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Monday, February 27, 2017

ANTHOLOGY: "The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales"

Title:  The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales
Editors: Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe
Plot Type:  Fairy tales with a twist
Publisher:  Saga Press (10/2016) 


     Does a fairy tale require a literal forest? Could the stories of Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel still resonate in a wood-less setting? After all, the editors point out, some cultures don't have forests but they still have fairy tales. So what makes a story a fairy tale? Here's the editors' opinion on that subject:

     "We know to expect certain themes and subjects, or at least variations on themterrible parents, wandering children, fantastical animals, enchanted items, moral components, trials and tribulationsto a point where even if we don't necessarily recognize the source material, a story can still feel like a fairy tale."

In addition to the elements listed in the previous quotation, fairy tales also

Include fantasy, supernatural, or make-believe aspects.
Use some form or variation of "Once upon a time"—an unspecified "long ago."
Include fantasy, supernatural, or make-believe aspects.
Take place in an enchanted setting, like forests, castles, water or kingdoms.
Feature groups of three (objects, people, or events). Seven is also a magical number.
Have clearly defined good and evil characters.
Present a clearly defined problem, climax, and resolution.
Frequently—but not always—have happy endings.
     For this anthology of 18 stories, the editors decided to "run fairy tales through a prism, to challenge our authors to look at stories from an unusual angle, to bring them back into different genres and traditions, toif you willreturn them to their cross-genre roots. We wanted our authors to move beyond the woods."

At the end of each fairy tale, the author discusses his or her process in approaching the re-imagining of the characters, setting, and plot. Those brief essays (each about a page in length) are fascinating to read and added a great deal to my enjoyment of the anthology. Click HERE to go to a page on the Barnes & Nobls web site featuring an interesting discussion of the stories by the authors and editors: "Mind Meld: Exploring Fairy Tales with The Starlit Wood Storytellers."

     The book's cover (by Benjamin Carré) provides clues to the editors' plans. The cover is shown (at left) without frame or words. Note the inner flames and shadowy human figures; the strange, arthropodic scaffolding; and the caterpillar-esque metal hoses. What's going on here? Step into The Starlit Wood and find out. (I have awarded sparkly stars to my favorites.)

                    THE STORIES                    
Title: "In the Desert Like a Bone"
Fairy Tale: "Little Red Riding Hood"
Fairy Tale Elements: wandering child, terrible parent, barren setting to be conquered by the heroine, fantastical animals, clearly defined evil character, plot focuses on a problem that needs to be solved
QuotationFinal Sentence: "His hat is black as shadows, and hers is red as blood, and none saw where they came from, and none will see where they go."
Summary and Review: It's always good to begin with the best. McGuire moves Little Red to the American Southwest in the 19th century and provides her with a supernatural escort through the desert heat. She also changes up the good and the bad guys and gives Red some special survival skills. This is a moody tale with a quick and dirty ending that solves Red's problems once and for all. Click HERE to read my reviews of the novels in McGuire's OCTOBER DAYE series, and click HERE for my reviews of her INCRYPTID Series.


Title:  "Underground"
Fairy Tale: "East of the Sun, West of the Moon"
Fairy Tale Elements: abandoned child, uncaring parents, magical elements, an enchanted mansion, clearly defined evil characters
QuotationHedvig's conflict begins: "[Her father] came home with a package under his arm, and Hedvig outraced the dog to greet him, and she didn't understand why he burst into tears."
Summary and Review: Both the original fairy tale and Tidbeck's story follow a young woman's trials and tribulations as she is sold off to a mysterious man who is under a curse. But modern Hedvig's situation soon becomes more abusive than that of the fairy-tale heroine, so she makes certain that she is the only one who gets an HEA. Tidbeck tells a grim, joyless story that left me wondering why in the world Hedvig saved the man who enslaved her. 


