Thornhedge, by T Kingfisher
Read courtesy of the publisher, Tor, and NetGalley. It’s out in August 2023.
Sleeping Beauty, but make it WAY more complicated.
I pretty much love everything I’ve read by T Kingfisher, so it’s a no-brainer that I would want to read this novella; I don’t think I even read the blurb before requesting it. And I have no regrets, having just read it in a sitting (it’s under 100 pages, so not THAT extreme).
Toadling has been sitting behind, and sometimes within, a hedge of thorns and brambles for centuries. She’s despaired of knights and adventurous boys coming along with axes to try and cut down the hedge, because she really doesn’t want them to. One day, when it’s been a long time since anyone approached the hedge, Halim camps outside the wall… and she ends up speaking with him.
Toadling is not who you think she is, and this story is not what you might expect. It’s wondrous and twisty and a bit heart-wrenching, and all in all a really great story. I love Toadling and I will not look at Sleeping Beauty the same way again.
Never Afters, by Kirstyn McDermott
I don’t tend to read the works of Kirstyn McDermott. Even though she’s a friend. And not for the usual reasons that friends give, either; instead, it’s because she is too good. Kirstyn tends to write horror, and I tend to find her work just too distressing.
We’ve also had fruitful and fascinating conversations about the nature of horror as a genre, so I’m not going to say that this novella series, the Never Afters series, isn’t horror. Perhaps they’re gothic and gothic is the overarching category and horror fits in that, as I believe Kirstyn would argue, and perhaps other people would formulate it differently; I don’t know. All I know is that these fairy tale continuations, while not exactly the stuff of Disney-fied dreams, also aren’t quite the stuff to bring me nightmares. So that’s nice.
#1: Burnt Sugar. Now adults, childhood long behind, Gretel is a baker and Hansel is drunk more often than not. So far, so not exceptional. But Gretel brought back more than memories from the gingerbread house…. I appreciated that the siblings’ past trauma was dealt with sympathetically without making them only victims (they’ve managed to build a life around it). I know I said these novellas aren’t the stuff of nightmares; maybe what I should have said is that it’s not more nightmarish than the original stories. Because the truth is that this is a horrific story, in the ‘being controlled is terrifying’ way. Very clever.
#2: The New Wife. I don’t think of Bluebeard’s story as being in the same category as Hansel and Gretel – perhaps my fairytale omnibuses (omnibi??) left it out, or I skipped over it in an early aversion to horror? Who knows! But this may be my favourite of the Never Afters. Unlike Burnt Sugar, this story begins within (what I remember of) the original: the new wife unlocking the room that she was never supposed to enter… and goes from there in a rather different direction, involving ghosts, and what I understand is a classic gothic trope – the terrifying house.
#3: After Midnight. How do you do a new take on Cinderella?? Add a few decades, make the prince-now-king as feckless as such types often are, and the now-queen mother to only daughters – and also hardened by her experiences (or maybe she was always so?). Make the story a diary, complete with crossed out sections. Make veiled suggestions about what other things might be happening. Maybe this is my favourite, actually.
#4: Braid. I’d read this one previously – I don’t remember where – but I do remember a conversation about how hair, out of its appropriate place, is surprisingly distressing. Because Zel’s hair is as surprising and unexpected as it was back when she lived in the tower. Like Burnt Sugar and After Midnight, this is set many decades after the time of the fairytale, and deals with what it’s like to live with the consequences of those seemingly romantic and dramatic events of youth. Zel’s life has been complicated, mostly in mundane but nonetheless real and emotional ways – good and bad, love and loss. You just keep living…
#5: By the Moon’s Good Grace. In some ways the least unexpected of the stories. Like The New Wife, it picks up in the middle of the classic story; this has Little Red learning important truths about who her family is, who she is, and the consequences of that.
#6: Winterbloom. Somehow I know the Beauty and the Beast story least well, since I had completely forgotten that the whole saga starts with the father picking a rose without permission. This final novella is another set some years after the fairytale. The Beast is a composer and musician, Beauty is intrigued by roses and creating hybrids; their marriage is generally fine but shows some cracks. And then they have a visitor, aaaand… well. That’s rarely without consequence. Maybe this is my favourite instead?
Alone, excellent; as a set, they show how old stories continue to have resonance, can be used to explore modern and perennial themes.
