’s beauty is what really takes her fancy, however. She lingers for hours, captivated. When the wind of an oncoming storm sets the ship rocking, she thinks it’s fun; it’s only when the mast snaps that she realises how much danger the ship is in. As it breaks apart on the waves, she watches the prince sinking below the sea. Once again, cultural differences are a problem; it takes her a moment to remember humans can’t breathe underwater. Swimming through the wreckage of the ship, she hauls him through the tempest to shore.

She’s cautious enough to retreat to the water once he’s safe, which means he wakes surrounded by anxious girls (yes, really) while the one who rescued him mopes around her father’s palace. She spends a lot of time hugging a statue (yes, really) and returning to the empty beach in the hope of a prince sighting. Eventually, she confides in her sisters. This is an excellent idea, because one of them knows who the prince actually is and where he lives. Arm in arm, they swim to his palace.

So at least she has a more useful place to mope, watching him go about his daily business and listening eagerly to any gossip spoken about him. The more she sees of humanity, the more she likes it. She wants to climb mountains, see beyond the forests and fields. “If men are not drowned,” she asks her grandmother, “do they live for ever? Do they not die, as we here below in the sea?” Oh, sweetie. “Yes,” her grandmother replies, “and their life is even shorter than ours. We may live for three hundred years; but then, when we cease to exist, we only turn to foam on the water, and have not even a grave here below amongst those we love. We have no immortal soul, we never come to life again.” She has a lot to say about souls, gifting her innocent granddaughter a burgeoning existential crisis. Quintessential Hans Christian Andersen!

But wait, there’s more – if the mermaid can snag herself a human husband, that ‘what’s yours is mine’ business apparently applies to souls too so she would ‘have part in the felicity of mankind’. So all that spiritual confusion gets tangled up in the young mermaid’s already obsessive teenage crush and the next night, while her family and friends celebrate at a ball, she sneaks off to see the Water-witch.

This is not a good idea. You can tell, because she has to pass through a whirlpool and a bog of bubbling slime to get there. If those two obstacles don’t deter unwanted visitors, the forest of polypi – ‘half-animal and half-plant’ – should do the trick. The mermaid, while terrified of their grasping fingers, refuses to be driven away. She binds up her hair and swims fast until she reaches the witch’s house, where the witch herself sits feeding toads to her water snakes.

“I know already what you want,” she says baldly to her visitor. “It is foolish of you, but you shall have your wish, since it will bring you to misery, my pretty Princess.” There is a potion that can transform her tail into legs; if she takes it, every step will feel like treading on knives and she will be trapped on land forever, divided from her family. What’s more, if her prince marries another, she’ll die of a broken heart and it will all have been for nothing.

And she’s not even DONE yet – there’s the subject of payment! In exchange for human legs, the mermaid must give up her beautiful voice. The witch cuts out her tongue. When the potion has been brewed, the mutilated mermaid sets off to find her prince. She only drinks when she reaches his palace. The pain of the transformation is like a sword cutting her in half and she passes out; when she wakes, the prince himself is standing over her. Also, she’s naked. It’s awkward.

Being a decent person, he takes her in. Not in a creepy exploitative sense either, which is lucky, because the royal family have slaves to dance and sing for them and that is built-in societal creepiness. Trying to capture the prince’s attention, the little mermaid dances too, though every step is agony. This effort wins her the dubious honour of sleeping on a velvet cushion outside the prince’s door, like a stray puppy. Also like a stray puppy, he takes her everywhere. She gets to explore the forest and climb the mountains, and laugh at the clouds. At night, she bathes her aching feet in the sea and thinks about her family. Though she has her wish, and is living her dream, it hurts.

Her sisters hurt for her. They come to the surface, seeking her; once she is recognised, her grandmother and father follow, too wary to draw close to the shore but loving her too much to stay away.

The prince loves her as well, just not in the right way. He thinks of her as a child. It’s even sadder because she reminds him of the girls he saw when he woke on that beach, and he thinks one of them saved him. AND SHE CAN’T TELL HIM HE’S WRONG. His fondness gives her hope, even as his betrothal to another woman is announced – the mermaid is privy to all his confidences and he’s deeply unenthusiastic about the match, planning to meet the princess but not to marry her. He half-jokes he’d rather marry his ‘foundling’ and kisses her. I want to slap him. Particularly when she accompanies him on the voyage and he tries to explain sea travel to her. I know that’s not fair, since how could he understand? I want to slap him ANYWAY.

In a stunning twist of narrative sadism, that girl from the beach – the one the mermaid looks a little like, the one the prince believes rescued him – is the very princess to whom the prince has become engaged. Of course he completely changes his mind about marriage the minute he sees her. The little mermaid has to watch it happen. Despite her heartbreak, she kisses the prince’s hand, offering congratulations the only way she can. She allows herself to be dressed in courtly clothes, holds the bride’s train at the wedding, follows them aboard the beautiful ship on which they will begin their honeymoon. The lights and dancing make her think of the first time she saw the prince and she dances like a girl who’s about to die.

Not if her sisters can help it, though. They have cut off all their long hair and sold it to the witch in exchange for a knife. If the mermaid stabs her prince before sunrise and drips the blood on her feet, she will once more have a fish’s tail and can return to the sea.

The mermaid goes to her prince one last time and looks down at him, asleep in bed with his new bride. She kisses him on the forehead and throws the dagger far out to sea. Then she throws herself after it.

