A Curse So Dark and Lonely, by Brigid Kemmerer, was published in 2019 by Bloomsbury.
A Curse So Dark and Lonely is continuing the streak of YA books that I’m pleasantly surprised with. It’s a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” involving parallel universes, curses, and a fairly decently developed world. Harper, a girl with cerebral palsy, is taken into another world in order to break the curse of the prince of that realm. The curse, of course, can only be broken by true love, but since Harper was kidnapped, she’s really not at all interested.
The thing that I was most impressed with was how Kemmerer resolved the curse. Honestly, overall, I thought she did a fantastic job with building the relationship between Harper and Rhen, and then to make it even better, she doesn’t rush the ending or force the characters into something that doesn’t make sense—instead, there’s a question raised, and a resolution to just try and figure things out. It was done really well, in my opinion, and it was a great way to “modernize” the “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tale.
My biggest criticism is probably the parallel universe aspect of it. Harper being a character in the fantasy world makes no sense and would not have worked in the book at all, so I understand the idea behind having Harper be from Washington, D.C., but the parts involving her family back in D.C. were the weakest in the book. Kemmerer’s decision to give Harper’s family a loan shark background really didn’t work very well and seemed only to be used to generate drama, especially since nothing came of that side story, anyway. Scrap Jacob’s role as loan shark muscle and you still have all the incentive Harper needs to miss home and to want to return home later (i.e., her sick mother). So, that part fell a little flat because it didn’t really seem to contribute anything besides more drama that wasn’t needed.
Despite that, however, I really enjoyed A Curse So Dark and Lonely. It was not a traditional “Beauty and the Beast” retelling and I thought Kemmerer did a great job of making things new and original, and especially in changing certain things about the fairy tale that are more problematic and making them more realistic. There’s a sequel coming out eventually, so I might pick that up when it does!
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Genre: Fantasy, Realistic, Fairy Tale, Young Adult
House of Salt and Sorrows, by Erin A. Craig, was published in 2019 by Delacorte.
House of Salt and Sorrows is a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”—kind of. In this version, there’s only 8 “princesses” alive at the beginning, and Craig really uses the fairy tale as more inspiration to weave her own ghostly, mythical story. I actually really enjoyed this book, despite the presence of tropes I don’t like such as insta-love/lust, based solely on the world, the story, and Craig’s wonderful writing.
Like I said, the story is inspired by “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” but Craig interprets and creates so many new and interesting things from it. I loved the plot and the whole mythology/supernatural vibe, and I especially liked how Craig managed to make each character stand out and, in the case of solving the mystery, not too suspicious. There wasn’t any one character that stood out as “oh, that’s the villain obviously” and the main plot twist was cleverly hidden and deftly revealed. Things get a little spooky, a little gory, and a little wacky at the end, but it fits Craig’s spooky, mythical setting perfectly.
Mainly the one thing I didn’t like was the insta-love between Cassius and Annaleigh. At least it’s sort of explained through his origins, but still—not my favorite. However, at least Craig made me forget about it for most of the book, and the ending was fine. I’ve gotten away from YA for a little bit, but I’m coming back to it slowly, and books like this remind me why.
Spindle’s End takes the Sleeping Beauty tale and crafts an entire fantasy world out of it, complete with slight references to McKinley’s Damar books (I caught one The Blue Sword reference but there may have been more). The tale itself is also slightly different from the original; without giving too much away, it gives Sleeping Beauty more to do and there really isn’t a prince figure of the sort prominent in the original.
With two Damar books under her belt, McKinley is used to spinning out more magic and details than were present in Beauty, and Spindle’s End is stuffed full of things. It’s almost too much at times—the beginning is ponderously slow, and the book really doesn’t start picking up until it switches to Rosie’s point of view, 150 pages in. The conflict at the end is almost too dense and confusing for the reader to fully grasp; I struggled to get through McKinley’s long sentences and heavy descriptions of magic and animals to understand what actually happened. And now, as I’m writing this review, I’m starting to realize just how little dialogue is actually in this book—there’s bits and pieces, but most of it is description. In fact, the largest sections of dialogue concern the animals, and they talk almost as ponderously as the descriptions.
