book reviews by Althea

Review: The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales

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The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales
The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales by Dominik Parisien
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

**** In the Desert Like a Bone • Seanan McGuire
Little Red Riding Hood here is no passive victim – at least not anymore. The tale is transposed to the Old West, where a man and a girl ride the harsh desert in search of a reward – and revenge.

**** Underground • Karin Tidbeck
Based on the Swedish variation of the tale of Cupid & Psyche (or Beauty & the Beast): Prins Hatt. (…). The significant difference to this Swedish variation is that, while the young woman is imprisoned by the man whose face she cannot see, the reason for his cruel demand is that if he cannot win the maiden’s trust, he in turn will be forced to marry a cruel woman of magical powers. By shifting the background of the story to a modern (but still magic-infused) Stockholm, Tidbeck points out the flaws in the logic of the original story’s ‘justice,’ and creates a far more empowering tale.

***** Even the Crumbs Were Delicious • Daryl Gregory
If you read and enjoyed Gregory’s “Afterparty,” (…), this story is a must! In his near-future of designer drugs, a couple of teens wander into an apartment where the stoner dude Tindal has been setting up for a funeral party for his roommate, a dealer who’s missing and presumed dead. The kids have gotten into the drugs, and are out of their minds. What is Tindal to do?
This is, of course, a take on Hansel and Gretel and their visit to the witch’s cottage… but it’s also just a believable (!), funny and ultimately truly sweet story.

** The Super Ultra Duchess of Fedora Forest • Charlie Jane Anders
Based on a Grimm fairy tale which I’d never read before: At the author’s exhortation, I did indeed go read the original, which I hadn’t been familiar with, and it is indeed weird. The retelling takes the original, adds a dash of hipster-cool, and gives it a happy ending.
It’s just not really my kind of story, though.

*** Familiaris • Genevieve Valentine
More of a literary analysis than an actual story, but not a detached, objective analysis. This piece is intensely full of the fear of having children, and an indictment of the pressures that force some women to do so, against their will. Ended it saying, “SO glad I don’t have any!”

*** Seasons of Glass and Iron • Amal El-Mohtar
Available to read, here:…
The message overtakes the story a bit, in this allegorical piece. We’re introduced to two fairytale tropes. One woman is cursed to have to wear out seven pairs of magical iron shoes. The other sits at the top of a glass mountain, while uncouth suitors attempt to scale the summit. Friendship and female empowerment will free them both from the unfair demands of men.

*** Badgirl, the Deadman, and the Wheel of Fortune • Catherynne M. Valente
Inspired by ‘The Armless Maiden,’ Valente gives us a poignant, horrifying glimpse into the life of a young girl living under the threat of her junkie father’s drug dealer.

*** Penny for a Match, Mister? • Garth Nix
As the title suggests, this one is (loosely) inspired by “The Little Match Girl.” However, the similarity pretty much stops at the fact that it’s got a poor urchin who sells matches. Rather than a sappy Christian homily, this is a supernatural adventure set in the Old West involving a vengeance-seeking spirit who has ‘crossed over’ and is preying on the members of a gang of bandits. The match girl just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time…

** Some Wait • Stephen Graham Jones
Modern, horror retelling of The Pied Piper. Fourth-graders are disappearing from a small town, and their desperate parents turn to darker and darker ‘solutions.’
Eh. The afterword to this mentions that the author first planned on doing the story ‘cyberpunk’ style, but then changed his mind halfway through. There’s a spooky video game left over from that plan which feels like a red herring, but ends up just being a loose end that doesn’t fit. The ‘explanation’ at the end didn’t really explain anything, either – overall, it just didn’t come together for me.

*** The Thousand Eyes • short story by Jeffrey Ford
While working on an art series: depicting the interiors of all the bars of South Jersey, an artist hears about a bar he’s missed. “The Thousand Eyes” is a tucked-out-of-the-way dive that advertises its performances with a lounge singer billed as “The Voice of Death” on late-night radio, but rumor has it that you can only find the place if you’re meant to be there. Rumor also has it that not everyone who goes there comes back – but our artist is determined to complete his collection.
Based on a rather obscure tale (…), this is a horror story with an old-fashioned vibe.

** Giants in the Sky • short story by Max Gladstone
Jack-and-the-Beanstalk meets post-humanism. A dialogue after the Singularity, where the ascended meddle with – or try to help – our not-so-lucky descendants. Didn’t capture my imagination.

**** The Briar and the Rose • Marjorie M. Liu
Six days a week, a trusted bodyguard obeys the orders of her mistress, a beautiful courtesan, accompanying her on her lascivious nights and becoming privy to her rapacious schemes. But on the seventh day, all the other servants are sent away and something strange happens. “Carmela” becomes “Rose,” an innocent girl who has been ensnared by the witch who calls herself by the name of Carmela. The bodyguard has fallen in love with Rose, and is desperate to somehow find a way to free her from the spell.
An original take on the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ theme, beautifully told.

**** The Other Thea • Theodora Goss
I always like Theodora Goss, but this one reminded me A LOT of Diana Wynne Jones. (Which is also a good thing.) A recent graduate from a School of Witchcraft must use her recently-acquired skills to venture into the Other Lands and retrieve her missing shadow. Complicating matters is the fact that said shadow may not be entirely enthused by the idea.

*** When I Lay Frozen • Margo Lanagan
Peculiarly carnal take on Thumbelina. Bound by timidity and gratitude to a ‘mousewife’s’ den, the tiny Tommelise has never met anyone like herself. She know she doesn’t like staying underground, and she’s repulsed by the local mole’s lecherous advances toward her. But she doesn’t see what other options she might have – until a little bird tells her certain things. Will she be bold enough to seize freedom?

***** Pearl • Aliette de Bodard
I wasn’t previously familiar with this Vietnamese folktale:…
This take on it is amazing. An ambitious young man is given a ‘remora’ specially created for him by his household AIs. The gift, called “Pearl,” is far more advanced than the average remora. With the information Pearl gives him, he is able to attract the attention of the Empress and rise to the coveted position of councillor. But Pearl is more than a simple tool; she is an intelligent, conscious being with her own ambitions and desires. And those desires may involve more than advising a human man in his career.
Beautiful, lush, poignant, wondrous… and an insightful look into the forces that drive us, and the consequences of those drives.

** The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle • Sofia Samatar
I’ve read and enjoyed both of Samatar’s novels, so was looking forward to this one. Unfortunately, I didn’t see much point to this metafictional literary analysis of a recently-translated medieval Arab tale. I’d rather just go read the original. (…)

*** Reflected • Kat Howard
Physics researchers replay the event of Andersen’s ‘Snow Queen,’ in this story of an experiment gone wrong. The ode to friendship is touching, but I prefer the original.

***** Spinning Silver • Naomi Novik
Very strong finale to the anthology. The subtext of ‘Rumplestiltskin’ is interrogated and subverted by this narrative – but it’s also just a fantastic story.
The action moves to Russia, where a family of Jewish moneylenders is facing poverty and near-starvation. The good-hearted, kindly father of the family just isn’t good at collecting on his debts. In desperation, the young daughter of the family steps up to the plate – and discovers that she may have a talent for the tough job. But as her family’s fortunes turn around, and her silver pennies turn to gold in the bank, she attracts the notice of an intimidating elf lord who demands that she also turn his faerie silver to gold… or face the dire consequences.

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