She does not die! She does not turn into sea foam! Instead she is surrounded by spirits of the air, for she’s become one of them through her good deed. Through centuries of charitable acts and dogged persistence, they are earning themselves souls and now she has a chance at the same goal. The mermaid looks back and sees her prince waking, looking out at the water as he realises she’s gone. Swooping down, she kisses the bride’s forehead too, then lets it all go to soar skyward.

The film: We begin with adorable dolphins, singing sailors and a cute prince messing about like an overexcited little boy. That’s how you know it’s Disney. Underneath, down through fathomless depths of blue, the merfolk are gathering at King Triton’s shimmering palace for a royal gala starring his seven alliteratively-named daughters. It is supposed to be the debut of the youngest princess, Ariel, only she’s blown it off to go explore a wreck with her piscean bestie Flounder. Ariel is a passionate collector of human memorabilia and proves it by going into transports of delight over a bent fork. Even being chased out of the wreck by a rather rabid shark can’t dim her joy. She takes her find to the surface, to the rock where her seagull friend Scuttle lives. He’s her expert on all things human, except he’s not an expert at all, he just offers whatever ridiculous story pops into his head. He also seems dreadfully drunk, or possibly concussed. Ariel eats up every scrap he gives her.

http://i.ytimg.com/vi/dHWOxc7RLjw/maxresdefault.jpgWhat she doesn’t know is that she’s being stalked by electric eels. They are the minions of Ursula, the sea witch, half voluptous femme fatale and half black and purple octopus, keeping up the trend of stylish Disney villainesses with a killer make-up game. Once her life was all power and glamour – then she was exiled from the palace by Triton. She’s still a tad bitter about it.

Triton himself is not at his happiest, hurt by Ariel’s no-show. He’s commiserating at the palace with Sebastian the crab, composer of the gala’s centrepiece symphony and current laughing stock. They are both even angrier when Ariel gets back and in the course of her apologies and excuses, it’s revealed she went to the surface. To Triton, humans are barbarians; any risk of contact with them is unacceptable. He wants Ariel to promise she’ll never go up there again. Ariel, of course, swims off without promising anything at all.

Rather unwisely, Sebastian goes on a rant about the proper control of teenagers, which Triton totally takes to heart. Before you know it, Sebastian is appointed Ariel’s supervisor. He follows her to a hidden grotto where she keeps her collection of human artefacts – everything from jewellery to screwdrivers to mysteriously intact paintings. Ariel is desperate to experience the human world. She wants to dance in the sunshine, walk down a street, see a fire. She wants to EXPLORE. She’s a girl with a dream and I adore her, okay? She deserves nice things.

Sebastian is freaked out. He tries to bring her home but a passing shadow alerts them to a ship passing overhead and like anything could keep her away from that. It is, surprise surprise, the prince’s ship. Fireworks are exploding, filling the sky with colour, while sailors dance on deck. These are the celebrations for Prince Eric’s birthday and Ariel is enchanted – particularly with the prince himself, who she sees first playing with his adorable mop of a dog Max, and later playing the flute. (She thinks it’s a snarfblat, but same difference.) His chamberlain presents, as his gift, a life-size statue of Eric in the pose of a knight. The prince struggles for a polite response. He also ducks out of the pointed conversation his chamberlain is trying to have about the necessity of marriage. “When I find her,” Eric declares, “I’ll know. It’ll hit me like lightning.”

That may well be true, but you know what else feels like being hit by lightning? There’s a storm rolling in and the party is abandoned as everyone hurries to secure the rigging. A direct lightning strike sets the mast on fire; it collapses onto the deck and the ship, spinning wildly out of control, smashes up against rocks. Eric hauls the chamberlain into a lifeboat then goes back for Max. The dog gets away safely. Eric is not so lucky.

http://a.dilcdn.com/bl/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2013/09/romantic_disney_the-little-mermaid_prince-eric.jpgFortunately, Ariel is still watching. She drags him to the surface and gets him safely to land, leaning anxiously over him while she waits for him to wake up. Sebastian looks on, horrified. Scuttle tries to find a pulse. In Eric’s heel. Spying on the tender moment is Ursula, who sees all sorts of possibilities. When Max comes bounding down the beach, followed by the chamberlain and surviving sailors, Eric is just coming around and Ariel slips into the water. She watches with starry-eyed resolve as he walks away.

Being Ariel, she takes a proactive approach to her crush, plotting how to see Eric again. Sebastian does his best to dissuade her. “The human world, it’s a mess,” he insists and throws together an impromptu dance number to confirm it. I love how he can just summon up a ‘hot crustacean band’ at the snap of a claw. Also, some really fantastic world-building is shown here, with it being widely accepted in Triton’s kingdom that fish tanks are just holding cells for underwater captives and humans will eventually eat them too. Sebastian might as well have saved the energy, though. Ariel is already gone.

She’s not even a little bit subtle about her infatuation, her sisters guess in ten seconds flat from all the floating around giggling, and clue in their baffled dad. He’s happy for his daughter but wants to know who the lucky merman is. When he asks Sebastian, the crab flies into a panic and accidentally reveals the truth. Triton’s good mood evaporates; with a roar of rage, he goes after Ariel. The timing is dreadful. Somehow – I have no idea how – Flounder has maneuvered the statue of Prince Eric into Ariel’s grotto as a surprise and she’s squealing over it in delight when Triton arrives to ruin her happiness. Overcome with fury that she could love a ‘spineless, savage, harpooning fish-eater’, he blasts apart her collection with his magical trident and reduces her beloved statue to rubble, then leaves her to cry.

