Feminist fairy tale reinvents the story of The Little Mermaid

The Mermaid by Christina Henry

‘So she crossed the ocean and came to the place where there was land. The mermaid spent many days watching the people on shore and the ones who came out to the sea on boats. Always, always she was careful to avoid the hooks and lines and cages and nets, because she had found her freedom and she loved it, and she would not be bound to someone else’s will again.’

Once there was a mermaid trapped in the net of a fisherman. She evoked a magic that allowed her to walk upon the shore and for many years they lived as husband and wife. Stories of this strange and unusual woman travelled, until they reached the ears of a man whose business was in selling the strange and unusual. His name was P.T. Barnum, and he’d been looking for a mermaid.

Last year I picked up Christina Henry’s Lost Boy, not expecting a great deal from it, but it fast became one of my favourite books of 2017. Henry’s latest book, The Mermaid, lacks the emotional punch of Lost Boy, but is still an interesting and enjoyable read.

The main problem with this book is its use of fairy tale language and tropes to establish the characters. This meant that all the characters in The Mermaid lack the complexity to make you care about what happens to them. Levi in particular never felt like more than a few loosely collected characteristics – his only real job was to be there for Amelia (the mermaid) to fall in love with. There was great potential with P.T. Barnum – a man ‘with a cash register in place of a heart’ – but he never became more than a stock villain.

The writing is riddled with clichés and isn’t atmospheric enough to conjure a feeling of the time it was set in. Attempts at creating original similes and metaphors tended to be jumbled and confusing, and the story in general was repetitive and dull; it lacked any driving force to keep me engaged.

Despite its lack of intriguing characters, Henry explores some interesting ideas. Amelia is a wild being who struggles to fit in with humans. Though she appears to be human, when others find out what she really is they tend to view her as an animal, a creature who should be kept behind bars.

Henry also uses Amelia’s otherness to explore the position of women in the 19th century, who were treated like property and expected to be subservient to their husbands. Amelia dares to question the rules that keep women confined – physically in corsets, and socially by forcing them to be obedient.

This book certainly has its flaws, but for those who enjoy feminist fairy tales it has a lot to offer.

Many thanks to Titan Books for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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International bestseller explores loneliness and the supernatural

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

‘All her life she had believed in something more, in the mystery that shape-shifted at the edge of her senses. It was the flutter of moth wings on glass and the promise of river nymphs in the dappled creek beds. It was the smell of oak trees on the summer evening she fell in love, and the way dawn threw itself across the cow pond and turned the water to light.’

In 1920s Alaska, Jack and Mabel have staked everything on a fresh start in a remote homestead, but the wilderness is a stark place, and Mabel is haunted by the baby she lost many years before. When a little girl appears mysteriously on their land, each is filled with wonder, but also foreboding. Is she what she seems, and can they find room in their hearts for her?

The Snow Child is an international bestseller and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. I’ve been meaning to read it for a while, but now that I’ve done so I can’t really see what all the fuss is about.

This is a strange book of two parts. On the one hand you have Jack and Mabel struggling with the reality of their new life in Alaska, eking a living from the harsh land with its long winters and mosquito-ridden summers. On the other hand, you have the couple’s encounters with a mysterious little girl who no one else has ever seen, and who may or may not be real.

Personally I much preferred the former. Ivey really excels at describing the harsh but beautiful Alaskan wilderness. She also excels at describing the fraught loneliness that has come to envelop her two main characters, the gaps that have opened up between them even when they live in such close proximity to each other. It was this that I wish she had focused on, rather than introducing vague elements of the supernatural, which only served to distance me from any empathy I had felt for the characters.

I never warmed to the character of the eponymous snow child. Maybe that was Ivey’s intention, but it meant that my mind started to wander whenever I read any scenes with her in them. Her presence is never fully explained and some half-hearted attempts at a back story only serve to make things more confusing.

