Review – The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club – Genevieve Valentine

Washington Square Press, 2014

In a 1920s speakeasy, where people of all creeds and classes come for illegal liquor and scandalous dancing, it’s not uncommon to leave your name at the door. All anyone knows about the ‘Princesses’ is that they’ll dance all night, and they’re not to be crossed. The twelve girls are a beautiful, wild enigma. The eldest sister, Jo, has worked hard to keep it that way. If the truth ever came out, it would destroy their fragile freedom. But how long can she hold it all in balance?

I think I may have read more retellings of ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’ over the past few years than any other fairy tale, and have written one myself, so it is a story I have particularly strong opinions about. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club lived up to all my expectations. It’s tightly woven and beautifully written, with a bittersweet, dreamlike atmosphere. I have a particular love for retellings that successfully relocate the story to an entirely different time and place, and 1920s New York was an incredible fit for this one. Working with a necessarily large cast of characters, Valentine managed to give each sister a strong individuality, as well as fleshing out a group of fully formed secondary characters in what’s really quite a short book. I did not want to put it down; it’s one of the best fairy tale retellings I’ve ever read, and I know I’ll read it again.

An Update of Robots and Royals

I’ve tripped over into August and am flailing a bit to orientate myself, so consider this a roundup of authorial news! Ticonderoga’s new anthology Hear Me Roar is abroad in the world, including a spot on my bookshelf. My contribution, ‘Blueblood’, is what happened when I started reworking ‘The Goose Girl’ in a fit of pique and infused it with shades of ‘Bluebeard’. Secrecy and isolation are key to both fairy tales: a young woman pushed into danger for which she is utterly unprepared, betrayed by the people who should have protected her. Which led me to wonder what form protection might take, in those circumstances, and how kindness can be entirely a matter of perception.

My latest story ‘Doubt the Sun’ follows a similar theme, about a young inventor, the robot of her dreams and how humanity doesn’t always react well when its fantasies come true. ‘Doubt the Sun’ is part of the Lethe Press anthology Daughters of Frankenstein, which will be officially released this week. You can check out the details at the publisher’s website and on Goodreads.

In other news, Tansy Rayner Roberts recently concluded ‘Musketeer Space’, her genderbent space opera reworking of the Alexandre Dumas classic The Three Musketeers. To repeat what I said on Tumblr: if you like spaceships, swordfights and sarcasm, this is the story for you. ‘Musketeer Space’ and its Christmas special, ‘The Seven Days of Joyeux’ can be read on her website. It’s also what got me into the BBC adaptation The Musketeers, which is a cheerfully irreverent, adorable swashbuckler of a series. I have a suspicion that when I look back, 2015 will be my Year of the Swordfighting Fangirl.

Review – The Sleeper and the Spindle

The Sleeper and the Spindle – Neil Gaiman (illustrated by Chris Riddell)

Bloomsbury, 2014

On one side of the mountains, a young queen prepares for her wedding. On the other side, a curse spreads unchecked. People fall into a sleep from which they cannot be woken – beasts slump where they stand and birds fall from the sky. Many years ago, so the story is told, a princess pricked her finger on a bewitched spindle and the spell has been upon her lands ever since. Should a hero be brave enough to wake her, it might be enough to wake them all. And the queen has already defeated a witch’s sleep once. Why not again?

If there’s one kind of fairy tale retelling I love best, it’s where different fairy tales are woven into the same world and the characters get to meet each other, because I am just that much of a fangirl. Neil Gaiman’s melding of ‘Snow White’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was a short story originally published in the anthology Rags & Bones: New Twists on Timeless Tales but with the gorgeous illustrations by Chris Riddell it’s more like a very short graphic novel than a picture book. It’s the kind of strange, unsettling loveliness Gaiman does well, just a bit open-ended for my taste.

Review – Sourdough and Other Stories

Sourdough and Other Stories – Angela Slatter

Tartarus Press, 2012

Originally published 2010

These are the tales of mothers and daughters. A woman who picks gallowberries and steps out of the world, leaving a tangle of loyalties behind; a girl with a map written into her skin; a baker who feeds vengeance to her enemy and a doll-maker with the power to mould an army. These are the tales of witches and thieves, troll-girls, brides and widows and ghosts.

Winner of the 2012 British Fantasy Award, among numerous other accolades, Angela Slatter is well known for her dark fairy tales. While I recognised only one direct retelling, every story in this collection draws on the lyrical rhythm and clean structure of traditional folk tales. They are not consecutive but are quietly interconnected; the protagonist of one will appear as a side character in another or some part of back story will be revealed. Combining raw pragmatism with strange magic, these stories are exceptionally inventive and frequently very bleak – I’d classify most as dark fantasy, but there’s definitely a strong tinge of horror. Last year Slatter released The Bitterwood Bible and other stories, a second collection set in the same world.

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.

Review No.123 – The Wicked Wood

Tales from the Tower Volume Two: The Wicked Wood – Isobelle Carmody and Nan McNab (ed.)

Allen&Unwin, 2011

In this collection, fairy tales grow between cracks in the mundane surface of a city, a suburb, a small town. From the sinister presence of a wildly ambitious artist to the wolf hidden in plain sight, the mermaid who would trade anything for another life to the uncontrollable craving of two sisters to get theirs back, these are stories of hunger and betrayal, longing and hope.

This anthology is a companion volume to The Wilful Eye, which I read as a part of last year’s AWW Challenge, but has a noticeably different approach. All of these retellings take place in contemporary settings and the fantasy elements tend to be more understated – in a few, there are none at all. There is a similar tone to many of these stories that I personally would have preferred broken up by a wider range settings, but the slants each writer chose to take were interesting and for the most part effective. I particularly appreciated ‘Seventy-Two Derwents’ by Cate Kennedy and ‘The Ugly Sisters’ by Maureen McCarthy. Some of the original sources for this anthology are also slightly more obscure, such as ‘The Wolf and the Seven Kids’ and ‘The Fairy’s Midwife’. It’s good to see retellings that explore beyond familiar ground.