Flounder and Sebastian can do nothing to comfort her. In the moment of vulnerability, she’s easy prey for Ursula’s smooth-talking eels, Flotsam and Jetsam. They suggest she visit the sea-witch, who can make ‘all (her) dreams come true’. It’s official, you can’t trust anyone who delivers that line. Ariel knows enough stories of the sea-witch to be doubtful, but looking around at the ruins of her grotto, she’s willing to take desperate measures. Her friends trail behind, trying to make her change her mind. She’s too angry and hurt to listen. Even the sinister, skeletal architecture of Ursula’s lair can’t make her turn back, though the garden of scared squirmy misery-worms leaves her shaken.

Waiting beyond it all is Ursula herself, all smirks and curves and purring poison. “The only way to get what you want,” she assures Ariel, “is to become a human yourself.” She spins a fiction of herself as the noble do-gooder using her magic for the general populace – but it comes at a price, and if you can’t pay up she turns you into a tortured garden plant. Ariel is given no time to absorb that detail, distracted with the practicalities of her potential bargain. Ursula can make her human for three days. If the prince gives her true love’s kiss before sunset on the third day, she’ll be human permanently; if he doesn’t, she’ll belong to Ursula. Also, in payment for the potion, Ariel must sell her voice.

Sebastian and Flounder can’t say NO fast enough. Ariel is torn. She’ll miss her family – and what can she do ashore without her voice? Ursula whirls around the cave, whipping up the potion and streaming sleazy platitudes about silence being attractive to men. She bullies Ariel into signing a contract that shines too brightly to even read, and that is…that. Ariel’s beautiful voice ihttp://cdnvideo.dolimg.com/cdn_assets/ccbe2bafbd46a9e8ccdd19502059f7742167503a.jpgs trapped inside a seashell. Her tail breaks apart into legs. As the spell takes effect, her friends haul her to the surface, to the same beach where she left Eric. She’s a little stunned but in love with her new toes. Scuttle is raucously supportive, Sebastian is a bit hysterical and it takes all Ariel’s wide-eyed imploring for him to keep the bargain from her father.

Just for the record, Eric’s castle is the most gorgeous beach house ever. He’s not too shabby himself, either, brooding on the identity of his mystery rescuer while playing the snarfblat – sorry, flute – completely unaware that the girl he’s dreaming of has just washed ashore. Luckily, Max is on the ball. He leads Eric to Ariel with an excess of enthusiasm. The prince apologises, checks she’s okay, and she just glows at him. Even wrapped inelegantly in a dress of sail and rope, she’s gorgeous. KISS THE GIRL.

Eric doesn’t. He has manners. I think he wants to, though, he’s sure he recognises her but when he realises she can’t talk he thinks he got it wrong – the girl he remembers was singing to him. Not that he grows one iota less courteous. He takes Ariel home, where she has her first bubblebath and is given a beautiful pink dress. Sebastian’s experience is more traumatic. He gets stuck in the kitchen with a terrifying chef who does his level best to kill him and smashes up the whole kitchen in the process. Meanwhile, in the dining room, Ariel is bumbling her way through dinner. She tries to comb her hair with the fork and steals the chamberlain’s pipe, trying to play a tune on it. Eric is obviously enchanted. The chamberlain ships it. (He ships Eric x marriage in general, but definitely likes Ariel.) They’re both so charmed they don’t notice Ariel hiding Sebastian on her plate.

He proves he’s a fantastic friend by overcoming the distress of his day to plot flirtation strategies when they’re alone later that night. Ariel, as usual, isn’t listening – she’s already fallen asleep, unaware of her father’s anxiety and remorse. He’s ransacking the sea for a sign of her and won’t rest until she’s found.

The next day, Eric shows Ariel around his lands. She’s fascinated by everything, pulling him in her wake as she runs from one discovery to another, taking the reins of the cart and nearly breaking both their necks (though she adapts quickly and Eric lets her keep driving because he’s the best). That evening they go boating in the lagoon. Scuttle, getting antsy for some lip action, tries to warble a ballad. It’s hideously awful and Sebastian is galvanised, pulling together a band out of random ducks and tortoises, crooning a love song in Eric’s ear.

The prince starts trying to guess Ariel’s name. With some prodding from Sebastian, he gets it right and the couple stare at each other while the boat spins idly on the water, encircled by fireflies and flamingos. Just as Eric and Ariel lean towards each other, however, the boat is overturned by Ursula’s eels. She proves she’s the villain by slut-shaming our perfect princess. Turning herself into a beautiful human girl, Ursula dons the seashell necklace and goes walking under Eric’s window. He’s very literally bewitched.

Scuttle wakes Ariel first thing in the morning with clumsy congratulations, thinking that the snap wedding that’s been announced is the culmination of yesterday’s flirting. It’s the first Ariel’s heard of it, but she flies out of the room to find Eric, lit up with hope. Then she sees him – standing beside another woman, ordering the baffled chamberlain to arrange a whole royal wedding in the space of one day. The ceremony is to take place at sunset.

