Review – The Rebirth of Rapunzel

The Rebirth of Rapunzel – Kate Forsyth

FableCroft Publishing, 2016

In this mythic biography, Australian author Kate Forsyth traces the famous fairy tale of ‘Rapunzel’ from its earliest recorded origins down through centuries of retellings into the inventive, irreverent and exciting incarnations of the modern day. How well do you really know the maiden in the tower?

I was given a hardback of this book, with its gorgeous cover by Kathleen Jennings, as a Christmas gift from my sister, because she knows me well and  fairy tale biography. It is a brilliant concept that Forsyth has researched meticulously and presented in a way that is immensely readable. Though I disagreed with some of her interpretations, the history and context of this fairy tale’s growth and change is so well presented that it allows the reader to form their own opinions based on those facts. Included in this book are some of Forsyth’s other essays about fantasy, science fiction and writing. There are spoilers for her ‘Rapunzel’ retelling Bitter Greens, so I would advise reading that first. I love fairy tales and have strong feelings about ‘Rapunzel’ in particular because I wrote a retelling of it myself; The Rebirth of Rapunzel is a book I am delighted to have on my shelf, and I would be thrilled to see more ‘mythic biographies’ like it.

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Review – Dancing on Knives

Dancing on Knives – Kate Forsyth

Vintage Books, 2014

What was meant to be a fresh chance for the Sanchez family has become a nightmare. Having recently returned to painting, turbulent patriarch Augusto was forging a masterwork that would have eased their financial woes and granted his devoted daughter Sara a reprieve from his wild moods – but when he suffers a terrible accident, the family are left reeling with shock and suspicion. Augusto spent so long cultivating his own myth he ignored his own children’s lies. Now they are forced to see each other’s ugly secrets and face the question none of them want to ask: what if Augusto’s fall was not an accident at all?

There’s quite the story behind this book, which is a reworked and republished version of a novel Kate Forsyth published ten years ago under the name Kate Humphrey. The title implies it’s part of her not-exactly-a-series of loose fairy tale retellings, but though there are many references to ‘The Little Mermaid’ this is very much a separate book and not a retelling. It’s not really a mystery either, because no one will acknowledge whether or not there’s actually a crime until a good way through the book, and not much active detecting takes place. Dancing on Knives is really a family drama focusing on Sara, Augusto’s older daughter. Not a dynamic protagonist at the best of times, she’s done a disservice when big chunks of the book drift away from the main plot to explore events in her family’s past. While these certainly explain how she got to be the way she is, they don’t help the reader engage with her life, and there are a few clichés in the Sanchez family that made me a bit uncomfortable. The plot felt too slow and indirect but I should add, the contemplative, almost stream of consciousness style of the book is not a structure that usually appeals to me. I’d have liked Dancing on Knives better if it had capitalised on the tightening sense of claustrophobia and taken a more traditional mystery format.

The Wild Girl in the Wicked Wood

The Australian Women Writers Challenge, as you may know if you’ve been reading this blog awhile, is a project that promotes the work of Australian women across all genres. 2014 has been my second year participating and this time I signed up to the Franklin level, which meant I had to read at least ten books and review at least six. I also planned to find more books through reviews on the AWW Challenge blog.

Of the eleven books I ended up reading, just over half were speculative fiction, four were historical fiction and one was contemporary. To my delight, I managed to find three fairy tale-inspired works for the Challenge – Allyse Near’s bewitchingly bitter concoction Fairytales for Wilde Girls, Isobelle Carmody and Nan McNab’s collection of retellings The Wicked Wood, and Kate Forsyth’s exploration of a real-life tale-teller, Dortchen Wild, in The Wild Girl. Juliet Marillier’s Shadowfell also draws on British folk lore as part of its worldbuilding and though Ruth Park’s My Sister Sif is really more science fiction than fantasy, it uses mermaid stories and Pacific Islander legends. The vampire element, meanwhile, had representation this year with The Blood Countess by Tara Moss and The Amethyst Curse by Chantelle Thomson.

The Wild Girl contains just a trace of fantasy, but I think it’s more accurately classified as historical fiction. Other books in this genre I’ve read in 2014 include Kimberley Freeman’s Ember Island and two Kate Morton novels, The Secret Keeper and The House at Riverton. While all three of these contain contemporary subplots, the only 100% contemporary novel I’ve read this year was Anita Heiss’s Tiddas. As a Queensland girl, I’m not accustomed to seeing my home state represented much in fiction and always get a kick from an insider reference – Ember Island, The Secret Keeper and Tiddas all have Queensland as a setting.