People who like developed, built-up fairy tales will probably really enjoy Spindle’s End, but I think I prefer the simplicity of one like Beauty more. Perhaps if McKinley had a better balance of description to dialogue, or if the beginning weren’t so hard to slog through, I might have liked it better, because I did quite enjoy the middle bits. “Thoughtful fantasy” is a term I would use to describe this sort of work, though I’m not really sure what I mean by that. Lots and lots of description, maybe; that’s all I’m going to remember about this book in the long run.
Beauty knows the Beast’s forest in her bones—and in her blood. She knows that the forest holds secrets and that her father is the only hunter who’s ever come close to discovering them. But Yeva’s grown up far from her father’s old lodge, raised to be part of the city’s highest caste of aristocrats. Still, she’s never forgotten the feel of a bow in her hands, and she’s spent a lifetime longing for the freedom of the hunt. So when her father loses his fortune and moves Yeva and her sisters back to the outskirts of town, Yeva is secretly relieved. Out in the wilderness, there’s no pressure to make idle chatter with vapid baronessas…or to submit to marrying a wealthy gentleman. But Yeva’s father’s misfortunes may have cost him his mind, and when he goes missing in the woods, Yeva sets her sights on one prey: the creature he’d been obsessively tracking just before his disappearance. Deaf to her sisters’ protests, Yeva hunts this strange Beast back into his own territory—a cursed valley, a ruined castle, and a world of creatures that Yeva’s heard about only in fairy tales. A world that can bring her ruin—or salvation. Who will survive: the Beauty, or the Beast?
It’s nice to have some fodder for my Fairy Tale Fridays again! Hunted is a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” set in Russia, complete with Russian fairytales. Yeva, the daughter of a merchant who recently lost his wealth, has to go after her father when he doesn’t return from hunting one day. In the woods she encounters a Beast who takes her back to his ruined castle when she becomes injured.
Hunted plays out very much like the familiar Beauty and the Beast fairytale, though there is some added lore with the Russian fairytales, and hunting is a predominant theme. Spooner really amps up the idea that Yeva/Beauty is the one saving the Beast, but it’s not as annoying as this sort of reversed trope can be. The added lore helps flesh out the retelling, though it does get confusing at the end, and adds even more magic to the original. My favorite “Beauty and the Beast” retelling will always and forever be Robin McKinley’s (for nostalgia purposes, mainly), but Hunted is, in my opinion, quite unique in the way it transforms and adds to the original.
I had to chuckle at the nod to Stockholm Syndrome that Spooner makes in this book. It’s a great moment because Spooner herself has to avoid the same complaints people make about “Beauty and the Beast” while retelling the fairytale. I actually don’t know how successful she is, personally, as I’ve never really had a problem with that aspect of the fairytale, but having that time where Yeva didn’t realize that her friend was the Beast helped, as it more fully illustrated the human/beast divide that is central to the book. It also made Yeva’s falling in love with the Beast more realistic, as she had those moments of humanity to fall back on.
The one part that really bothered me was the epilogue. That’s when Spooner’s modernist interpretation came roaring to the front, even more so than in Yeva’s clichéd retreat from married life and “boring” conventions of the time. To be honest, the entire end of the book unraveled my enjoyment of it, as that’s when it started to get the most loose in terms of plot and pacing. I suppose I shouldn’t have forgotten that Spooner is also the co-author of a book that I despised for its presentation of a romance relationship, but I guess I’m eternally hopeful that relationships will be portrayed in actually healthy ways as opposed to what society thinks is the best way to show them.