There isn’t a whole lot that happens in terms of plot, either. Several times I found my eyes running ahead on the page, seeking some excitement, but unfortunately there was little to keep me engaged, especially as it was clear almost from the very beginning what was going to happen at the end.

Atmospheric fairytale set in medieval Russia

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

As though her words were a summoning, a door among the firs – a door she hadn’t seen – opened with the crack of breaking ice. A swath of firelight bloodied the virgin snow. Now, quite plainly, a house stood in this fir-grove. Long, curling eaves capped its wooden walls, and in the snow-torn firelight, the house seemed to lie breathing, crouched in the thicket.

The court of the Grand Prince of Moscow is plagued by power struggles and rumours of unrest. Meanwhile, bandits roam the countryside, burning villages and kidnapping daughters. Setting out to defeat the raiders, the Prince and his trusted companion come across a young man riding a magnificent horse. Only Sasha, a priest with a warrior’s training, recognises this ‘boy’ as his younger sister, Vasya, thought by all to be dead.

I finished the first book in this new series, The Bear and the Nightingale (one of my favourite books of 2017) without knowing that it was the first in a planned trilogy. It worked well as a standalone novel, so I was nervously awaiting the second book in the series, The Girl in the Tower. Thankfully, after reading it, I can confirm that I had nothing to worry about.

In the first book we follow Vasya, a young girl who is the only one who can see the house spirits that guard her home and must protect her village from the forces of darkness gathering in the woods. In this second instalment we follow Vasya on her journey across the wintry landscape of medieval Russia, as she follows her desire to see as much of the world as she can.

Of course, things are never going to be that straightforward. Vasya is a young woman completely at odds with her time. Unwilling to spend her days fulfilling the traditional feminine role of mother and housekeeper, she sets out for adventure, but her gender makes it impossible to fit in. Vasya is a fascinating character, strong and brave but also desperately searching for somewhere to fit in, and this continuation of her journey is both emotive and thrilling.

This is a strange mix of historical and fantasy fiction; it’s neither one nor the other but Arden has taken elements of both and created a vivid and atmospheric world that feels both real and fairytale-esque. She creates a sense of bigger elements at play – hinting at political machinations and a troubled country – while always keeping her characters at the forefront of the story.

The grand towers of Moscow are set in direct contrast to the superstition and pagan beliefs of Vasya’s village in the first book. In Moscow, the spirits readers were introduced to in The Bear and the Nightingale are still there, only faded, as those who once believed in them turn to the newer religion instead. The conflict between old beliefs and new was an interesting theme introduced in The Bear and the Nightingale and I was glad to see Arden develop it further in this second novel.

Perhaps my only complaint would be about Vasya’s blossoming romance with an older character that feels slightly strange (we should have learned from Twilight that immortal men lusting after young girls is just wrong).

Nevertheless, the atmosphere conjured by Arden’s magical writing is beautiful. Her descriptions of the snowy landscapes and the frosty woods are so vivid they’re guaranteed to make you shiver. My problem with The Bear and the Nightingale was that it builds up to a conflict that fails to deliver, but The Girl in the Tower suffers no such problem; the final conflict is thrilling and nail-bitingly tense.

This is a beautiful winter fairytale and I can’t wait for the final book in this trilogy to find out where Vasya’s journey leads next.

Many thanks to Penguin for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Dark Peter Pan retelling has edges sharp enough to cut

Lost Boy by Christina Henry

Those who didn’t listen so well or weren’t happy as the singing birds in the trees found themselves in the fields of the Many-Eyed without a bow or left near the pirate camp or otherwise forgotten, for Peter had no time for boys who didn’t want his adventures.

Peter brings Jamie to his island because there are no rules and no grownups to make them mind. He brings boys from the Other Place to join in the fun, but Peter’s idea of fun is sharper then a pirate’s sword. Because it’s never been all fun and games on the island. Peter promised they would all be young and happy forever. Peter lies.