Title:  "Even the Crumbs Were Delicious"
Fairy Tale: "Hansel and Gretel"
Fairy Tale Elements: wandering children, terrible parents, enchanted items, a witch and a giant
QuotationFirst Line: "Maybe, just maybe, it had been a mistake to paper the walls with edible drugs."
Summary and Review: 
Gregory sets his story in the drug-addled world of his novel, Afterpartya world in which druggies feed chemical packs and formulas into their chemjet printers and "mix, heat, chill, distill, and recombine molecules into whatever smart drug you wanted." Because this is a Hansel and Gretel tale, we have a brother, a sister, bad parents, and a witch (along with a few extra characters), but the good, the bad, and the ugly don't necessarily match up with the traditional fairy tale. This is a world where drugs replace candy and technology replaces that fragile breadcrumb trail through the woods. Gregory always creates inventive worlds and quirky characters. Click HERE to read my review of Gregory's crazy, creepy novel, Harrison Squared.


Title:  "The Super Ultra Duchess of Fedora Forest"
Fairy Tale: "The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage" 
Fairy Tale Elements: fantastical animals (and meat), group of three central characters who must solve a problem, trials and tribulations in a dark wood
QuotationThe Perfect Partnership: "Every day the bird would fly into the forest and collect wood. The mouse would carry in water from the well, make a fire, and set the table. And then the sausage would cook their dinner, slithering around in the fry pan to coat it with grease for their vegetables or grains."
Summary and Review: 
Ah, but the best laid plans of mice and birds (and sausages) go astray when a meddlesome stranger puts jealous thoughts into one partner's ear, thus upsetting their perfect symmetry. Meanwhile, in the background a political upheaval ripples through the land and causes the sausage to panic because he's on the run from the Land of Breakfast Meats. The original fairy tale is one of the Grimms' grimmest tales, but Anders has reset the story in an absurdly dystopian realm slowly being overrun "by talking animals and self-aware pieces of food." As the sausage faces certain death in the unfamiliar, scary forest, her friends work together on a bizarre rescue effort. It's a story that relies on farcicality to pass along its moral. All in all, it's very lightweight, but enjoyable, nevertheless. Click HERE to read my review of Anders's entertaining novel, All the Birds in the Sky.

Title:  "Familiaris"
Fairy Tale: "The Wolves" (from The Turnip Princess, by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth)(Click HERE for a review of that book written by Valentine.)
Fairy Tale Elements: "once upon a time," three narrators, trials and tribulations, terrible husbands, supernatural elements
Quotation—Thematic summary: "The point is, men will conspire to win. The point is, women are sacrifices."
Summary and Review: 
This story features three female narrators: a "once upon a time" princess, a "long time ago" peasant woman, and a modern woman. All three are wives and mothers. The narration jumps from one woman to another back and forth in time and place, but, as the author states, the theme for each is the same: "fear of judgment, fear of childbirth and maternity, fear of being beholden." This is another dark tale in which women are at the mercy of the men in their lives. By this point in the book, I was wishing for a happy ending for a female character. That doesn't happen in this tale. 

Title:  "Seasons of Glass and Iron"
Fairy Tale: "The Glass Mountain"/"The Black Bull of Norroway"
Fairy Tale Elements: terrible parents, enchanted setting, magical objects, clearly defined problem, trials and tribulations, shines a spotlight on important cultural values, a happy ending
QuotationA crucial lesson learned by one of the heroines: "Promises are important to bears."
Summary and Review: 
El-Mohtar combines two fairy tales that feature heroines (Tabitha and Amira) who find themselves in dire circumstances at the hands of the men in their lives. Rather than making them the passive princesses found in many traditional fairy tales, the author adds a touch of female power to the plot. I enjoyed this one tremendously because within the restrictions of the briefness of this tale, the author has given both young women distinctly different personalities as well as making them smart enough to come up with a shared solution to solve their male-imposed problems. 

Title:  "Badgirl, The Deadman, and The Wheel of Fortune"
Fairy Tale: "The Girl with No Hands"
Fairy Tale Elements: features three characters, one of which has three possible reasons for his nickname (Mudpuddle), terrible parent, clearly defined villain and heroine, trials and tribulations, moral components. 
QuotationA tree house that's not in a tree: "My tree house wasn't a tree house, though....I heard the Deadman call it something French-sounding but he said it like a pirate kiss Arrrr. Mwah."
Summary and Review: 
Badgirl (aka Loula, aka little black cat) lives with her deadbeat, druggie dad, Mudpuddle, in the depths of urban poverty. For supper, Badgirl sometimes "eats powdered mashed potatoes without unpowdering them." When Dad accidentally makes a terrible promise to Deadman (obviously the villain), life goes downhill for Badgirl. This is a heartbreaking, horrible tale that left me feeling sick at heart. Notice that "happy ending" is not listed as one of this story's fairy tale elements.