Magic is fading…and the ways of Man are conspiring to drive all the Old Ones to the West, beyond the ken of humankind. The ancient groves are being destroyed, and with their loss the land will lose an essential core if nothing is done. The prophecies that were foretold so long ago say that there is a way to prevent this horror and it is the Sevenwaters clan that the spirits of Eire look to for salvation. They are a family bound into the very lifeblood of the land…and their promise to preserve the magic has been the cause of great joy—and sorrow—to them. For in truth, the ways of prophecies are never easy…and there are those who would use power for their own ends. It is left at last to Fainne, daughter of Niamh (the sister that was lost to the clan so long ago), to solve the riddles of power among the gods. A shy child of a reclusive sorcerer, she finds that her way is hard. For she is the granddaughter of the wicked sorceress Oonagh, who has emerged from the shadows of power and seeks to destroy all that the Sevenwaters have striven for…and who will use Fainne most cruelly to accomplish this fate. Will Fainne be strong enough to battle this evil and save those she has come to love?
Child of the Prophecy is a satisfying end to the Sevenwaters trilogy, though perhaps not as enthralling or lovely as the first two. Everything is sorted out; characters from the previous two books return and have decent roles to play; we get resolution in many different quarters. Fainne is a fine protagonist; her inner turmoil gets a little hard to bear at times but at least it’s understandable considering her situation.
I think where the book fell the most flat for me was the ending, which was an “arena battle” (two or more characters face off and battle it out while the crowd looks on and gasps) and dragged on a little too long. It started to feel too melodramatic and cheesy after a while; it’s hard to keep tension like that going without the scene starting to feel like a script. I mean, it was satisfying in that it neatly resolved the book and all the plot threads, but it felt a little clumsy at times.
Another thing that I felt was a step down from the previous two books was the romance. I adored Liadan and Bran in Son of the Shadows (and they steal the show again here), so Fianne’s romantic arc was a little disappointing. I don’t really have anything against her love interest as a character, except that he’s much more underdeveloped than either Bran or Red were. To be honest, I thought Marillier did a better job of explaining Eamonn’s feelings than Darragh’s—not that I wanted Fainne with Eamonn, but I understood Eamonn as a character better than slightly-boring Darragh. I’m also really sick of characters denying that they like someone when they clearly do, which is what Fainne did the entire novel.
I know that there are three more books after this one, but Child of the Prophecy wrapped up the plotline of the first three books neatly. I didn’t think it was as good as Daughter of the Forest or Son of the Shadows, but it was still engaging, compelling, and satisfying despite its flaws. It’s hard for me to find adult fantasy that I like, but Marillier has crafted a beautiful world and her talents as a writer are clearly seen in her works. I may or may not pick up the other Sevenwaters books, but I’ve enjoyed the time I spent reading the first three.
I stood in the doorway, watching, as the old woman took three steps into my father’s secret room.
“He won’t be happy,” I said tightly.
“He won’t know,” she replied coolly. “Ciarán’s gone. You won’t see him again until we’re quite finished here, child; not until next summer nears its end. It’s just not possible for him to stay, not with me here. No place can hold the two of us. It’s better this way. You and I have a great deal of work to do, Fainne.”
I stood frozen, feeling the shock of what she had told me like a wound to the heart. How could Father do this? Where had he gone? How could he leave me alone with this dreadful old woman?
A series of fascinating Chinese stories with the character of folk and wonder tales in which the author has caught admirably the spirit of Chinese life and thought. Not only are the tales amusing and appealing in themselves, but hidden beneath their surface is the wise and practical philosophy that has influenced Chinese life for thousands of years.
Shen of the Sea: Chinese Stories for Children is a delightful little book of folk tales, something that I think Tales from Silver Lands tried to be and failed. Each folk tale embodies its own humor and cleverness—none of them are straightforward or predictable. There’s some sort of moral attached to each one, but not in any obtrusive way as in Aesop’s Fables.
Shen of the Sea brings a lightheartedness to these early Newbery Medals that has been absent since The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle. The folk tales are simple, but not simplistic, and the language, though crowded with Chinese terms and names, is easy to understand and fits well with the nature of the book. Though I found the characters of each tale tended to blur together, their actions and the plot of each tale did not, allowing for memorable moments from each one.
