Dark Shimmer – Donna Jo Napoli

Dark Shimmer. Donna Jo Napoli. New York : Ember, [2016] ©2015

It is not often that you see a YA book that comes complete with a lengthy bibliography.  Sure an author here or there might tell you a book they relied on in an Author’s Note, but pages of a bibliography are rare in fiction.   Even if we all know people use various resources to create their stories, we don’t tend to know which ones, or we are left to suspect or question.  Not so in the case of Dark Shimmer. Donna Jo Napoli, who I have not read previously, offers us a certain amount of proof that she does in fact know quite a bit about the story she has crafted to contain the tale of Snow White.

Here the tale is primarily that of the creation of evil through external madness created by lack of a thorough knowledge of quicksilver (mercury.)  Dolce has grown up on an island of dwarfs  (the terminology used in the book) without knowing that she is not the aberration.  She learns to create mirrors and is responsible for coming up with a technique that perfects the combination of glass, tin and quicksilver.  Upon the death of her mother she runs away, eventually reaching the mainland and ending up in Venice.

Hiding her past she is accepted by a noble book collector, his sister and his young daughter.  While their is some foreshadowing of the fall to evil to come, it was not clear until this point that Dolce’s part in the story was that of evil queen and Bianca, clearly the Snow White.  (Her name is Neve when she hides and then Biancaneve.)

I particularly enjoyed that Napoli chose to focus this as a historical story about noble women of Venice, presumably also much of the other Italian States, and the relationships they had with each other and with their dwarf slaves.  Dolce is at first at a lost as to how to deal with the falsity and maneuverings of the women around her.  She is appalled by the treatment of the dwarfs and develops her own way of finding a way to free them as she learns of this new world from her sister-in-law.

Agnola, the sister-in-law, is a character that I really enjoyed.  There is no equivalent to her in the Snow White story, but here she ends up becoming a driving force in the way that the events play out after Dolce decides that Bianca is replacing her in her husband’s affections as the mercury poisoning happens.  Agnola and her relationship with Dolce lets us see the way madness takes shape, the efforts to hide it in a climate that relies on maintaining a perfect facade and the difficulties of caring for someone who has done something unforgivable.

Perhaps more interestingly, Agnola is allowed her own clandestine relationship with a dwarf,  Pietro, who then plays the part of the Huntsman in the Snow White story.  I appreciated the way in which Napoli highlighted the position that people with dwarfism found themselves in within this society, with some choosing to hide in the woods (those that Bianca will stay with) and others finding ways to incorporate themselves into society, but always on the fringe.

Dolce’s realization of her mother’s selfishness in not telling her that she was not the ‘monster’ she thought herself and the loss and anger at Bianca for pointing it out was beautifully rendered.

Afterwards, however, the story played out fairly predictably along the Brothers Grimm version.
Dolce conceals herself in various disguises when she finds out Bianca is hiding in the woods with a group of dog training dwarfs.   In her author’s note, Napoli makes clear that these attempts of poisoning Bianca are also impeccably researched.  I did not really find them as interesting to read.  Although it opened up some time within the book to further explore Agnola and Dolce’s interaction, I found much of this section of the book to drag.  There was some exploration for Bianca in terms of learning to do the work of servants rather than play the harp and embroider pillow cases, but it wasn’t as interesting to me and somewhat cliched.

There is the obligatory prince figure, who, too, is rather bland.  The men in this story are mostly bland, though these two are likeable enough but don’t really get any attention.  This is not a criticism.  This is a book about women.

The downfall of Dolce is also very much about women and what a woman could or could not be doing.  Her continued mirror making gets her in trouble with the city who wishes to protect the secret, even though the process is one that she created.  To the end she does not fully understand the intricate workings of the life she found herself in.   Her ultimate end is a fitting return to the Grimm story and the Evil Queen’s demise.

To sum up, this is an excellent historical fiction approach to Snow White.  The fairy tale elements are not overly forced, though occasionally followed a bit too much. I’d be curious what reading it without some sense of the workings of trade in the Italian Renaissance would be like, but I suspect that for most readers there is enough here to at least get a good sense of the world.  I definitely appreciated the glimpse into both the lives of dwarfs of the period and also the intricacy of mirror making and the effects that those artisans invariably suffered.

Cover art –  The edition I read from the library is mostly black with the image of a woman in a cracked mirror.  The font of the title seems to imply more of a paranormal element than this contained with the dripping blood.  For some reason the publisher also felt compelled to give us a tag line, “Once upon a time, evil began in innocence.”  This is totally unnecessary and in fact I think takes away from some of the early subtly of Napoli’s writing in crafting a story where you don’t know if Dolce is the princess/victim or the queen/villain.  Ultimately this is what is most interesting about the story and I think should be discovered by reading.