Review No.211 – The Bloody Chamber

The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

Vintage Books, 2006

Originally published 1979

A naïve debutante is drawn into the darkly glamorous world of a debauched nobleman. One father seeks to restore his family’s fortunes with the aid of a most unlikely ally, while another gambles his child’s life away. Wolves prowl the winter woods, caged birds cry warnings, and blood pools in the snow.

This collection of short stories is something of a classic among fairy tale retellings. Angela Carter’s writing style is beautifully intricate and lyrical, but there’s an unexpectedly judgemental attitude towards several of the heroines and a brutal cynicism in these stories that overrides the cohesion of actual plot. While I can objectively appreciate Carter’s skill, I can’t say I truly enjoyed any story from The Bloody Chamber.

An Update from the Shadow of the Witch

The past couple of weeks have been quite full on for me, for a lot of reasons, but any month that includes seeing a 1920s animated fairy tale must be a good one.

The Gallery of Modern Art has recently been running a series of fairy tale themed films and on the 16th it screened ‘The Adventures of Prince Achmed‘, an animated fantasy from 1926 that could easily be retitled ‘The Fire Witch Saves Everybody, Always’. It was written, directed and co-animated by Lotte Reiniger, a pioneer of the industry and probably qualifiable as a Cranky Lady. Based on two different stories from the Arabian Nights, it’s like watching exquisitely intricate shadow puppets, and this particular performance was accompanied by gorgeous live music. While there are instances of the racism and sexism you might expect from a creation of the period, there are pleasantly surprising twists too. I’ll say it again: Fire. Witch. Is. Awesome. The princes are there largely to be tricked by sorcery and lament about their unlucky love lives.

In other March news:

Review No.131 – The Fire Rose

The Fire Rose – Mercedes Lackey

Baen, 2009

The early twentieth century is not a good time to be an ambitious female scholar, let alone a recently bereaved and borderline destitute one. Without her father’s support, the only option left to Rosalind Hawkins is to push her academic work aside and gain employment with whoever will take her. When an astoundingly generous offer from a mysterious benefactor lands in her lap, she is justifiably suspicious, but her circumstances drive her to accept. Travelling to San Francisco to become governess to the children of a reclusive railway baron, she discovers both her position and her employer to be utterly unexpected. If something seems too good to be true, there is always a reason…

The Fire Rose is a take on ‘Beauty and the Beast’, originally published in 1995, with an inviting premise that is distinctly flavoured with overtones of Jane Eyre – a combination I fully expected to enjoy. I was instead left appalled. The hero is arrogant and immoral, blinded to the sufferings of others by his obscenely selective notions of ‘innocence’, none of which are challenged; this leaves him little better than the truly reprehensible villain. Rose herself, meanwhile, suffers from an acute case of ‘not like other girls’ syndrome. She is constantly comparing herself to other, hypothetical women to drive home her difference, with a sense of superiority that damages any sense of sympathy with her character, and her classist beliefs are, like her love interest’s, never challenged by the narrative. Every character of colour is a poorly fleshed out caricature treated with disrespect by the rest of the cast. This being the first book in Lackey’s Elemental Masters series, perhaps that aspect is at least improved upon in the sequels, but I won’t be reading them. There are spoilers and further outrage below.

SPOILER: (Trigger warning) The ostensible hero, Jason Cameron, is described as someone who ‘would not take advantage of someone who was, in his estimation, truly innocent’. He is also fully aware that his apprentice Paul du Mond goes into the city to inflict brutal sexual abuse upon terrified young (usually Chinese or Mexican) women, enslaved in squalid brothels. The details of the abuse are not entered into by Lackey, but du Mond’s capacity for sadism is not left in any doubt. Aaand this is Cameron’s reference to the subject: “I thought it didn’t matter; after all, many Masters had little peccadilloes when they were Apprentices that they outgrew once they learned discipline.”

The only time du Mond’s behaviour bothers him is when Rose is threatened by it; apparently his version of innocence only includes highly educated, English-speaking white women whom he happens to fancy. Oh, he also spies on her without her ever finding out and openly admits he’d cheat on one of those hypothetical ‘other girls’ had he married one, because all other women must be worthless in comparison to the unassailable Rose. I expect some sexism, racism and classism from historical fiction, but there is no level on which Cameron’s behaviour is acceptable. Rose never finds out he’s a rape apologist, not in this book at least. So in what way exactly is he better than his deceptive nemesis Beltaire?

Wow, I’m angry.

Review No.115 – East

East – Edith Pattou

Harcourt, Inc., 2003

From the beginning Rose is a wanderer. The youngest of seven children, she is the only one who feels the call of the north, and dreams of exploring unmapped places on the back of an imaginary white bear. When her bear arrives one night at the door, real and solid, telling her to come away with him, she doesn’t hesitate. But the dream is not as she expected it, and her bear is much more than she ever imagined. As she begins to untangle his strange story, can she save him, or will she lose him to the icy magic of the north?

East is a retelling of ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, in itself a fairy tale akin to ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Despite the clunky writing, info-dumping and bizarre coincidences that marred the narrative, I enjoyed it – Rose is an indefatigable heroine, the white bear is too tragically bewildered not to like, and his captor, the Troll Queen, is a nicely complex character who gets to tell her own part in her own words. The strength of the story failed towards the end, which is a shame, but overall it was a competent retelling.