Today I'm looking at the latest novella from The Book Smugglers. This is part of a new initiative that they are running and if this work is anything to go by, it is going to be awesome. The piece overall unfolds across five chapters. Five sections. Five fairy tales. And as that is the case, I decided that my review would look at each section in turn. Be warned, because of the linked nature of the story, SPOILERS ABOUND after the first section. So yeah, to the review!
|Art by Kristina Tsenova|
"The Convergence of Fairy Tales" by Octavia Cade (17,600 words)
Oh fuck. This is…quite the way to open this longer piece and it's terrifying and all sorts of disturbing. How the story warps the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty is intense and wrenching, playing with that deep discomfort of a woman being asleep only to be wakened by a kiss. Because there is so much risk, such a strong evocation of rape in that, that the story takes to its logical conclusion. And it starts off the novella in blood and debasement, a woman alone having to clean away the evidence of her own violation. Trigger warnings, dear readers, all the trigger warnings. But it also does an interesting job of building this world, with its modern conveniences mixed with its more antiquated towers of stone and water needing to be heated the old fashioned way. It makes for a strange but compelling world for this horror to play out in, and despite the intensely dark nature of the piece there is also a black comedy to it as well, the character of the Sleeping Beauty caustic and sharp and this promises to be an interesting read.
"The Snow Queen"
Well for any hoping that things would get less disturbing…um, well, you probably wouldn't have gotten through that last part so here we are, going from one horror to another as the story deepens around the idea of sight and reflections. The child child, now preserved in vinegar and still very much alive, becomes a sort of weight that the Snow Queen must carry. A burden or a punishment. And I love how she refuses to be defined by that, how she refuses to be fully punished for her role in the injuries of the infant. It wasn't her choice, after all, and there is still this solid horror to the piece, to the idea of this infant who is refusing to die plaguing the main character. And the lengths that she goes to in order to find a solution that works. Or at least mostly works. It's visceral and moving but there's also a reach toward the start of healing here. That maybe she can get some rest, that maybe she can have some respite from all that's happened so far. Of course, given the direction the story is taking, maybe not…
This is the third of five parts and finally there is a sense of some turning. I mean, the last section had the first effort to reclaim something but it was something necessary and immediate—sleep. This story/section is more about change. Seasons change and Snow White begins to change things, too, in her environment. She remembers something that she loves and decides to begin to work toward making her space for her. The story is really getting into the depths of surviving trauma, the lengths that she's going to in order to feel safe, her despair at having so much of what she wanted stripped from her. The apples are a great touch because here is something growing again, and while there are parallels then to birth and seed this is something that she's deciding to take control of. And I still very much like how magic is infusing so much of the world, how this is the first time since everything that Snow White feels joy. Not just contentment, but in reclaiming something for herself and going through and culling things, cleaning, and all that, she's able to taste relief and just enjoy something. Of course, she's still lining her bed with razors, so there's still definitely a sense that this is not some sort of magical cure, but I love how it's something that she tries to do and succeeds at, and how there's power in that. Indeed!
"The Frog Princess"
This fourth story/section takes a much closer look at poison and corruption. The Frog Princess is captivated by it, by the way the magic has sapped away the poison from the apples, the way it seems to sap it away from the toads of her pond as well, and I like that the poison here seems to be a lingering effect of the trauma. Like the infant in the jar, it's this constant reminder of what has happened, the thirst for vengeance, the desire to hurt as she's been hurt. The infant is much less resent in this story, which seems to me to point to the trauma of the event sinking a little more into the background. Being more dormant as she works and prepares and finds a routine that works for her. Finally she is able to relax some and reclaim the rest of her garden and experience something that's not quite related to what happened to her. But it's never really that far from her mind, and she spends much of her time in her glass coffin surrounded by thorns and razors. And finally there is someone who arrives, a prince, who does exactly what she expects, and it's a heavy moment, caught between triumph and despair.
This last story/section is the first that gives the character an actual name. To this point and reflecting fairy tales in general, the main character has a title that acts as a name, but here she gets a little more. Now that she has started to fight back, to get her revenge, she has retaken her name. It might not be the one she had going into this, but it's the one that the takes ownership of now, and this part of her story is full of hair and mirrors and blood. I love the way the story has flowed from part to part, working in the title in converging these tales together, so that all the characters are one and they are all survivors of terrible abuse. It makes for a very visceral and dark read and one that doesn't seek to comfort by saying that things will all be all right. There is no real happy ending here, just one that is a bit more just, and if its full of blood then it's not just her blood. There's a sense here that the damage done cannot really be healed, will always be there, that it will always be about surviving it, living with the past. And in that Rapunzel does seem to make some sort of peace with it, again owning her prison though she knows it’s a prison. Finding some measure of safety. And letting no one do to her what had been done to her. Turning the tables. It's a story that takes the fairy tale tradition of ending things in blood rather than marriage, but for all the grimness it's still a moving and in many ways uplifting piece. It's not easy, and it's not pretty, but it is a wonderful story that you should definitely check out!