Plot – 4.5/5  Character 4.5/5  Diction 4/5 Theme 4/5 Music 4/5 Spectacle 3/5

Overall 4/5

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“The Pot Child” Jane Yolen

From Tales of Wonder.  Jane Yolen. Schocken. 1987.  Read on Kindle

This is the first story in this collection and I absolutely loved it. It is the kind of short story and writing that leaves you haunted by it long after you read it.  Years later I can imagine still thinking back, if not on the story specifics, than at least on the feeling that this story left.  I actually put the book away after reading this first story because, despite the fact that the library return date was approaching, I wanted to savor it.

Yolen is someone who has written extensively for both children and adults.  The collection that this story is in is supposedly a collection of her adult fairy tales, some retellings some not.  I have other the years been drawn to some of her work and less interested in picking up others that I have seen.  Her Briar Rose is easily one of the most fascinating and deeply disturbing and, again, haunting versions of the Sleeping Beauty story.  At some point I will have the right mind space to go back and reread it.

For such a short and simple story this packs a lot of punch.  It’s nominally related to the line of stories that bring us Gallatea, Pinocchio, etc.  A potter lacks a child and so paints a masterpiece of one on a pot that is brought to life.  Observers of the pot say the art lacks heart and soul, something that troubles the child as it comes to life.  I won’t reveal the end, but the way this makes you think about what it mean for art to have life is provoking.  And in the end, as Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George tells us you only leave “Children and Art.” Yolen explores for us which is perhaps the more important?

The Black Fairy’s Curse

“The Black Fairy’s Curse” Karen Joy Fowler

Found in Black Swan, White Raven edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, Avon Books, 1997, also available via Kindle

This is a short story  that shows the particular age of this Datlow/Windling collection. It’s not a bad story by any means, but some of it feels a bit tired given today’s more feminine Sleeping Beauty adaptations.  It’s certainly a part of the heritage that has led to other more complex feminist renderings of the Sleeping Beauty story.  In this brief piece, the focus is on a dreaming princess’ dreams. And, as we learn in the twist in the end, dreams might be preferable to the actual reality of awakening.  There is some beautiful writing here in the way the dream sequence is laid out. I found myself reading it more than once because there’s very much a dream logic at work which I appreciate in the way that the action is written to keep shifting in the dream as it flits from one idea to another.  There were glimmers within the dreams of Sleeping Beauty and the setting the tower and the thorns that bring the story together into a very beautiful and compact package. And then the ultimate question, is the curse of the title the dreams or is it in the awakening?  The  feminist reader in me is super pleased by the way in which Fowler utilized both feminine desire and  fear of the prescribed rape scenario that Sleeping Beauty sets up. Having read so many stories that share some of this feeling of dissatisfaction with the waker, it can sometimes feel more than a bit of a cliche reading today.  What makes this particular version stand out is the mirroring of the curse in the story that it is well worth revisiting an earlier example of the idea.

Plot – 3/5 Character – 3/5 Thought – 5/5 Diction – 5/5 Music – 5/5 Spectacle – N/A

Overall 4/5

Kingdom of Ashes – Rhiannon Thomas

Kingdom of Ashes. Rhiannon Thomas.  HarperTeen, 2016

Sequel of A Wicked Thing. Rhiannon Thomas. HarperTeen, 2015.

If you like your Sleeping Beauty stories with dragons then this is apparently the adaptation of Sleeping Beauty for you!

I read Thomas’ debut novel A Wicked Thing last year and I was very impressed with her work. Her series is a “what happens after” story of Sleeping Beauty and I’m glad to see more of these popping up than just straightforward retellings as they tend to prioritize plot in a different way, sometimes occasionally at the expense of character consistency. I thought that Thomas did a good job in the first book capturing both character and plot. While her Aurora wasn’t someone I totally liked, the choice of naivety was fitting for the story that she set up, and as in the first book, I thought the course of events played out well in terms of her learning via betrayal the cost of trust and naivety.  I found the first book sometimes slow-moving, something I would also say about the second book as well. In many ways the pacing seems to be more about character development through moments of interaction between Aurora and Prince Finnegan. There are some elements in these scenes that remind me of certain kinds of fanfic writing but that’s a digression for another review or an article.