The books can be bought from Brain Jar Press.
The Path of Thorns
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out at the end of June, 2022.
You know those authors where you know you love their work but somehow they’re not automatically at the top of your mind and then you see a new book by them and you think, oh yeah I should read that; and then you do read it (perhaps eventually) and you think WHY DO I FORGET HOW MUCH I LOVE THEM?
Maybe that’s just me.
Sorry, AG Slatter. I really do love your work.
This novel is set in the world of Slatter’s mosaic novels – Sourdough and Other Stories, and The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings. You don’t have to know those stories to love and appreciate this one; they’re not about the same characters, or even necessarily the same places in the world. This is a world where magic is real, at least some of the time, but not everyone approves. Magic is mostly done (at least in these stories) by women, which feeds into the disapproval of that ‘not everyone’. It’s used for good and for ill and sometimes doing it for one reason ends up having the opposite consequences. In her Author’s Note, Slatter points that the world is a mishmash of the Victorian, Renaissance and Medieval – and asks readers not to go looking for historical accuracy. So there are moments that maybe kind of feel familiar from history, but they’re set with moments that really don’t.
What I particularly love about this and the other Sourdough stories is that they feel like fairytales, even though they’re definitely not tales that I know. There’s something about the ideas and themes – as Slatter suggests, “weird family dynamics, manipulation and lies, false faces, lost families and found, terrible acts and the potential for redemption”. There’s also something about the way Slatter writes, and here I am completely lost for words. I can’t tell you what words or phrases she uses to evoke a slightly eerie world, the sense that this is a world just slightly off from ours; that makes me a bit amazed that this is NEW work, rather than something that was told ages ago and has that patina of tradition, of being a well-worn and beloved story – of familiarity. And that last is particularly odd, frankly, because I really didn’t know what on earth was going to happen from page to page. She uses phrases and stories-within-stories that read like they SHOULD be as old and familiar as the wine-dark sea and Achilles’ rage, but … they’re not.
So: Asher goes to Morwood Grange, to be governess to three young children. She has a frightening experience on arrival, and brings with her some things that she immediately puts under a floorboard. And see, right from that, you just know things aren’t going to be straightforward. And so the story proceeds – making friends and enemies and figuring out how to do what she’s come to do; you already guessed that Asher didn’t come to Morwood accidentally, right? In some ways a bit claustrophobic – Asher mostly interacts with the family and few servants at Morwood – it’s saved from being TOO gothic the-house-is-trying-to-eat-me by occasional visits to the village and out into the grounds of the estate, and also through Asher’s occasional reminiscences, It’s an intense story, intensely inwards-focussed – and look, I read it in a day.
I loved it. A lot. It’s not always easy to read; the family is a deeply broken one, Asher’s not exactly perfect, and there are definitely actions that people regret (or should, but don’t). And yet, I loved it.
Nettle and Bone
I read this courtesy of NetGalley.
If you’re a fan of T. Kingfisher, I can say “this is exquisitely T. Kingfisher” and know that you’ll run for a copy of this book. (Fair warning: book does include reference to family violence, and an abusive partner.)
If you’re not already… maybe you’re a fan of Angela Slatter? Kingfisher’s books remind me of her work too.
What does that mean?
They’re both doing fascinating things with fairy tales… except not really fairy tales, because they’re not always familiar stories, but it’s the vibe of fairy tales – fairy tale logic – fairy tale expectations and narrative structures. And I don’t mean Disney versions, I mean grim/m and sometimes gritty and meaty and fully embedded in the world, where not everything is lovely and wonderful but sometimes they are, and sometimes by force of personality you can make a change in the world and sometimes you just have to roll with the world’s punches.
I loved this book a lot.
There’s a princess who doesn’t especially want to be and who is really sure that she’s good at it, and a bone dog, and two godmothers, and a dust-wife. Also a quest and a heavy dose of gritted-teeth determination and a good level of snark, generally dished out by old ladies, which is of course the best sort. It goes at a good pace – not so fast as to leave you spinning, but you’re also not just sitting around always admiring flowers. I read this quickly and it felt just right.
This book keeps Kingfisher as one of those novelists whose work I just read pretty much automatically. I mean, it includes such gems as: “My dog trusts me… My dog is witless and also dead” and also this, addressed to a chicken: “I know you aren’t broody, demon, but you’re going to make an exception or so help me…”.