Title:  "Penny for a Match, Mister?"
Fairy Tale: "The Little Match Girl" 
Fairy Tale Elements: wandering child, enchanted matches, moral components, supernatural component, clearly defined villains, happy ending (for the good characters, but not the bad ones)
Quotation—the supernatural catalyst: "A road of moonsilver was a means for persons and creatures barely imaginable to cross the Line, to come into the human world and there cause mischief, mayhem, misery or mystery as was their wont."
Summary and Review: 
Nix turns the "Match Girl" tale inside out and upside down, moving it from cold and foggy London to the dry and dusty American West. In the traditional story, the matches provide pleasant hallucinations of happy times for the little girl, but in this telling, the child (Lili) is unaware of what the matches doeven though she burns them, one by one. This is a tale of vengeance with a supernatural boost. I would love to read a series based on Lili's rescuer, the very capable and sardonic Rose Jackson, a marshal-warden who packs magical weapons and knows how to use them. With its western outlaw plot, singular characters, and fiery climax, this is the best story in the anthology.


Title:  "Some Wait"
Fairy Tale: "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" (Click HERE for links to other versions of this story.)
Fairy Tale Elements: enchanted item (computer game), wandering (actually, missing) children, trials and tribulations for the parents, moral components
Quotation—The original tale gets a technology update: "Hundreds of years ago, it had been a rat catcher who lured the children from their homes. Now, for our children, it was a mouse."
Summary and Review: 
This one flashed me back to Rod Serling's screenplay, "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," a textbook case of mob psychology and the paranoia of regular people. In this story, set in a small town, children begin to disappear, one by one. The only clue is a video game that includes a "Black Flame Lantern," which features the quotation, "It is one hundred years since our children left." As parents search for a scapegoat, suspicion builds, society breaks down, and people die. Has the Pied Piper returned to punish them, and if so, what have they done to deserve this horrible fate?

Title:  "The Thousand Eyes"
Fairy Tale: "The Voice of Death"
Fairy Tale Elements: enchanted item (the Voice); fantasy elements
QuotationThe power of Death's Voice: "The drive to follow the voice was monumental, like two metal fingers were hooked in each of his nostrils and attached by a chain to the Queen Mary, which was pulling out of port."
Summary and Review: 
To put yourself in the appropriate mood as you read, click HERE and listen to Bobby Vee croon the 1962 ballad that gives the bar—the setting for the magical action—its name. Although both the traditional and the re-imagined fairy tales feature a man who defies death's irresistible call, this story takes place in the present-day American South, where the main character is a down-on-his-luck artist whose goal in life is to complete a series of paintings of local bars. Read the story to see what happens when he gets to the last bar—the one called "Thousand Eyes." Ford's "Author's Note" is the most interesting and entertaining of any in the book. Click HERE to read my review of Ford's story collection, A Natural History of Hell. Click HERE to read or listen to "Creation," an on-line story by Ford on the Fantasy Magazine web site.


Title:  "The Giant in the Sky"
Fairy Tale: "Jack and the Beanstalk" (Click HERE for links to other versions of this story.)
Fairy Tale Elements: moral components; trials and tribulations; fantastical creature (a giant, of sorts); an enchanted setting (the beanstalk)
QuotationIt's all about the Beanstalk: "The Beanstalk...was capital H-A-R-D to build, and look, even though we got freaky godpowers so long as we stay virtual, construction work's still construction. You have to hoist frustrating huge chunks of matter around. We're still shy of singularity-powered monomolecular nanofactories; we can't just rajaniemi ourselves a new megastructure out of nothing."
Summary and Review: 
For me, this one is hard to follow. Gladstone constructs it as a series of communications among superhumans (and possibly some kind of extraterrestrial giant). This is a post-apocalyptic tale that describes what has happened to the unlucky survivors who are still stuck on Earth and to the privileged survivors who escaped up the Beanstalk. This is not one of my favorites.