I enjoy books like these, and this one reminded me of a story I read when I was little, in some sort of story collection, that was similar in style (all I remember is that it was about 7 Chinese brothers who were identical and each had a special ability that they used to save one of their brother’s skin). Though I’m not ranking the Newbery Medals, Shen of the Sea is my second favorite of the 1920s batch I’ve read so far, behind Doctor Doolittle. Let’s hope the 1929 Medal winner will follow in Shen’s footsteps.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tales, Children’s
Who will say that Ah Mee was disobedient? He had been told not to throw his toy dragon through the window. But had his father, Ching Chi, told him not to heave a block through the door? Not at all. Ching Chi had said nothing about blocks, and he had pointed his finger at the window. Nevertheless, Mr. Ching felt almost inclined to scold his son. He said, very sternly, “Ah Mee…”
Book of a Thousand Days, by Shannon Hale, was published in 2007 by Bloomsbury.
When Dashti, a maid, and Lady Saren, her mistress, are shut in a tower for seven years because of Saren’s refusal to marry a man she despise, the two prepare for a very long and dark imprisonment. As food runs low and the days go from broiling hot to freezing cold, it is all Dashti can do to keep them fed and comfortable. With the arrival outside the tower of Saren’s two suitors—one welcome, the other decidedly less so—the girls are confronted with both hope and great danger, and Dashti must make the desperate choices of a girl whose life is worth more than she knows.
Based off of the little-known Grimm’s fairy tale “Maid Maleen,” Book of a Thousand Days is an engaging, beautiful read of a girl who has to hold herself and her mistress together as they are imprisoned in a tower and then forced into hiding in another country. Dashti is the heart and soul of the book, a female protagonist who is not overtly strong or rebellious against societal conventions, but quietly steadfast and persistent and brave. She’s clever and witty, but not overly outspoken, and she’s basically everything I want in a female protagonist.
Simply put, I devoured this book and its lovely romance. I liked that even though Dashti is the narrator, there are still things the reader will catch onto before she does, such as the nature of Saren’s relationship with Tegus and even, perhaps, the secret of Lord Khasar. I liked that Saren, as annoying as she could get, was at least understandable, in a way, and that she develops, too, and becomes less of an obstacle that Dashti must endure and more of a character.
Book of a Thousand Days is lovely, an adaptation of a fairy tale I’d never heard of (though Hale states she wasn’t particularly true to the original) that is simple, yet engaging all the same. I liked the sweet moments scattered between all the tense and unsure moments; the book has a very good balance of low and high points. This book has redeemed Hale in my eyes a bit after the disappointing sequels to Princess Academy.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tales, Young Adult
My lady removed her hand and started to pace and fret and rub her head. She looked as if she’d like to run away, had there been anywhere to run. My poor lady.
“Say you are me.”
“What?” But why, my lady?”
“You are my maid, Dashti,” she said, and though she still shook like a rabbit, her voice was hard and full of the knowledge that she’s gentry. “It is my right to have my maid speak for me. I don’t’ like to speak to someone directly. What if it isn’t really him? What if he means us harm?”
The Castle Behind Thorns, by Merrie Haskell, was published in 2014 by Katherine Tegen.
When Sand wakes up alone in a long-abandoned castle, he has no idea how he got there. The stories all said the place was ruined by an earthquake, and Sand did not expect to find everything inside torn in half or smashed to bits. Nothing lives here and nothing grows, except the vicious, thorny bramble that holds Sand prisoner. Why wasn’t this in the stories? To survive, Sand does what he knows best—he fires up the castle’s forge to mend what he needs. But the things he fixes work somehow better than they ought to. Is there magic in the mending? Or have the saints who once guarded this place returned? When Sand finds the castle’s lost heir, Perrotte, they begin to untwine the dark secrets that caused the destruction. Putting together the pieces—of stone and iron, and of a broken life—is harder than Sand ever imagined, but it’s the only way to regain their freedom.
The Castle Behind Thorns is a unique reinvention of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale (although it’s not marketed as such, it’s got Sleeping Beauty written all over it), where Sleeping Beauty wakes up not because of a kiss but because someone is fixing everything that was broken in the abandoned castle. I like adaptations of fairy tales that place the fairy tale somewhere in history, and this particular world is closely tied to the religion and the politics of medieval France.
