Oh boy, I had some pretty barbed thoughts when it came to this book. Well- in a manner of speaking. Because I don’t actually think my views are all that controversial: I liked the stories overall, I thought they were super well written and a lot of them had great characterisation. I even liked how Bardugo used multiple stories as inspiration- that was a sharp idea! Most of all I LOVED the illustration style, all round the page. The artist, Sara Kipin, deserves ALL THE PRAISE. She can have all the bananas she likes from me!
However, as with many collections, this had weaker tales and I ended up concluding that a few of the overarching themes didn’t sit well (especially in relation to the originals). In order to explain that though, I’m afraid I’m gonna have to get into the spoilery details, so if you don’t want to read those, maybe skip to my rating at the end, cos I’m about to give the play-by-play for each of these stories.
Ayama and the Thorn Wood
Overall, I liked the first tale. The writing was crisp; the narrative structure was tightly wound and slowly unspooled in an intriguing way. I also really enjoyed the stories within stories element- even if I wasn’t totally sold on each of its messaging- like “there are better things than princes”. I mean, yeah, but it feels like a pointed statement about old-school fairy tales and that misses the mark for me. Because this pervasive view throughout is far too simplistic. That’s why- while I liked the aspects of *monsters are not always who you think they are*- this story didn’t totally ring true. And that’s a shame, because it was very close to perfect.
The Too Clever Fox
I *adored* the personalities in this. I’m a huge fan of characters who live by their wits and the fact that the fox was ugly was a nice touch. The lyrical tone and the writing was splendid from beginning to end. It was complex, felt open to multiple levels of analysis and the ending was very clever in deed. I also liked how it played into the “Russianness” of the setting. It was exactly as it should be.
Witch of Duva
Well, time for some unpopular opinions. I guessed the (rather obvious) twist for this straight away and if you’re at all familiar with a lot of modern story structures then you could too. This was derivative of Hansel and Gretel– only it was clear from the get-go that the monster was the MAN and the heroes were the OLD CRONE and the STEPMOTHER. Wow, never saw that one coming *heavy sarcasm*. Now, while I’ve already mentioned that I liked the things are not as they seem concept, this was the second story in the collection to employ this idea. What makes it dubious storytelling for me is that it’s no fun if you can always guess where things are going because it’s following the formula: man = bad, woman = good. Again, this isn’t a particularly sophisticated reading of the original and only results in an okay-ish retelling (one that overlooks that Gretel is the one to save the day in the fairy tale- but whatever *man wrote it, man bad* and all that grim business). Despite my complaints, I really liked the writing and gave it:
Again, the writing for this was excellent and I particularly liked how it captured the orality of fairy tales. Sadly, although I didn’t see it coming this time, this falls prey to the same issues as the last story. Some of the lessons are alright; some weren’t. Look, I don’t have a problem with the direction it took with the suitor or father- fairy tales are full of idiots getting what they deserve- BUT why did the protagonist ends up in a sort of purgatory? Sitting alone on a rock in the middle of nowhere till you die is the kind of punishment narratives usually dole out to villains and heroes that have wasted away. It symbolises wasted potential- not a grand victory and certainly not empowerment. The protagonist doesn’t really gain anything- she gets the freedom to sit… and do nothing. Independence isn’t powerful when you end up completely alone. Sure, the dimwit men may have lost her *sparkling* company, yet she’s the real loser here, since she’s lost everything. Unfortunately this left a bitter taste to what was shaping up to be a pretty good course.
The Soldier Prince
Ahh this was better! Straight away, I appreciated how the tone shifted with the “source” of the story (Bardugo bases this around different locations in the Grishaverse and this one takes place in the equivalent of Amsterdam). I worried a little about the downward trajectory of the stories- especially since this starts with a stereotypically evil male villain who feels like they’ve owed a bride- one that happens to be a young child (eww). Nonetheless, I was wrong to judge it on that score (though can you blame me?) and this helped me go back to judging each story on their own merits. In fact, this ended up surprising me in more ways than one. I know I’ve spoilt everything by now- but somehow I don’t want to taint this one- because I adored the final turn! Easily:
When Water Sang Fire
I’d describe this as the Ugly Duckling meets Little Mermaid (three guesses where this is supposed to be set 😉 ). Once more, there was a different style employed- notably a brilliant use of second person that created a striking opening! This was one of the best in the collection for me- and there’s stiff competition! There were a couple of unique touches here as well- particularly the use of magic changing the colour of the pages and resetting the illustrations to be drawn anew. That detail blew me away. And, naturally, I loved the twist in the tale.
Alrighty then- as you can tell I had a mixed experience with this. I really liked a huge amount of this- yet what I didn’t like sometimes got in the way of perfectly good storytelling. It was a shame, because I felt like this collection could have been completely magnificent. Fairy tales are constantly evolving- that’s one of the things I love about them- yet I’ve got to admit I’m a little tired of newer interpretations bitch-slapping older ones. Often to the detriment of the incredible historical heroines who overcome hardship without becoming hermits. There’s a core to the old stories that keep us coming back- warnings and wisdom and endless complexities. And this just wasn’t quite there.
Anyway, my average still ended up being:
So have you read this? Do you plan to? And do you agree or disagree with anything I’ve said here? Let me know in the comments!