This is again not to say that there isn’t plot here  – for a piece of story now clearly at minimum a trilogy –  a whole lot does happen in what is at its base a middle book about training and learning magic as well as I suppose some sort of self-discovery, but more on that in a moment.  It’s here that if you’ve ever felt the Sleeping Beauty story  just doesn’t have enough  dragons in it, then you know this is the version for you. The dragons are at least intricately connected to the magic of the world Thomas has created and they are a destructive force but also a seductive power.  The dragons are set up as connected to the curse that was placed on Aurora – with more details now revealed than in the first book and the lure of learning still more.  There were so many interesting world building ideas and hints at a history that Thomas provided about this new country of Prince Finnegan’s and the dragon’s waste.  On the whole it felt a bit of a shame how quickly the dragon story was played out.

What was interesting about this plot twist, if you can call it that, is that while there were hints of it in the first book, that book felt much more like the beginnings of a series about political machinations, whereas now the books have shifted into definite fantasy epic.  Or maybe there’s just too much Game of Thrones influence going on.  I was left with the feeling that all the fantasy tropes of the last decade where being thrown in a pot, though Thomas does leave open the possibilities that these tropes she is manipulating for her ends.  It sometimes feels well pulled off and sometimes feels jarring and out of place.  The politics of the previous novel are still sort of present throughout, but they’re not really addressed again until the end.  It is again odd pacing.  The end feels rushed, as though this book was meant to build to this culmination, but it clearly isn’t the end, or even the important bit. There’s obviously going to be another book, it is already announced.  It’s hard to fully describe the end and avoid spoiling but there are so many side issues and plots, which seem important but are sometimes treated his distractions to get through.

But back to the characters and character development, which in many ways was the driving force of the first book.  Here it was filled with those obvious tropes of YA fantasy writing. Prince Finnegan is the appealing bad boy with a Heart of Gold character. It also hearkens back to the idea of a bit too much fanfic background. The use of both sexual pressure, all while waiting for consent is straight out of a romance novel of this decade. While I appreciate the emphasis on consent between him and Aurora, there’s something about the cocky, “well you will succumb because I am so right for you” that remains a bit discomforting. Even if at the same time I can appreciate the trope in a guilty pleasure kind of way.  It does, however, give me some concern because of the unreasonable expectations it can set.  Aurora in this book seemed less clear as a character than she had been in the previous volume. There is obviously the change and development of the first book and a substantial chunk of time in this book, but overall she continued to feel scattered and not totally clearly defined.   Learning to control powerful magic of course would change a person, but while the meek princess periodically does keep reappearing  she has moved toward over confidence and bravery.  Some of this was certainly present previously. Perhaps some of what I found unclear is that, much like the pacing, I wasn’t always sure what the rhyme or reason was that was the overall driving force in what was happening or which Princess Aurora was around.  I know that in many ways this was an effort on Thomas’ part to create a round character, but in the end the execution just continually feels a little bit forced.   

I did like this as I read it, though not as much as I enjoyed the first volume.  There is definitely a lot of originality and creativity.  There are some interesting things that I think Thomas is attempting as far as manipulating a whole range of genre tropes, and
I look forward to seeing where she does take the story. 24574656

Cover art – The font is nice. The Aurora character is…fine? I’m not entirely clear what this cover is meant to be with the lady in red on the stairs. I guess it is better than the draped white gowned fainting princess of the first volume. Also…come on….no dragons???

Plot –  4/5 Character -3/5 Thought 5/5 Diction 2/5 Music 3/5 Spectacle 2/5

Overall 3/5

 

 

 

The Flounder’s Kiss

“The Flounder’s Kiss” Michael Cadnum

Found in Black Swan, White Raven edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, Avon Books, 1997, also available via Kindle.

This is a short story that is clearly written by a man. Not to say that women can’t compose plenty of misogynistic type stories, but there was something about the tone of the interaction between the husband and the wife that was so enmeshed in gender norms.  This is something that many traditional fairy tales are, of course, filled with. None of which is to say that I disliked the story. I actually very much enjoyed it. The writing is beautifully descriptive and captivating. It’s quite the ode to various fish and fishing.

As with many short stories, this is all about the twist at the end, in this case on the trope of the magic wish giving fish.  I found the twist at the end, which I won’t spoil beyond to say it cries out to the Little Mermaid, a fantastic trickster element for such a short piece. The emotional distress the fisherman undergoes in a few shot pages from the stress that the magical situation has placed on him is well evoked and one can’t blame him for the choice that he makes, even if his wife is a totally undeveloped fairy tale trope of a greedy shrew of a wife. But, the language and the comeuppance make it totally worth while to read this particular story.

Plot – 5/5  Character – 3.5/5 Thought – 4.5/5 Diction – 5/5
Music – 4/5 Spectacle – n/a
Overall 4.5/5