I would like to count Tansy Rayner Roberts’s serialised space opera Musketeer Space, a genderswapped reinterpretation of Alexander Dumas’s classic The Three Musketeers, but that would kind of be cheating as she hasn’t finished writing it yet. At the time of my posting this, she’s up to Chapter 30 and I am SO HOOKED. There’s swordfights and spaceships and ever so much snark, and all of the story so far is available for free on her blog. Go get addicted too!

Then, of course there are the books to which I’m lucky enough to be a contributor. My stories have appeared in four collections this year, all of them with Australian small press, all compiled by fantastic female editors. Ticonderoga’s steampunk anthology Kisses by Clockwork was edited by Liz Grzyb, Twelfth Planet Press’s Kaleidoscope by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios, Tehani Wessely produced FableCroft’s fairy tale-themed Phantazein and The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2013, edited by Liz Grzyb and Talia Helene, was released just last month. Until I started selling short stories I knew almost nothing about Australian small press – like how AWESOME it is, and how much fun all these people are to work with. I feel so very honoured to be a part of all these works.

So that’s my challenge completed for 2014. It’s been an adventurous year for me as a reader and a wonderful one as a writer. Roll on 2015!

Review No.119 – The Wild Girl

The Wild Girl – Kate Forsyth

Vintage, 2013

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

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

The Girl Who Conquered the World and Cackled

Looking for the Female Fictional Arch Nemesis

Finding heroines in fiction is easy. I can rattle off lists of amazing female protagonists without blinking an eye, with examples from across different eras, genres and age groups. But I recently realised I couldn’t do the same for female villains. Ransacking my admittedly spec fic heavy mental bookshelves, I noticed that most of them have a central antagonist, and most of those antagonists are male. Men have cornered the market of world domination and I barely noticed.

It’s just not good enough, people. We need to fix this.

I’m tired of my evil role models being the bad guy’s girlfriend, or a stock-standard temptress who’ll probably fall for the hero anyway. I want to read about the woman at the head of the dread army. I want the female equivalent of whoever that guy is in the James Bond movies who strokes the fluffy white cat. I’m not talking about a Dolores Umbridge here. I’m talking about a Lady Voldemort. Arch Nemesis only need apply.

It’s interesting that when I was compiling the following list the first female arch villains that came to mind were from children’s books – the Witch of the West, the White Witch, the Witch of the Waste. A few are described as ugly, but more often they are beautiful and use that as a weapon too. And sometimes they don’t give a damn what you think they are. Beautiful, ugly, or none of the above, they’re taking over the world anyway.

I give you fair warning: there will be spoilers. A lot of spoilers.

