Review – How to Fracture a Fairy Tale, by Jane Yolen

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How to Fracture a Fairy Tale
by Jane Yolen

Genre: Short Stories, Retellings

Length: 240 Pages

Release date: November 5, 2018

Publisher: Tachyon Publications

Synopsis:

Fantasy legend Jane Yolen (The Emerald Circus, The Devil’s Arithmetic) delights with this effortlessly wide-ranging offering of fractured fairy tales. Yolen fractures the classics to reveal their crystalline secrets, holding them to the light and presenting them entirely transformed; where a spinner of straw into gold becomes a money-changer and the big bad wolf retires to a nursing home. Rediscover the fables you once knew, rewritten and refined for the world we now live in―or a much better version of it.

rating

three

My thanks to NetGalley and Tachyon Publications for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher.

I have mixed feelings about this anthology, making it difficult to give it an overall rating that feels accurate. There were a few stories that I really enjoyed, but a few too many that never sufficiently grabbed my interest. I love fractured fairy tales, and think I was looking for more drastic changes from the original source material in some cases. What’s the point of writing a retelling without turning the whole story upside-down and making us think about it in a totally new light?

One thing that I loved about this collection was the sheer variety of stories and cultures represented. This anthology includes dragons, princesses, a vampire, and even time travel; you will find stories that feel like they could have been plucked out of a Brothers Grimm book as well as much more modern tales. The Jewish themes seemed to be the most prominent throughout the anthology, but Yolen has reworked tales from Europe, Asia, and more.

Here is a small sampling of the sources of inspiration for some of Yolen’s stories:

  • The Bridge’s Complaint – Billy Goats Gruff, Norwegian
  • One Ox, Two Ox, Three Ox, and the Dragon King – Chinese dragon stories
  • Brother Hart – Brothers Grimm story (Little Brother Little Sister)
  • Sun/Flight – Icarus, Greek Mythology
  • The Foxwife – figure from Japanese folklore
  • The Faery Flag – Scottish folklore
  • One Old Man, With Seals – Greek mythology
  • The Undine – inspired by Little Mermaid and various French stories
  • Sister Death – Jewish myth
  • The Woman Who Loved a Bear – Native American myth

The stories vary quite a bit in tone; many of them use somewhat antiquated language, while the occasional tale reads like something a friend is telling you over coffee. These differences helped to break up the anthology and keep it from feeling overly uniform or repetitive. The variety assures that there will be something in this collection for just about everyone. Whether you’re looking for something totally re-imagined, something with a classical feel, something whimsical, or something dark, you’ll find it somewhere in these pages.

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Thank you for reading! What is your favorite retelling of a classic fairy tale? Discuss in the comments!

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Review – The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker

The Silence of the Girls
by Pat Barker

Genre: Historical Fiction, Mythology

Length: 293 Pages

Release date: September 4, 2018

Synopsis:

The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman: Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman watches and waits for the war’s outcome: Briseis. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms until Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.

When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and coolly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position to observe the two men driving the Greek forces in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate, not only of Briseis’s people, but also of the ancient world at large.

Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war–the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead–all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker’s latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives–and it is nothing short of magnificent.

rating

five

Would you really have married the man who’d killed your brothers?

Well, first of all, I wouldn’t have been given a choice. But yes, probably. Yes. I was a slave, and a slave will do anything, anything at all, to stop being a thing and become a person again.

While it is accurate to say that The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of the Trojan War, that may give you a false impression of the novel. This is not a story about brutality on the battlefield. It’s not a story about the injustice of premature death. While these things make appearances in the narrative, The Silence of the Girls is about the slow, tragic, spiritual death that befalls the women who are held captive in times of war.

The story primarily focuses on Briseis, the unwilling concubine of Achilles. She has been taken as spoils of war and has no opportunity to grieve the deaths of her family before being thrown into Achilles’ bed. Her desperation and simmering resentment are somewhat reminiscent of Offred’s demeanor throughout The Handmaid’s Tale. 