Heartbroken, Ariel is left behind as the wedding ship departs. Sebastian and Flounder do their best to comfort her, but Scuttle, blissfully unaware that anything has gone wrong, is following the ship. Swooping past a window, he sees the prince’s new bride singing triumphantly at a mirror and Ursula’s gloating reflection singing back. Appalled, Scuttle flaps back to Ariel. When she understands what she’s dealing with, Ariel plunges straight into the water – and pretty much sinks, she can’t swim in this shape, she needs Flounder’s help to reach the ship. Sebastian goes to alert King Triton. Scuttle is tasked with stalling the wedding.

He was born for this.

Before you can say ‘enemy of the bride’ he’s summoned up an army of gatecrashers – birds to divebomb the guests, seals leaping on deck – Ursula herself is plastered with crustaceans and thrown into the wedding cake, and amidst the mess the seashell is ripped from her throat. The voice within returns to its true owner. Eric, waking from enchantment, realises he’s found his mystery girl and runs to her, but the sun is already sinking and Ariel is a mermaid once more. Ursula drags her into the sea.

She does not want a lovestruck princess. Ariel is bait and Triton takes it. In order to free his daughter from the terrible bargain, he must take her place and before Ariel’s horrified gaze he is transformed into one of the misery-worm garden plants. Ariel throws herself furiously at Ursula, and receives unexpected support from Eric, who has dived into the water after her. Snatching up the king’s triton and crown, Ursula aims a blast of magic at her ex-fiance, which he escapes only thanks to the efforts of Flounder and Sebastian. The bolt hits Flotsam and Jetsam instead, killing them instantly.

Enraged with grief, Ursula turns herself into a giantess, a queen of the seas. A whirlpool forms as she rises to the surface and wrecks float up with her. Eric, ever the sailor, scrambles aboard one and aims it straight at her. She’s so obsessively focused on trying to kill Ariel that she doesn’t see the jagged prow approaching until it stabs straight through her chest. With a cry, she sinks into the depths. All bargains die with her: the misery-worms are restored into very relieved merfolk, Triton reclaims his property and everyone re-evaluates their lives. “Children got to be free to live their own lives,” Sebastian hints at his king. With only a little sigh of regret, Triton gives Ariel back her legs, no strings attached, and throws in a sparkly blue dress to boot.

Ariel marries her prince. It takes place on board a ship so all her family can watch, and all her friends too (Sebastian wins round two over the homicidal chef. Go Sebastian!). Afterwards Ariel gets a hug from her father, Eric bows to Triton like the dream son-in-law he is and the royal couple sail away under a flawless rainbow. Who needs confetti?

Spot the Difference: Many elements of the original story show up here – the statue, the singing – but the brutal edge is gone. Andersen’s story is one of obsession, rejection and despair, full of religious guilt. His heroine is literally soulless, at least in her own eyes. Disney’s Ariel, by contrast, is vividly optimistic with a decisive sense of self that can withstand the loss of big defining traits like her voice and fishtail. She draws strength from her friendships and falls for a man who is worth her time. Eric has more personality than all the other Disney princes so far put together; he’s attracted to Ariel’s enthusiasm and energy. The Water-witch of the original fairy tale is a malicious cynic who continues to exploit vulnerable girls until the very end, but Ursula has a game plan beyond casual cruelty.

I’ve read criticisms of The Little Mermaid, calling it sanitised – to which I reply, hell yes it is, that’s the point. This is the only film version I’ve ever preferred to the fairy tale. Retellings are not intended to reiterate the source material, they respond to perceived flaws and adapt the story for a different time and/or audience. Ariel is given the agency and confidence her Andersen counterpart could only dream of. Her love story is convincing and the ending allows a healthy balance between both worlds. All the main characters get a ‘hero moment’ during the finale, acknowledging that Ariel needs friends and family as well as her true love in her life. This is a movie for children. It is meant to inspire hope, encourage adventure. Even if it was meant for adults, though, what’s so wrong with a happy ending?

It’s slightly less happy if you acknowledge the existence of The Little Mermaid 2, but I try to pretend that never happened.

The Sharazad Project: Week 17

Trigger warning: references to domestic abuse, violence, ableist language

Night twenty seven begins inauspiciously. Unmoved by the admittedly underwhelming tale of the broker (see last week’s segment), the king is getting bored and decides he should really hang all these dishonest people. Each is either responsible for killing, attempting to kill or covering up the death of his court fool. Also, they made his executioner feel like an idiot by rushing about making confessions all over the place. (I don’t think the king cares about that last issue. I do. It must have been very embarrassing.)

The king’s inspector, one of the guilty party, quickly steps forward. “With your permission, I will tell you a story of what happened to me just before I found this hunchback,” he offers. “If it is more remarkable that the previous tale, will you spare all our lives?” The king agrees, so the inspector begins.

His story opens with a group of friends meeting to recite from the Quran. Afterwards food is laid out, including one very popular sweet dish. Everyone tries it except for one guest. “Don’t force me,” he tells them. “What happened to me the last time I ate this is enough for me.” He probably has a food allergy, people! Show some respect!

Of course they don’t show any respect at all, they demand to know why he won’t eat, so he agrees to taste the dish in question – but only if he can first wash his hands forty times with soap, forty with potash and forty with galingale. I’m not sure he’d have any hands left by the time he’s done with that lot, but the host orders supplies and once he’s completed the ritual the man forces himself to eat. It’s only now they notice he’s missing both thumbs. He tells them that he’s also lost both big toes. With absolutely no tact at all, everyone immediately wants to know how this came about.

So he tells his tale of woe. Segue!