Definitely should go on your to-read shelf.
Robots vs Fairies
I am reminded, perhaps obviously, of Zombies vs Unicorns, the Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black anthology from several years ago. It’s the same sort of idea: which trope is better? Which sort of close-to-but-not-human species can authors have the most fun with, do most with, and so on? But more than zombies and unicorns, the authors in this anthology make powerful statements in their afterwords for why both robots and fairies can and do have such enduring power in our narratives. They are like us, but unlike. Robots are made by us; fairies live in parallel; both can be imagined to have legitimate grievances with humanity; both can potentially blend into humanity… and so on. Max Gladstone suggests robots are the future, and fairies are our roots.
So there’s a lot to explore in an anthology inviting authors to choose one of these archetypal features of our speculative fiction.
What surprised and amused me the most in this set of stories was the number of times authors decided to play with both. Seanan McGuire starts the ball rolling, and Catherynne M Valente finishes it; along the way, there are a couple of variations on Pinocchio that I didn’t always pick up – it’s not a significant story for me – as well as A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and other ruminations on how robots and fairies might be seen to fade into one another, one way or another. I really, really liked this aspect.
In fact, I liked this anthology in general. The stories are generally very well written, and there’s a marvellous balance of fun and heart-wrenching or somewhat horrifying, as well as often having significant points to make about humanity and how we interact with our world. McGuire’s views on theme parks were great fun to read; Ken Liu’s story on automation was chilling and brilliantly written (unsurprisingly). Sarah Gailey also contributed a supremely chilling story that I really wasn’t prepared for, and Madeline Ashby’s was haunting and lovely, and Maria Dahvana Headley got me with a rocknroll and fairies story that was always going to push my buttons.
Themed anthologies can be a fraught business. This one gets it right.
Beauty, by Robin McKinley
I have never read a Robin McKinley book before. I gather, from looking around, that this might be a slightly scandalous announcement? At any rate, that’s the case. I have a feeling that I got this, and The Hero and the Crown, from a Humble Bundle or similar. It’s not something I would have bought off my own bat.
This is fairly straightforward retelling of Beauty and the Beast. It goes into a substantial amount of background for Beauty’s family, which I really enjoyed – the discussion of the family, and their changing circumstances, was a perfectly delightful story all by itself. Because here’s the thing: even though it’s a standard retelling of the fairytale, insofar as that bit goes (and I recently read Angela Carter’s version, which WHOA), what makes this stand out is McKinley’s fabulous prose. Reading her work is utterly effortless, and a joy. I love her descriptions and I enjoy her dialogue and the characters are delightful. Beauty has two older sisters – and they’re distinct from one another, and although they’re not the centre of the story I still know them and care about them. Her father is a bit more distant, which makes sense as it’s Beauty’s perspective we get. And Beauty herself is wonderful: not entirely content with herself and her life, for various reasons, but also devoted to her family and doing what is necessary, generally happily. Her conflict in staying with the Beast is presented clearly, with duty meeting fear and so on…
This is not a fractured fairy tale nor a complete reimagining. It’s a story that takes a well known story and makes it more rounded, and presents it wrapped in lovely words.
Snow White, Blood Red
I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages. And I do mean years. Finally got it this year because I was reminded of it by someone when I read a very poor version of the Snow Queen.
Many of the stories are excellent, although it’s not quite the anthology I was expecting. I wasn’t expecting there to be discrepancy in whether the stories were pretty faithful or quite different versions; I found it a bit disconcerting to bounce from one to the other, and then have completely made up (that is, not based on commonly told fairy tales) stories in there as well. I’m not saying any of those three options is bad but it felt jarring to have them all mixed together. But I think that’s mostly my expectations.
Lisa Goldstein’s use of Hansen and Gretel motifs to tell a story about a woman’s relationship with her daughters was a delight and a really intriguing way to end the anthology. I loved Patricia A McKillip’s take on the snow queen and Esther M Freisner’s “Puss” was deeply troubling. Actually a lot of them were deeply troubling, but that was kind of the point both because original fairy tales just were troubling and because this anthology was always intended to be about both the fantasy and the horror aspects of the stories. Hence the title. There were a lot of really great stories in this anthology and I can see why it keeps getting talked about. I guess I finally need to read Angela Carter now
Galactic Suburbia 155
Our post-Halloween episode, featuring vampire college students, spider-infested children’s birthday parties, and tiny adorable skeletons. This isn’t even the culture consumed part, it’s our real life! You can get us from iTunes or at Galactic Suburbia.