I picked up Lost Boy in Waterstones without ever having heard of it or its author before. I wasn’t expecting it to be anything special, but I haven’t been this excited to write about a book in a long while. This Peter Pan prequel turned out to be one of those unexpected reads that comes out of nowhere and completely knocks your socks off.

This is a brilliant novel. Fairy tale retellings are 10 a penny but this one is different; it has edges sharp enough to cut and will keep you up way past your bedtime. Henry creates incredible suspense – even though everyone already knows the story – so that you’re never sure what is just around the corner, or waiting on the next turn of the page.

Our narrator is Jamie, a boy who has been living on Peter Pan’s island for as long as he can remember. During all those years of never growing up, Jamie has looked up to Peter, has loved him with all his heart and trusted him always. But things are changing on the island, and Jamie starts to see Peter in a new light.

The Peter Pan of this book is one of the most frightening characters I’ve ever read. He cares only for fun and games, for adventures and laughter, but what matters to him most is that the other boys all adore him. The moment one of them starts to doubt him is the moment they no longer matter to him, and there are plenty of ways on the island for a careless boy to disappear.

Lost Boy is strongly reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, with its group of boys trapped on an island, the captivating claustrophobic atmosphere and the sense that something very, very bad is just seconds away from happening.

In Henry’s hands the sugar-sweet Disney-fied version of Peter Pan becomes a terrifying portrait of a ‘mad child’ whose idea of fun is killing pirates and watching boys fight to the death. The other boys are little more than toys that he picks up and puts down as he wishes, but he is so charming and brave that they can’t help but love him. Only Jamie understands Peter’s true cruel, manipulative nature, but even he isn’t immune to Peter’s influence.

I would highly recommend this book. Even if you’re not usually a fantasy fan, the characters and gripping storytelling will plunge you headfirst into a horrifying world of blood and loyalty, twisting and turning as it leads you to its thrilling, inexorable end.

A beautifully written fairytale for fans of Erin Morgernstern and Naomi Novik

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

‘“All my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”’

In a village in the wilderness of northern Russia, where snow falls for many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery and folklore, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church. But for young Vasya, these are more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods.

This is a beautifully written fairytale, a unique and engrossing story that will appeal to fans of Erin Morgernstern and Naomi Novik. The Russian setting marks this book as something different, its atmosphere of superstition and old magic adding extra dimensions to what is, at its heart, the story of a girl who rebels against the restraints placed on her because of her gender.

Our protagonist, Vasya, is undoubtedly one of the best things about this novel. She is a great role model for girls, fearless and brave and always willing to do whatever needs to be done and to hell with the consequences. She refuses to bow down and meekly acknowledge the fact that she will either have to marry or go into a convent. She dares to ask why these are a woman’s only options, and why she cannot go out and see the world.

In fairytales characters are often easily recognisable stereotypes, but in this novel Arden has fleshed out each and every one of them so we know what drives them, what they fear and what they want. This makes the story that much more enjoyable as you find yourself sympathising with their plight.

The atmosphere is beautiful and otherworldly, full of both magic and monsters. You will find yourself transported to the snowy wilds of Russia, where spirits creep in the dark and a wrong step could mean the end of your life.

The writing is both lyrical and easy to read, immersing you in the wild lands of northern Rus and inviting you into a world where the only limits are what you can imagine.

I especially enjoyed the contrasts in this book. The contrast between Vasya and the other women who are content with their meagre lot in life; the contrast between old magic and the new rites of the church; the contrast between the snow outside and the fires burning inside. The effect is gripping and engrossing; so much so that you won’t want to turn the last page and finish the story.

I have to admit that parts of the ending left me disappointed. Arden sets up the forces of good and evil on either side of a battleground but the ending ultimately goes against everything that made the first two-thirds of the book so enjoyable.

Even despite these problems, I would still highly recommend this book to fans of fantasy and fairytale. This is a fairytale for adults, and it doesn’t lack in depth or complexity.

Many thanks to Penguin for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.