Title: "The Briar and the Rose"
Fairy Tale: "Sleeping Beauty" (Click HERE for links to other versions of this story.)
Fairy Tale Elements: enchantment, trials and tribulations, a witch, a princess, clearly defined good and evil characters, a castle, clearly defined conflict and resolution
QuotationLove is all around: "Love is powerful...Love is divine. That is the answer to every tale we tell. What sleeps can always be awakened with love." (But it frequently takes a very long time.)
Summary and Review: 
In the traditional "Sleeping Beauty" story, the witch-cursed princess pricks her finger and falls into a century of sleep in a castle protected by a mass of thorns and briars. But in this tale, instead of going into a coma, Princess Rose's body is possessed by the witch, and the briar/protector is not a thicket of shrubbery, but a formidable female warrior (named, of course, Briar). Instead of a saved-by-the-prince ending, Liu gives us two determined women who overcome insurmountable odds through love and determination. Liu's approach adds complexity and depth to the original, one-dimensional fairy tale. Click HERE to read my reviews of the novels in Liu's terrific HUNTER KISS urban fantasy series.


Title:  "The Other Thea"
Fairy Tale: "The Shadow" (Click HERE to read Ursula Le Guin's essay, "The Child and the Shadow," from her book entitled The Language of the Night, which influenced Goss in the writing of her own tale.)
Fairy Tale Elements: an enchanted castle in another realm, fantastical people, witches, trials and tribulations, clearly defined problem and resolution
QuotationThea's problem: "Find your shadow....Without it, you're fading."
Summary and Review: 
Thea is a recent graduate of Miss Lavender's School of Witchcraft. She was supposed to have started her studies at Harvard by now, but lately she has been depressed and listless and unable to focus on her future. Seeking advice, she returns to Miss Lavender, only to be told that she must retrieve her missing shadow, which is residing in Mother Night's Castle in the Other Country. Thea is at a loss as to what to do next until Miss Lavender's familiar, a cat named Cordelia, advises her to "think like a witch." Thea is an intelligent young woman whoafter a tentative startfigures out just what to do to save herself from fading away. I guess that you could call this a "coming of witch" story. 


Title:  "When I Lay Frozen"
Fairy Tale: "Thumbelina"
Fairy Tale Elements: talking animals, a wandering child, trials and tribulations, moral components, clearly defined problem and resolution
QuotationTommelise runs away in fright when she see this (to her) incomprehensible scene in her parents' bedroom: "The vast, peeled bodies [surge] out of the bedclothes. Their faces open and roam over each other like cattle desperately browsing. The Father, in agony, grows his extra stunted leg, and the Mother takes fright and crushes it under her bottom in a frenzy...."
Summary and Review: 
In Lanagan's "Author's Note," she calls Hans Christian Andersen's "Thumbelina" a "tooth-dissolvingly sweet tale that speaks volumes about the gender divide of its time." She decries the fact that Tommelise is a "weeping, shivering moppet, always at the mercy of the giant creatures around her," while Tom Thumb is a "rambunctious adventurer." In other words, why can't a tiny girl be just as courageous and curious as a tiny boy? Lanagan's Tommelise, having fled from her parents' home for an embarrassingly delicate reason, now lives deep underground with a mousewife who is getting ready to marry her off to her neighbor, a randy old mole. Meanwhile, Tommelise has rescued and befriended a half-frozen swallow who recognizes the little girl for what she is and promises to fly her away if she truly wants to find happiness. Does Lanagan's Tommelise have the courage to leave her dank, dark tunnel for the risky outside world? 


