Category Archives: Fairy Tale/Mythology

18) Fairest

Companion novel to Ella Enchanted

By: Gail Carson Levine

Date Finished: 12.24.12

by Gail Carson Levine

Axa has the most beautiful voice in a country that values singing above all else — except for physical beauty, and that is where Axa is lacking.  Severely.  Abandoned as an infant, she is raised by a generous innkeeper and his family until chance takes her to the palace for the king’s wedding.  In no time at all, Axa is swept up into the circles of court life, elevated to lady-in-waiting for the new queen, and, almost as abruptly, accused of being an enemy of the kingdom.  But there’s a true threat to the kingdom and only Axa knows enough about it to prevent a revolution.

I think companion novels must be the hardest to write.  In theory, they’re a good idea, especially if the original book feels complete, but so far I haven’t had much luck with them.  References to the first book are forced, especially if the characters don’t physically appear, and it’s disappointing when the second main character isn’t as strong as the first.  Axa is no Ella.  She’s shy, painfully naive, and so obsessed with beauty that it drags down the plot (even though beauty is the plot).  Ella was clever, witty, and proactive — traits I believe Axa could have possessed to some degree without compromising the character.

The book left me with a whole heap of questions, and not the good where-do-they-go-from-here questions.  Consistently, the relationships were confusing and not believable.  It was a decently good story except that it felt crammed into a fairy tale where it didn’t fit.  I guessed from the title it was meant to be a “Snow White” adaptation, but for a long time thought I had ended up with a humanized version of “The Ugly Duckling” instead (which it essentially was).  Then, without warning, it was “Snow White” and in the most obvious ways.  Reaching this point, many of my why-did-that-even-happen questions were answered — that element/event exists in Fariest because it exists in the story of “Snow White”.  Somehow, that’s not a satisfying answer.

Similarly, an agenda (ineffectively) permeated the story.  There’s the lesson I’m supposed to pull from it — the pursuit of beauty is damaging — and the lesson I actually pulled which was… nothing.  It just didn’t resonate.  I could read this to a room of fifth grade girls and have a nice, stock discussion about beauty and perception, but I didn’t find the text itself compelling.

It’s a shame too, because I know Levine is an excellent writer.  The way she worked the “Cinderella” tale was inspired and one of the better fairy tale adaptations I’ve encountered.  Sadly, she lost it in the companion novel.  Even so, it’s a quick read with a good arc and some interest in a first read.  It’s fine for a rainy day, but where Levine’s Ella Enchanted is, well, enchanting, Fairest falls flat.

At the end of the day: Not for me

15) Red Riding Hood

By: Sarah Blakley-Cartwright (novel)
David Leslie Johnson (screenplay)

Date Finished: 09.23.12

By Sarah Blakley-Cartright

Oddly enough, the screenplay came first (although the book was released about a month before the movie premiered).  Assuming the inspiration came from author Blakley-Cartwright not Leonardo DiCaprio (yes, it started with him), I wanted to read the book first to decide if the movie was worth watching.   I don’t usually read introductions, but this time I did and learned the film’s director, Catherine Hardwicke, commissioned Blakley-Cartwright to write the novelization because she believed the story was much bigger than film could capture.  And, atypically for such situations, the book is fantastic… to a point.

The writing is incredible; it’s the sort that draws you in and sweeps you along, revealing just enough to keep you interested, but not so much it becomes predictable.  Daggerhorn is a village of haunted secrets.  People there try so hard to maintain a veneer of normalcy as they keep a fragile peace with the nearby werewolf through a monthly animal sacrifice.  Physically, everything is kept locked away and carefully guarded, which is how the villagers conduct their personal lives as well.  In such a place, it’s safest to blend in and Valerie most certainly stands out.  She does try to do her part, but she has never been one to follow the rules and longs to experience the world beyond.  The man she loves re-enters her life just as marriage to another man is arranged for her.  She’s ready to run, but then the Wolf begins to prey on the villagers despite their sacrifice.  Daggerhorn dissolves into chaos with Valerie at the heart of it.  Enter an expert Wolf hunter who reveals the beast lives among them, and no one is safe from suspicion.  While the villagers search for the monstrous Wolf, they fall prey to their own darkness.

I loved the time spent on characterization in this book.  Each person is distinct and fully realized, even those with limited exposure.  Similarly, all the relationships are complicated, messy, and very much like real life.  One oddity in the writing is that the point of view jumps around.  It is primarily Valerie’s story, but almost all the characters have at least one paragraph to their name.  The result is a bunch of third person limited sections creating a third person omniscient book.  It’s quirky, but it works because a) it was introduced early in the book, b) it is very clear who the point of view belongs to, c) it can happen for any character, and d) it happens often enough to be intentional instead of lazy.  This adds to the well-roundedness of the characters, and allows the audience to witness very important events without Valerie present.  I appreciated these advantages since the point of view jumping was handled sensibly.  On a related note, the few flashbacks in the book changed to first person which did not work.  I enjoyed that they were italicized, but I didn’t need anything else to indicate a break from the timeline.  Fortunately, there were only two or three of these to cringe over.