I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son. 

Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on a ll sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought: And I do what countless woman before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers. 

As you might expect, The Silence of the Girls has a fiercely feminist bent to it. The sole aim of this novel seems to be to give voice to women who are largely forgotten in these stories. While it is easy in the abstract to see women like Briseis and know that their fates are tragic, this novel brings that tragedy into sharp focus on each page. Briseis’ day to day life is broken up with moments seemingly designed to break her down. While the nights spent with her captor may be the most sensational aspect of this, perhaps more heartbreaking is are the moments when reminders of her old life bleed into the present in the cruelest ways, such as when she says an enemy solider wearing a tunic she had made for her slaughtered father.

The overall tone of the writing feels very modern considering the subject matter. Depending on yours tastes, you may find it a bit anachronistic or you may simply find it immensely readable. Personally, I thought the style worked very well and allowed the story to flow naturally for a modern audience. And while it deals with tragedy and dehumanization, Briseis seems to find a sense of hope and light, though it may be tinged with anger. Her story will light a fire in your soul.

We’re going to survive–our songs, our stories. They’ll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought at Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We’ll be in their dreams–and in their worst nightmares too.

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Thank you for reading! Do you have a favorite modern novel that tells the story of an ancient myth? Do you prefer stories which stick closely to the original mythology or do you prefer when an author puts their own spin on the story? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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Review – Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik


Spinning Silver
by Naomi Novik

Genre: Fantasy, Retellings

Length: 480 Pages

Release date: July 10, 2018

Synopsis: 

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders… but her father isn’t a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife’s dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty–until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers’ pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed–and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.

But having the reputation of being able to change silver to gold can be more trouble than it’s worth–especially when her fate becomes tangled with the cold creatures that haunt the wood, and whose king has learned of her reputation and wants to exploit it for reasons Miryem cannot understand.

rating

three

“But I had not known that I was strong enough to do any of those things until they were over and I had done them. I had to do the work first, not knowing.” 

Spinning Silver is a creative and enchanting re-imagining of the Rumpelstiltskin story. I really wanted to enjoy this book as much as it seems everyone else does; I definitely understand the appeal, but there were some things that simply didn’t work for me. Primarily, Novik is wrestling with what felt like too many POV characters; not all of these perspectives felt necessary. Miryem (the moneylender’s daughter), Wanda (a girl hired by Miryem’s family to work off her father’s debt), and Irina (the daughter of a duke) are the primary POV characters. Once Novik veers away from these perspectives, the story seems less engaging.

The number of perspectives also had the effect of bogging down the pace. (Listen, I love long fantasy novels. Brandon Sanderson has never let me down, and that man churns out pages like he’s single-handedly trying to kill the rainforest. Those novels never feel long to me, despite often being over 1,000 pages. Spinning Silver felt long to me, despite being under 500.)

That being said, there was a lot to like about this book as well. First and foremost, Spinning Silver features numerous strong female characters, with agency and nuance. Miryem was arguably the best developed and most sympathetic of the three. She takes on the duty of collecting her father’s debts of her own accord, because her father can’t or won’t do so. To prevent her family from starving, she feels she must make herself cold and somewhat unfeeling; she cannot accept excuses from her father’s debtors, or suddenly everyone will have excuses, and Miryem won’t have money to buy food to help her sick mother get well again. This is only the beginning of her troubles, and as the story progresses, she finds herself victim to the mysterious Staryk King, who rules the fey-like race that wreaks havoc of Miryem’s world.

Novik’s mythology is interesting; she draws on the folklore around Rumpelstiltskin for inspiration, but she weaves a whole new world around it. The result is a pretty balanced mixture of the comfortable and the strange. Spinning Silver may be an excellent choice for fans of The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss of American Gods, by Neil Gaiman.

Purchase links

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Thank you for reading! How do you feel about fairy tale retellings? Have you read any that you felt improved upon the original inspiration? Discuss in the comments!

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