Title:  "Pearl"
Fairy Tale: "Dã Tràng and the Pearl" 
Fairy Tale Elements: moral components, trials and tribulations, mostly science fiction elements rather than fairy tale elements
QuotationWho or what is Pearl?: "Pearl was...not perfect, but what you would get if you saved the best of everything you found drifting in space and put it together, not out of necessity, not out of a desire for immediate survival or return to full functionality—but with a carefully thought-out plan, a desire for...stability?"
Summary and Review: 
In reading this story, you need to know that in this science fiction world, remoras are small vessels that are "patched upleftovers from bots and ships that had gone all but feral, low-level intelligences used for menial tasks." In this space-opera metamorphosis tale, Dã Tràng starts out as a subpar student who aspires to be a scholar. When two of his remoras present him with a newly created remora (which he names Pearl), he soon learns that this particular remora has powers far beyond those of any other remora every built. When Pearl nestles on his shoulder and slices its needles into his neck, Dã Tràng sees the secrets of the universe and soon makes his way up the career ladder to become a Councillor to the Empress. The author constructs the story as a series of flashbacks that skip back and forth among various past and present times, portraying Dã Tràng's life before, during, and after Pearl, with particular emphasis on Pearl's exit and on Dã Tràng's unsuccessful efforts to find his lost remora. According to the "Author's Note," "This story serves as a reminder to those who attempt to go beyond the limits of their human abilities and pursue an impossible task which reaps no rewards." Although this is a well-told and emotional story, it doesn't really pass the "fairy tale test."

Title:  "The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle"
Fairy Tale: "The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and The White-Footed Gazelle" (appearing in translation from the Arabic in Tales of the Marvelous and New of the Strange, by Malcolm C. Lyons) (Click HERE for a discussion of that book.) 
Fairy Tale Elements: "Once upon a time," fantastical animals, trials and tribulations, enchanted item (a magical mirror), moral component
QuotationThematic summary: "A love story. An animal story. All these animals in love."
Summary and Review: 
This is a tale within a tale within a tale—all told by a charming, but completely unreliable, narrator. "The White-Footed Gazelle" fairy tale melds seamlessly with the "Mahliya and Mauhub" story as characters shift back and forth between human and animal shapes and poor Mauhub can never be sure if he is seeing his beloved Mahliya or a stranger. Samatar moves from ancient past to urban present as the narrator tells the stories, one by one. This is part of an Eastern medieval text that was first released in English in 2015. Samatar believes that "the world has been primed to receive it by more than three centuries of love for A Thousand and One Nights" (aka Arabian Nights). It's such a good story that I'm planning to take a look at the full translation (which is "pink-linked" in the introductory information above).

Fairy Tale: "The Snow Queen"
Fairy Tale Elements: trials and tribulations, enchanted mirrors, moral component, supernatural element (an mystical, icy realm), three people, happy ending
QuotationMagical mirrors: "I was convinced that if I was fast enough, stealthy enough, something enough, I could make it so the reflection was different from the reality on my side of the mirror. That I could trick the mirror into showing something that wasn't truth."
Summary and Review: 
Like the previous story, this one deals with magical mirrors. This time, though, the author decided, "Hey, let's try 'The Snow Queen' with science in it." Three graduate students try to do an Alice-through-the-looking-glass experiment, with one of them entering a mirror and then reporting back on when he finds. But something goes wrong (as you knew it would), and his two friends have to figure out how to rescue him. This is one of the best stories in the book. 

Title: "Spinning Silver"
Fairy Tale: "Rumpelstiltskin"
Fairy Tale Elements: "once upon a time"; trials and tribulations; fantastical creatures; enchanted fairy silver; moral components; an enchanted, starlit wood; group of three (three tasks Miryem must perform)
QuotationWhat the story's really about: "Getting out of paying your debts."
Summary and Review: 
Although you may think you know what really happened in the "Rumpelstiltskin" story, this narrator claims that "the real story isn't half as pretty as the one you've heard and then proceeds to summarize a completely different tale. Novik perceives a touch of anti-Semitism in the old tale: "The sinister caricature of the hunched long-nosed man whose hands run with gold and who wants to steal golden-haired babies." Taking the bare bones of the traditional story, she makes the heroine—Miryem—the daughter of a Jewish moneylender who takes over the family business when Dad can't bring himself to collect payments from the villagers who owe him money. She achieves huge success and makes her family wealthy. But then, she makes a fateful boast while riding through the wintry wood—a boast that is overheard by a powerful Staryk (a fairy?) who gives her two really bad choices. If she makes good on her boast, she will become his bride, but if she fails, he will change her body into ice. Talk about being on the horns of a dilemma! The story has romance, suspense, danger, and noir humor. The best part is the ending, when Miryem out thinks the Staryk and gets her HEA (one of the few happy endings in this anthology). This is another one of the top stories in the book. Click HERE to read my review of Novik's wonderful medieval fantasy, Uprooted.

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