His father was a wealthy merchant who, thanks to an overfondness for wine and music, was a good deal less wealthy by the time he died – stone broke, actually, leaving his son to pay off his debts and get the family shop back into shape. One day a beautiful girl comes riding down the street, flanked by a pair of slaves. The thumbless man’s shop is the only one open at that early hour, so in she comes and within seconds the shopkeeper utterly besotted with her. He stares openly and offers up a few creepy verses about how her beauty tortures him. Her answering poetry is oblique; approving of his admiration, but implying they’ll probably never meet again. She then gets down to business, asking for him to bring her cloth.

The thumbless man’s stocks are limited, but as the other merchants start opening their shops he hurries about collecting her orders. She hands over the pile of fabric to one of the slaves and leaves without actually paying for anything or giving the thumbless man her contact details. Which leaves him in debt to his neighbouring shopkeepers for five thousand dirhams. That sounds like a lot. Certainly they think so; for two weeks the thumbless man is torn between the dizzying flush of love and the practicalities of doing business. Fortunately for him, the girl is honest – she returns at the end of the fortnight and pays up in full. Less fortunately, she places another enormous order, and once again swans off without paying a cent.

The charm is wearing off this relationship. “This woman is nothing but a swindler,” the thumbless man frets, “who has used her beauty and grace to fool me. She thought of me as a little boy and laughed at me and I never even asked her where she lived.” The other shopkeepers agree. When over a month has passed with no sign of their money, they insist the thumbless man sell his property to recoup at least some of the debt. Unexpectedly, however, the girl returns. She calmly produces the money and stays around to chat. “Have you a wife?” she inquires. “No,” our hero replies, “I know no women at all,” and bursts into tears.

Smooth, he is not.

He then tries to bribe one of her slaves to be a go-between, but the slave just laughs because he’s the only one who knows he’s living in a romantic comedy. It turns out she didn’t need most of that cloth, it was just an excuse to see her dishy shopkeeper. The thumbless man and mystery girl finally use their words, make some arrangements and agree to see each other again.

And…nothing happens. A few days later, the shipper slave comes with a message: his mistress is the favourite maidservant of the caliph’s wife, and after their conversation went to the Lady Zubaida asking for permission to marry. Lady Zubaida is, sensibly, reserving judgement until she meets the man. For some reason, this is all a terrible secret. The slave is here to smuggle the shopkeeper into the palace; if his suit goes well, he gets all his dreams, but if he’s found out by the caliph he’ll be executed.

He’s given directions to a mosque, built on the orders of the Lady Zubaida by the river Tigris. The thumbless man stays the night there and in the morning slaves arrive carrying several empty chests, which for some reason they leave inside the mosque. Shortly after that, the girl arrives. There are tears and explanations and then she locks him in a chest. This is the plan! All the other chests are packed up with regular goods, you see, and so can be carried to Lady Zubaida’s palace without arousing suspicion.

Being shut inside a lightless, confined space gives the thumbless man second thoughts. His terror reaches fever pitch when they get to the harem, where a guard insists all the chests be opened. Perhaps someone has tried this particular trick before. The girl’s protests are ignored. Her trapped boyfriend panics and wets himself; this, weirdly, is his salvation, because she quickly insists that the chest’s rough handling has ruined the expensive products within and it is all the guard’s fault. Magic words! The guard waves her grumpily through, but the journey isn’t over yet. Suddenly the thumbless man hears someone say, “Woe, woe, the caliph!” and suddenly a different voice is demanding the chests be opened. It is indeed the caliph.

Sharazad proves her cliffhanger skills by breaking off there.

As we return for night twenty eight, the situation does not look good. Overwhelmed by panic, the thumbless man blacks out – but when the caliph’s slaves reach his chest, the girl rushes to keep it shut and insists it contains the Lady Zubaida’s secret. It can only be opened in her presence. Luckily, that lie works. The chests are brought into the lady’s quarters, the thumbless man is released and the girl goes off to fetch her boss.

Being the caliph’s wife, Lady Zubaida requires her rightful pomp and ceremony even for a covert meeting, preceded into the room by thirty drop-dead gorgeous handmaidens and arriving at last ‘wearing such a quantity of jewellery and such splendid robes that she could scarcely walk’. The thumbless man wisely starts off their meeting by kissing the ground before her. The questioning that follows is mutually satisfactory. “The way that I brought you up has not proved a failure,” Lady Zubaida tells her favourite handmaiden. She then turns sternly on the girl’s suitor. “Know that this girl is like a daughter to me and she is entrusted by God to your protection.” I like this lady.

She totally takes over the courtship, too, insisting the thumbless man stay in the palace for ten days (though he is kept decorously separate from his fiancee), at the end of which time she consults her husband about the marriage. She clearly sells it well because he not only agrees, he bestows ten thousand dinars on the girl as a gift. The necessary officials are summoned, a marriage contract is drawn up and a glorious feast is prepared, including a sweet dish of sugared almonds in rosewater. While awaiting his bride, the thumbless man eats his fill and forgets to wash his hands.

Why is that relevant? You shall see. Sort of.

In come singing girls with tambourines, apparently a fixture of weddings in this time and place, followed by the bride. Left alone at last in bed, the thumbless man reaches for his new wife, but she catches the smell of food on his hands and screams. Her fellow handmaidens come running to the rescue. She turns viciously on her husband, calling him a madman and snatching up a whip (she had a whip just lying around? That’s …extreme) she beats him with such ferocity he passes out. “Bring him to the city magistrate,” she tells her fellow servants, “to cut off the hand with which he ate the almond dish and which he failed to wash”.

