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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