  • The Witch of the West from Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. She wants to avenge her sister and retrieve a pair of stolen ruby slippers. With an army of flying monkeys and sleeping poppies at her disposal, she’s a force to be reckoned with, especially since the Wizard of the title is no more than a guy who rose to power on a lot of hot air.
  • The three Lilim of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. The only thing that can restore their youth and beauty is the heart of a star. Unfortunately, the star is actually a woman who happens to already be using her heart, but the witches don’t care. They will carve their way through the world until they find her.
  • The Witch of the Waste in Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Drawing her power from a pact with a fire demon, this witch has wrought such devastation that she is surrounded by her own personal wasteland, and is constantly seeking to extend it. Her anger is a slow burn of resentment that finds its target with the wizard Howl. No one jilts the Witch and gets away with it.
  • Lily in Terry Pratchett’s Witches Abroad. All she wants is a perfect world, where cooks are plump and cheerful, servant girls are only too happy to marry the handsome prince, and wolves make a safe scapegoat for everybody. She has an obsession with mirrors, but fairness does not come into it.
  • The White Witch in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe/The Magician’s Nephew. She wants power and will do anything to get it, including the utter destruction of her own world and smothering another one in a never-ending winter. She rules by fear, but her charm is just as dangerous as her rage.
  • Domina Pearl from Patricia A. McKillip’s Ombria In Shadow. She has been the shadow behind the throne for as long as anyone can remember – with the death of the Duke, she sinks her claws into his five-year-old son, while around her Ombria decays.
  • Laurel from Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock. Rich, beautiful and eternally young, Laurel is as enigmatic as she is powerful. She can manipulate any situation to put you in the wrong, and while she likes to play the occasional game with her pet humans, she never allows herself to lose.
  • Jeannine from Veronica Roth’s Divergent. When the faction of Abnegation turn out to be an obstruction on the way to Jeannine’s rise to power, she does the logical thing and infects the warrior faction Dauntless with a serum that makes them commit wholesale genocide without knowing what they are doing. But it’s not personal, you understand.
  • The Faerie Queens (both Seelie and Unseelie) from Holly Black’s Tithe. They are beautiful, they are powerful, and they are stone cold heartless. Their subjects cannot help but love them, even as they commit acts of unspeakable cruelty or force others to do it for their savage entertainment. No one within the circle of their ever-shifting attention can ever be safe.
  • The Marquess from Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. The little girl who lost everything, the Marquess has taken over Fairyland and is crushing it down to a manageable size with chains of human bureaucracy, all while wearing the most impressive of hats.
  • Kitty Kwok from Kylie Chan’s Dark Heavens and Journey to Wudang trilogies, beginning in White Tiger. From asking her employees to perform espionage to taking genetic material from the children in her care for ghastly experiments, there is no low to which Miss Kwok will not stoop – and it would seem there is no getting rid of her either.
  • The sorceress Oonagh from Juliet Marillier’s first three Sevenwaters novels, beginning in Daughter of the Forest. She marries an Irish nobleman for his power and position, and when his six sons turn out to be troublesome she uses sorcery to transform the boys into swans. But that’s only the beginning. The sorceress will manipulate anything and anyone to reach her ends, and the family of Sevenwaters is squarely in her way. That means that one way or another, they have to go…
  • Victoria in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. In the first book of the series, Edward of the Cullen family kills Victoria’s boyfriend James. Bad idea. Victoria will rip apart the world to avenge him, even if it means creating an entire army of super-vampires to do it.
  • Annabelle Kasprowicz in Lenny Bartulin’s A Deadly Business/Death By the Book. The bombshell daughter of an ageing millionaire, she may indulge in the odd seduction, but she will not let anyone get between her and the money. Not even her own father.
  • Cruella de Vil from Dodie Smith’s One Hundred and One Dalmations. You know someone is pure evil when they can kill a puppy. Cruella takes it to new levels by kidnapping whole litters of them to make herself the ultimate fur coat.
  • Miss Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Matilda. The nightmare headmistress is the heavily muscled arm of educational authority, but her only interest in children is throwing them out of windows. She is incapable of showing kindness to anyone, even – in fact, especially – her own niece.
  • Selena Leonelli from Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens. Surviving a horrific childhood that forever warps her view of the world, she uses her work as a prostitute to gather secrets and power, but everything depends on her retaining her youth and beauty. If that means destroying the lives of young girls unfortunate enough to share the same colour hair, well, it’s a sacrifice she is quite happy to make.
  • The Ragwitch from Garth Nix’s The Ragwitch. Long ago she built herself an empire but was exiled to another world in the body of a ragdoll. Now she has returned and she’s lost none of her hunger for power. Drawing together an army of her terrifying creatures, she sets forth to reclaim the land.
  • Queen Levana in Marissa Meyer’s Cinder. Her true face concealed behind a mask of beautiful glamour, her every word laced with intent, she is a dictator with plans for expansion. The only thing she seems capable of loving is her throne.
  • Dragwena of Cliff McNish’s The Doomspell. She has laid waste to an entire world and that still is not enough to satisfy her. There are other worlds, other places and people to bring under her dominion, and if it requires the deaths of a thousand children to get to them, she would kill a thousand and one just for the fun of it.

Analysing this highly subjective data, I have come to the following conclusions:

17 are from speculative fiction, 2 are from mainstream fiction, one is crime.

8 are from children’s books, 5 are from YA and 7 are from adult books.

15 are witches, sorceresses, or manipulators of some type of magic.

15 have wealth, 12 have beauty or the appearance of it, 11 are in a position of official authority, 8 have the appearance of youth (but none actually have it), 8 are/were married or in an equivalent relationship.

9 have conquest as their main objective, 10 are out for vengeance.

15 come up against female protagonists, 4 come up against multiple protagonists of both genders, one comes up against a male protagonist.

But these books are only what I have read. I’m throwing the question out to everyone who reads this post: where are the female arch villains? Not from television or film – I want to hear about the ones from books, manga or graphic novels, the ones we don’t hear about enough. Which are the ones that spring first to mind? Which ones can you think of that I haven’t mentioned here? I really want to know!

Not that I’m planning world domination or anything. Promise.