Her husband comes to, protesting such a punishment for so small an offence. The handmaidens think it’s a bit much too. Thwarted, his wife goes away for ten days, and when she comes back it is with a racist insult and a razor blade. Having convinced her friends to hold him down, she cuts off his thumbs and toes. She does not intend to actually kill him – this is friendly dismemberment! – and so sprinkles the open wounds with a powder to stem the blood flow. Her husband is so terrified by this point that he promises to never again eat that dish without washing his hands forty times with potash, forty with galingale and forty with soap.

Why does she hate almonds and rosewater so much? We never find out.

Depressingly, they stay together. Soon they move out of the caliph’s palace into a house of their own, paid for by the generosity of Lady Zubaida. And…that’s it. THAT’S IT.

The king who is hearing this story reacts in much the same way as me. “This was no more agreeable than the tale of the hunchback,” he tells the inspector, “and, in fact, his was more agreeable than yours, so I must certainly hang you all.” The doctor plunges into the gap. Can he produce a story that will please the king, or at least not depress everybody who hears it? Find out next Tuesday!

Review – These Broken Stars

These Broken Stars (These Broken Stars No.1) – Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner

Allen & Unwin, 2013

Aboard the luxury spaceliner Icarus, flagship of LaRoux Industries and carrier of over fifty thousand passengers, Tarver Merendsen’s status as war hero of the hour makes him a curiosity. An amusement to the idle elite, trotted out at parties for the publicity, he just wants to be left alone. This is the world Lilac LaRoux was born to rule – but her glittering life is much more fragile, and destructive, than it looks. When disaster strikes the Icarus, Tarver and Lilac must rely upon each other to survive…but that will be harder than they ever imagined.

I was worried that this book would draw on a set of tropes I’m deeply averse to, but Lilac is delightfully competent in her sphere and just because her skills don’t overlap much with Tarver’s does not make them undervalued by the narrative. Given that most of the story rests on just these two characters, it keeps moving at an excellent pace. I found some of the explanations at the end much too vague, but this is the first book in a series. It continues with This Shattered World.

Review – Dreamer’s Pool

Dreamer’s Pool (Blackthorn and Grim No.1) – Juliet Marillier

Pan Macmillan, 2014

In the filthy dungeons of the corrupt chieftain Mathuin, two prisoners lean on each other to keep hold of their humanity. When uncanny chance allows an escape, they travel north together. Blackthorn is a healer, bound to a new life by an unwilling promise, while her heart yearns for vengeance. Grim has only one purpose: to guard her from harm. But even in the sleepy settlement meant to be their refuge, terrible secrets hide beneath the loveliest pretence.

Dreamer’s Pool fits an interesting mix of genres, a historical fantasy mystery novel with a strong streak of romance. Some elements work much better than others. Marillier has written many historical novels and is comfortable with this world. The unlikely detectives are strong protagonists – not particularly young, attractive or charming, and each slowly recovering from the brutalities of the past, but determined to seek justice in their own ways. The third lead character, Oran, was frustrating by contrast, coming across to me as too shallow and self-involved to be sympathetic. I would have been much more interested in seeing these sections from the perspective of another character, Flidais or maybe Donagan. Readers coming to this book should be aware that sexual violence, while not gratuitous on the page, is referred to many times and there are some really problematic, if historically common, ways of viewing women’s behaviour. Dreamer’s Pool is a recent winner in this year’s Aurealis awards; the second book in the series will be released in November.

The Sharazad Project: Week 16

NSFW (sexual references)

Welcome back to night twenty five and the shambolic justice of the king’s court, where he’s just challenged a group of deeply dishonest people to tell him strange stories. The first to take him up on the offer is his own broker.

Born in Cairo, the broker followed his father into the trade. One day, while he’s sitting at his work, a handsome stranger comes riding up on a donkey. He wants to sell a quantity of sesame, and once he’s confirmed the price that the broker is willing to pay, he gives directions to the store’s location. The broker helps measure out the sesame and arranges its sale. A month later, the same man returns for the money from the sale. As the broker doesn’t have it immediately on hand, the young man goes away again, asking that it be ready when he comes back.

That takes another month and the broker is once again unprepared. The young man refuses food and drink, disappearing for yet another month. The broker reflects on how attractive he is, and how odd. The uncollected money has earned interest – I think the broker has been trading with it – and he can’t believe how unhurried his client is being about taking it. It’s not until the end of the year that the young man finally sticks around, agreeing to eat and drink at the broker’s house, on the condition that whatever is spent on his hospitality comes out of the waiting money. The young man will only eat with his left hand. Enquiring whether there is anything wrong with his right, the broker gets more of an answer than he expected when his guest reveals lifts that arm and shows the hand has been amputated. There is, of course, a story in that. Cue segue!

The young man comes from Baghdad. His father was well-known and wealthy; upon his death, the young man used that wealth to satisfy a long-held wanderlust, travelling to Egypt. He arrives safely in Cairo. Once his trade goods are housed and he is settled at his lodgings, he decides to take a look through the local markets. While out, he’s stopped by opportunistic brokers offering to auction his goods. They cannot secure a suitable price, however, so the senior auctioneer advises a dubious sounding financial scheme involving fixed term credit, multiple sub-contractors and no need for personal oversight.