Admittedly, this story does contain a certain amount of teenage angst, but thankfully, it’s not the whole plot.  A wild and complicated love story weaves its way through a darker tale of fear and loyalty.   The writing manages to acknowledge the angst without overdoing it, and in turn, the romance keeps the rest of the story from becoming overwhelming.  It is, in many ways, a very conscientious book.  However…

I reached the end of the book and felt unsatisfied.  I thought I was being selfish, wanting more from the story, and admonished myself to appreciate the open-ended conclusion.  At the same time, I placed the emphasis much more on “open-ended” than “conclusion”.  Plus, there’s a page in the back that reads, “Is this truly the end of Valerie’s story?  Visit to find out.”  So, I checked the website and there is indeed a “bonus” chapter to the book.  In actuality, it should be included in the publication; I don’t know why it wasn’t.  It has an appropriate amount of open-endedness and wraps up the story the way it deserves.  Sadly, it’s obvious this chapter has gone through fewer edits than the others.  It seriously sticks out, but it’s worth reading because the information is useful necessary.  Just on principle, I cannot condone a book for hiding a full chapter on the interweb, however well-written the rest of the book may be.  Even so, I will absolutely return to this book.

At the end of the day: (Really) for me.

13) Book of a Thousand Days

By: Shannon Hale

Date Finished: 08.14.12

By Shannon Hale

Once upon a time a lady chose her own betrothed against the wishes of her father.  As punishment, her father imprisoned the lady and her maid in a tower for seven years.  No one expected the girls to survive, but they managed to escape only to find their country in the midst of a devastating war.  Seeking refuge in the home of the lady’s beloved, they discover he is betrothed to another and must conceal their identities.  But as the war draws closer, the lady holds information that can stop the slaughter and only the maid knows how to act upon it.

I adore the title.  Book of a Thousand Days; it has such a melodic quality.  The book covers more than a thousand days, with the title referring to the concept, “you have to know someone a thousand days before you can glimpse her soul.”  In a sense, that’s what the book is about — the maid, Dashti, discovering the truth of Lady Saren’s soul.  The story is written as Dashti’s diary, and Hale stays very true to the journal form.  Dashti often documents the conditions in which she is writing, notes that conversations are likely inaccurate, and sometimes forgets what she intended to write altogether.  While it’s impressive that Hale maintained the pretense the entire time, it made me enjoy the book less.  That is to say, I prefer third person writing and since the journaling was so realistic, the first person-ness was never diminished.

The author’s note mentions that the book is based on a Grimm’s fairy tale called “Maid Maleen” (or “Princess Maleen” in some versions).  Naturally, I was compelled to read the original version, and while Hale took many liberties with the story, the inspiration is clear.  As a nice twist to the story’s German roots, Hale’s setting is based on medieval Mongolia and infused with a mythology of her own creation.  I loved the backdrop and the culture.  I loved the romance, which is an unusual thing for me to say since I tend to prefer action.  And yet…

I never got used to Dashti’s voice.  She comes off as naive and apologetic throughout with only a few moments of epiphany.  I admire Dashti’s character and actions, but I tire of her commentary.  This is another reason the journal format didn’t work for me.  Since Dashti records the events some time after they happen, she documents her regrets as well.  A more traditional format or a less realistic diary would have streamlined the story and accentuated the wisdom in Dashti’s instincts.

The mythology Hale created involves a deeply cultural religion and certain magics.  This religion emphasizes balance and a strong code of honor, both of which deeply influence the choices of all the characters.  One of the magical elements is the concept of healing songs — music which reminds the body how to be whole again and encourages it to mend.  Dashti knows these songs very well, which allows her to be close to the important people and events in the book.  However, the religion seemed like merely folklore and the magic like superstition at the beginning.  Turns out, they were both real, and I wish I had believed much earlier.

There’s a bit of deus ex machina in both leaving the tower and the resolution of the book.  Their escape from the tower is logical, it just takes Dashti a long time to think of how to do it.  Once she does, it’s quite easy for them to leave.  I don’t fully understand the end — it requires more of a suspension of disbelief — but at least Dashti had developed real relationships with her rescuers.  And it is a fairy tale, after all.  Even the Brothers Grimm version ends happily.

At the end of the day: For my younger self, perhaps