(sorry for the sound quality of this one, we’re blaming the weather or possibly DEMONS)
The Halloween Update
From birthday parties to Trick or Treating, yes, Halloween is a thing in Australia now.
What’s new on the internet?
World Fantasy Awards winners announced.
Alisa: Frequency Season 1 ep 1-4, Jessica Jones
Tansy: Hocus Pocus; Octavia Cade: The Convergence of Fairy Tales, Tremontaine 1 & 2, Kelly Robson’s Tremontaine story, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho translated by Anne Carson; Hold Me, Courtney Milan
Alex: Carmilla season 2 and season 0; Jericho rewatch; Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children; The Congress
Please send feedback to us at email@example.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook, support us at Patreon and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!
I received this book from the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost as an uncorrected proof. It comes out in October; RRP $16.99.
I abandoned this book, after reading just over half. It’s a hard thing to do, but it really wasn’t working for me and there are SO many books I want to read that I just don’t have time for books that don’t work.
Firstly, the press release says it’s for children 12+. I’m not sure I’d be happy with a 12 year old reading this: the protagonist has spent eleven years in a mental institute – since she was six – and there are some bits that I think may be a little scary for less mature readers. Anyway, that’s not a reason for me abandoning it.
The protagonist is part of the reason. I did not at any point feel any empathy towards Snow. There’s a bit too much repetition about her immediate woes (not being able to see the boy she really likes, who’s also in the institution), and a serious lack of development about either her history (she walked into a mirror and that was enough to get her committed?) or her personality more generally.
This is symptomatic of the book as a whole, actually: there is so little development of anything. Characters and places and events all occur in a vague world, sometimes with connections spelled out and sometimes not. Things happen far too fast – strange dreams! strange boy appearing! lover boy disappears!! a Tree!!! – and I was left completely bewildered, and not in a shivery-anticipation kinda way; in a ‘what the heck just happened?’ kinda way. It’s a portal fantasy, eventually, but whereas Foz Meadows deals nicely with the sort of confusion this would produce, Danielle Paige has Snow being confused for about ten seconds and then basically comfortable, with no explanation for how this is possible (i.e. treating it as a fantasy or whatever).
Also, the writing does not help the reading process. It’s not actively bad, but I was aware of reading – rather than being sucked into a world and ignoring the process, which really awesome writing enables.
I’m sad that this didn’t work out. I think the Snow Queen story has a lot of potential for reworking. In fact the day I received this my mother was visiting, and she had just started Michael Cunningham’s retelling of the story (very different from this), and I’d seen Frozen only about a week before. So there definitely is potential. And this version had potential… it just wasn’t achieved.
Continuing my Angela Slatter kick…
“Baba Yaga is a woman who cannot be bound. She will bear no more children, she bow to the wishes of no man; she is independent, adrift from the world and its demands. The world, in ceasing to recognise her value, has granted her a freedom unknown to maids and mothers. Only the crone may stand alone.” (p135)
Angela Slatter’s exploration of the different ways women can be is one of the things I love most about her work, and it’s evident in this reprint collection. Most of the stories build on European fairytales or characters – Bluebeard, the Snow Queen, Melusine, the Little Match Girl. But the focus is different from the familiar story, because Slatter changes or explains the motivation, or centres on a different protagonist, or moves the setting and therefore the entire context… and she forces the reader to reconsider the telling of those stories, and what we can or should get out of them.
The quote above is one of my favourite parts of the whole collection, putting me immediately in mind of Ursula Le Guin’s reflections on being a ‘crone’, especially the essay “The Space Crone.” How often is old age meant to be something women should fear? And while Slatter’s Baba Yaga is by no means always happy with her status, she lives it.
This book is also a beautiful object. I have a hardback copy; the cover is black with a white cut-out illustration by Kathleen Jennings. Jennings’ artwork appears throughout the book, with each story having a dedicated picture – some quite simple, some incredibly complex. I love Jennings’ work and she beautifully complements Slatter’s ideas.