It suits the young man very well, because other people are handling the boring parts of his business while he goes sightseeing and meets up with friends. It’s while he’s meeting one such friend, a fellow merchant, that an elegant and mysterious lady comes sweeping into the shop and wins the young man’s heart with just the sound of her voice – which is not even directed at him, she’s buying a length of embroidered cloth off the other merchant. The one she ends up choosing is from the young man’s stock. The merchant tells her this, explaining she needs to hand over the money now so he can pay his friend’s share in the sale. “Bad luck to you,” she says coolly. “I am in the habit of buying quantities of material from you for high prices, giving more than you ask and sending you the money.” “Agreed,” he acknowledges, “but I have to have it today.”

She throws the cloth at him and says he doesn’t appreciate what a fabulous a customer she is. I kind of love her.

The young man doesn’t care about the money, he just wants to stop her leaving the shop. Due to his hasty courtesy, she agrees to come back. A receipt is soon filled out, dividing the money between merchants, so that the lady can take her cloth now and pay the young man back personally. “May God give you a good reward,” she says, “endowing you with my wealth and making you my husband.” Clearly she’s appreciated all that finance flirting. When she’s gone, the dazed young man demands his friend tell him everything about her. All he knows is that her (prestigious) father is dead, and she is very rich. Distracted by thoughts of the fabric-buying beauty, the young man can’t eat or sleep and returns to his friend’s shop early the next day.

Sure enough, the lady comes by again, this time accompanied by a maid. She ignores the shop’s owner in favour of addressing the the young man directly; it doesn’t take him long to make his feelings clear and she backs off quickly. Not too far, though. She sends her servant to bring her suitor to the money-changer. It doesn’t seem a terribly romantic, or even private, location for passionate declarations, but she doesn’t let that stop her. “My darling,” she asks, “shall it be your house or mine?” As he’s renting lodgings, her place is the better bet. Arranging to meet the next day, she gives directions.

In the morning he dresses and perfumes himself, a man determined to impress. Following the directions, he sends off his driver and knocks at the door. Two maids answer. It’s rather revolting how the only description they get is of their breasts. They lead the young man into a lavishly decorated hall, overlooking a very lovely garden.

That is not even slightly a cliffhanger, unless you’re much more invested in this romance than me, but Sharazad breaks off there. Night twenty six opens with the entrance of the lady of the house. She’s painted with henna, wearing a crown of jewels, eager to dazzle as her prospective lover and definitely succeeding. The ensuing kiss is heavy on tongue. They compare their suffering – neither has been able to eat or sleep out of desire for the other, the first of which they rectify together by feasting on a spread of delicacies. Amidst the talk, they drift into foreplay, exchanging touches and kisses. Eventually they end up in bed. Thankfully, there’s no virginity euphemisms in this one.

In the morning, the young man leaves a bundle of money under her bed, and I’m not sure whether this is an official financial part of their relationship or a love token. I’m hoping for the latter. They arrange to meet again that night. In a thoughtful gesture, the young man sends some meat and sweetmeats to his girlfriend’s house.

It becomes a pattern that he spends every evening with her, and in the morning leaves fifty dinars under her bed. It really is like he’s paying her for sex, though I don’t think that’s his intention. It’s also stupid, since she’s already very wealthy, and one day he wakes up to find he has no money left. Horrified, the young man wanders out of his lodgings and joins a large crowd in the street. He knocks into a soldier, accidentally touches the man’s purse, and very deliberately chooses to steal it. The soldier notices. He responds by whacking the young man with his club, knocking him to the ground.

The crowd divides into two camps: those who believe the young man to be a thief and those who think he’s way too pretty to commit felonies. While the young man is still recovering from the blow, the local law enforcement arrives. They search him, recovering the purse. The young man confesses to theft. The penance for such a crime is losing a hand. If I’m reading this right, an executioner is called upon to perform the operation right there on the street. Even the soldier takes pity on the young man after that, letting him keep the purse.

Onward he staggers to his lover’s house, where he tries to pretend his pain is the result of a headache. She doesn’t buy that for a second. Really, no one would, he’s flopped out colourless on her bed with his right arm hidden inside his clothes. She does all she can to extract whatever he’s hiding from her. When he won’t talk, she thinks it means something has gone amiss between them. He won’t even eat, for he’ll have to use his left hand and that would reveal the truth.

Finally he breaks down crying, which out and out terrifies her, and still he won’t admit what happened. He drinks glass after glass of wine until he passes out drunk, and while he’s in that state she catches sight of his bloody wrist. It doesn’t take a thorough search to find the purse of gold. She’s devastated at what he’s come to.

By the next morning, she’s decided what to do. When her lover tries to leave the house, she makes him sit down. “Have you loved me so much that you have spent all your money and lost your hand?” she asks. “I take you as my witness – and God is the truest witness – that I shall never leave you, and shall see that what I say is true.” With that, she sends for officials to draw up a marriage contract, handing over control of her wealth and property. After that, she leads her new husband to a chest full of money. This is where she’s kept all his gifts, unspent. Guilt is thick between them, though he says nothing to accuse her and she is in NO WAY to blame for what happened.

Less than a month after the marriage, she falls desperately ill. Not quite two months after that, she dies. It’s not fair, she was lovely.

The young man arranges a funeral (which includes charity donations given in her name, I think she’d have liked that) then sees about her estate. He’s been selling off her goods for some time, hence his long absences. Having explained his story to the broker (ending the segue) he pays for his meal by allowing his host to keep all the money from the sesame sale. Not only that, he invites the broker on a trade expedition back to his own country. The broker agrees. Selling off his own property in preparation, he follows his new friend.