The message of forgiveness laid out in the novel is good, although laid on a little thick by the end. The moralizing message is a bit much for an adult reader, but it might be just the thing a younger reader might need to hear. Haskell seems to have a much heavier hand here than she did in either Handbook for Dragon Slayers or The Princess Curse, so I’m not quite sure if she had a different audience in mind or if she simply thought a less subtle application of her point was needed because of the world she had built. It’s a good message of forgiveness, but it perhaps could have been communicated in a way that was less moralizing and thus less likely to turn people off from it (though, again, a younger audience may be more receptive).
However, I didn’t enjoy The Castle Behind Thorns as much as I enjoyed Haskell’s other works, and I’m not quite sure why. The lack of subtlety may have been one reason. Ultimately, though, I just didn’t find much about the book incredibly interesting. I’m not all that fond of Sleeping Beauty and Haskell wasn’t so unique in the telling of it as to make me really involved in the world and the plot. The premise was good and so was the reimagining of the fairytale as a whole, but the book wasn’t strong as a whole. I’ve read better versions of Sleeping Beauty and better books by Haskell. The Castle Behind Thorns is good, but not great; interesting, but not enticing; imaginative, but not groundbreaking. I’d much rather read The Princess Curse again.
Lovely young Sorcha is the seventh child and only daughter of Lord Colum of Sevenwaters. Bereft of a mother, she is comforted by the brothers who love and protect her: Liam, the natural leader; Diarmid, with his passion for adventure; the twins, Cormack and Conor, each with a different calling; the young, compassionate Padriac…and her other heart, rebellious Finbar, grown old before his time by his gift of the Sight. Sorcha is the light in their lives, and in her young life she has known only peace and happiness. But that joy is destroyed when her father is bewitched by the woman who has won his hear and her brothers are bound by a spell that only Sorcha can lift. To reclaim the lives of her brothers, Sorcha leaves the only safe place she has ever known and embarks on a journey filled with pain, loss, and terror. When she is kidnapped by enemy forces and taken to a foreign land, it seems that there will be no way for Sorcha to break the spell that condemns all that she loves. But magic knows now boundaries, and Sorcha must choose between the life she has always known, promises made…and a love that comes only once. And in that choice, perhaps shattering her world.
Daughter of the Forest is a stunning retelling of “The Wild Swans” fairytale. Marillier beautifully combines the fairytale with a Celtic setting, blending history with fantasy seamlessly. While the novel starts off slowly, once the initial set-up to the fairytale begins, the book flies by as the reader is swept up into Sorcha’s journey.
And what a journey it is. Sorcha is a wonderful protagonist, quietly strong and steadfast in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I love female protagonists of this sort, so it helped me connect with Sorcha even more. Marillier has perfectly crafted the circumstances and the effects; everything Sorcha does is explainable and believable in light of the world and the plot and what happens to her is also so, even the terrible parts. Fair warning, there is quite a violent, difficult scene to read at the beginning of Sorcha’s quest to free her brothers. It’s not graphically detailed, but it’s not glossed over at all—so, in a way, it’s much more graphically detailed than you might expect. Sometimes authors use things like this as a device or as another obstacle the protagonist must climb, but I feel like Marillier included it more for worldbuilding’s sake, to depict just how cruel the world can be at times. Or perhaps it’s to show how deep Sorcha’s bond with Red became, or perhaps it’s both. In any case, it’s handled deftly by Marillier.
That leads me to the thing I adored most about this book, which was Sorcha and Red. I think I’ve mentioned before that I tend to love the “agonizing” types of romance more than most other types, and Daughter of the Forest is full of agonizing—from Red, from Sorcha, from the people around them who see what’s happening and feel powerless to do anything about it. The relationship is slowly and beautifully developed, to the point where I cried at a particular part of the book that is poignant and beautiful and made me not want to put the book down even though I had to go to bed. And the romance ends perfectly, too, in a wonderfully satisfying way—usually I feel disappointed at the end of a book, or at the moment the love interests get together. But not in this book. In this book, I felt nothing but satisfaction.