Which is how he ended up in this city, in this mess.

“Is this not more remarkable than the story of the hunchback, O king of the age?” he asks. The king is unimpressed. Too much financial jargon, methinks. “I must very certainly hang you all,” he replies.

Is it possible telling weird anecdotes won’t get them out of this one? What is the justice system coming to? Find out next Tuesday!

The Sharazad Project: Week 15

Trigger warning: ableist language

Welcome back to night twenty four and the end of Ja’far’s sojourn as a truly terrible detective. He’s much better suited to court advocate, if today is any indicator, because not only does his story about the al-Din family prove remarkable enough to win Ja’far’s slave a pardon, it also guarantees the young man a monthly allowance and access to one of the sultan’s own concubines. Given how the slave’s slander of a woman recently led to her violent murder, that seemly hideously inappropriate. I’m very glad we’re done with this entire cycle now.

Actually, spoke too soon. Straight away we’re plunged into a new story, the tale of ‘the tailor, the hunchback, the Jew, the inspector and the Christian’. I am so apprehensive.

This one begins in China. ‘The city of China’, according to this translation, so I’m not sure if they mean a random city in the country of China or a city elsewhere that happens to be called China too. Anyway, living there is a tailor and his wife, both fun-loving types who are coming home after an evening’s entertainment when they encounter a hunchback. I wish I didn’t have to use that word, but he’s not given a name. Hell, he’s not given any dignity either. The couple think he is hilariously ugly and invite him home for dinner, an invitation he accepts. During the meal, the tailor’s wife pushes a large piece of fish into her guest’s mouth and as a cruel joke, orders that he must swallow it without chewing. As she’s holding his jaw shut, he’s given no choice but to obey. Unknown to both, there is a large bone in that piece of fish. It lodges in the poor man’s throat, and he dies.

This story is already awful.

It gets worse, because though the tailor spares a couple of minutes to feel bad about his guest’s untimely death, his wife wastes no time covering up her crime. Covering up the dead man’s body with a silk cloth, she has her husband carry him out of the house. She flutters over the obscured corpse, pretending it is a child sick with smallpox. In this way they reach the house of a Jewish doctor without drawing questions or negative attention. The slave girl who answers the door is given a quarter dinar, told the smallpox story and asked to bring the doctor down for a consultation. As soon as she’s gone the tailor and his wife dump the body at the top of the stairs and leg it.

There is a concerningly unnecessary reference to the doctor’s delight at advance payment. He opens his door, but it’s dark and he stumbles over the corpse. It tumbles downstairs and the doctor panics, believing he’s caused the man’s death. His first priority is getting the body out of the house. His wife suggests they carry it to the roof and from there, drop the dead man into their neighbour’s house. They live next door to an inspector – not a detective inspector, it should be said, he’s in charge of the king’s kitchen and stray animals gather around his place to steal meat. The doctor’s wife expects the body will be dragged off by street dogs.

She expects wrong – the inspector arrives home just after the doctor and his wife drop their burden. By the light of his candle, all the inspector can see is a man’s silhouette and assumes he’s looking at a thief. He proceeds to whack the corpse with a hammer. That probably would have killed him, if he had not already been dead; the intent was definitely there. The inspector then compounds his violence by insulting the dead man. “Wasn’t it enough for you to be a hunchback,” he exclaims, “that you had to become a thief and steal meat and fat?” This man is horrible. Like everyone else, he hoists up the corpse and dumps it elsewhere, this time in an alley on the edge of a marketplace.

By now the night is almost over. The next person to stumble on the unfortunate and much-travelled body is the Christian from the story’s intro, the king’s broker and currently very drunk. He’s en route to the baths. Stopping in the alley to urinate – no public toilets back then, I know, but it’s still disgusting – he sees the shape of a man in the dark and takes him for a thief. He knocks over the corpse with a blow to the neck and shouts for the watchman, which is somewhat counter-intuitive given that he then goes on to throttle the dead man. “He wanted to steal my turban!” is his defence when the watchman runs up. Finding the accused man very definitely dead, the watchman does the sensible thing, ties up the broker and marches him off to see the wali (that is, the local governor). The death sentence is quickly proclaimed.

As the broker stands upon the gallows, the inspector pushes his way through the crowd of observers to confess to the crime. “Is it not enough for me to have killed a Muslim,” he declares, “that I should kill a Christian as well?” He makes it sound like murder bingo. The wali agrees to the switchover, but no sooner has the noose been slipped around the inspector’s neck than the doctor arrives, shouting his own confession. When he ascends the gallows, proceedings are disrupted all over again by the tailor, who gives the true story of the hunchback’s death and takes the doctor’s place.

The executioner is beginning to feel ridiculous.

What none of them know is that the dead man was the king’s fool. When his absence is noted, the king makes enquiries, learning of the man’s sudden death and the farcical drama playing out in consequence. His chamberlain arrives in time to prevent the tailor being hanged. Everybody involved, from the tailor to the wali to the much-abused corpse, are brought back to the palace to repeat the whole story to the king. He shows just how much he cared about his fool’s life by enjoying it all thoroughly and ordering it be written down. He then asks if anyone knows a more remarkable tale.

The broker steps forward to say yes, he does. Next Tuesday, we’ll find out if he’s right.