I thought I loved Marillier already from reading her previous books, like Shadowfell and Wildwood Dancing, but Daughter of the Forest made me adore her. It’s a fantastic fairy tale adaptation, but it’s also a fantastic story, filled with love, loss, sorrow, pain, hope, and all the other things that make a particularly good book stand out from the rest. There are some hard things to read in this book, but there are many more beautiful things, and, like Sorcha, the reader comes to the end with a remembrance of the pain but with the knowledge that things are, as much as they can be in that world, going towards “happily ever after.”
Recommended Age Range: 16+
Warnings: Violence, death, rape.
Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tale
“Listen to me, Sorcha. No matter where we are, or what we do, the seven of us will never be truly separate. We’ll always be the same for one another. But we are growing up; and grown up people do marry, and move away, and let other people into their lives. Even you will do that one day.”
“Me!” I was aghast.
“You must know that.” He moved closer and took my hand, and I noticed that his were large and rough, a man’s hands. He was seventeen now. “Father already plans a marriage for you, in a few years’ time, and doubtless then you will go away to live with your husband’s family. We will not all remain here.”
“Go away? I would never go away from Sevenwaters! This is home! I would die before I’d move away!”
After the spell protecting her is destroyed, Rose seeks safety in the world outside the valley she had called home. She’s been kept hidden all her life to delay the three curses she was born with—curses that will put her into her own fairy tale and a century-long slumber. Accompanied by the handsome and mysterious Watcher, Griff, and his witty and warmhearted partner, Quirk, Rose tries to escape from the ties that bind her to her story. But will the path they take lead them to freedom, or will it bring them straight into the fairy tale they are trying to avoid?
Rose & Thorn is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, though perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s a reimaging. Rose & Thorn is a sequel of sorts to Ash & Bramble, which set up the idea of Story forcing people to fulfill fairy tales over and over. So, the main goal of the characters is to not have the original fairy tale happen, so things go a little differently than one might expect (although saying that may be spoilery, but oh well).
It’s a beautiful retelling of Sleeping Beauty, a fairy tale I don’t actually much like, and there’s loads of originality throughout. Rose is a great protagonist, the type of female protagonist I like. She’s not all gung-ho, “I can do everything cool and awesome” warrior-esque, which can get so tiring and boring. She’s much quieter and understated, which I prefer.
The romance was a little boring, but I find most romances boring in YA since it’s so clearly designed to appeal to teenagers. Griff as a character, at least, was interesting, although I thought the ending was a little rushed—it was believable, but definitely could have been more so in terms of his change.
The main problem of Rose & Thorn, and of Prineas’s fairytale retellings in general, is the concept of Story as this malevolent force that constrains people to its will somehow (through a Godmother, but then at the end it’s revealed it can act on its own, so why does it need a Godmother?) and forces them into fairy tales over and over. But not all stories are Story, only some—if they’re “your own stories,” whatever that is (seemingly the one you want). What if the story you want is the same one that Story wants? Anyway, it’s a little hard to swallow and several times it seems a little forced in the story, as if Prineas also realizes that an idea like Story is hard to convey or accept as realistic.
However, despite the problems of its underlying concept, Rose & Thorn is an imaginative, fresh retelling of Sleeping Beauty with memorable characters (even if you haven’t read Ash & Bramble) and an interesting protagonist, and carries enough appeal to make me want to keep reading Prineas’s fairy tale retellings.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tale, Young Adult
“Ohhhh,” I breathed. This was the Forest. It had offered the clearing as a baited trap, I realized, and it had reached out to take me as I slept. Merry had told me that the Forest was evil, and maybe I should’ve been frightened, but I suddenly felt excited. Ready to go where the Forest led me.
It was, I realized, my story beginning. “Once upon a time…,” I whispered to myself.
I ate a quick bite of breakfast, rebraided my hair, washed my face in the stream—which hadn’t disappeared, like the road—put on my cloak, slung my knapsack over my shoulders, and, ready to start, turned in a slow circle, looking for a way through the trees.
“Once upon a time,” I repeated, “there was a girl who was searching for a path through an enchanted forest.”