Thursday, April 23, 2015

"Toad Words and Other Stories": Review by S. Y. Affolee

"Toad Words and Other Stories"

Review by S. Y. Affolee

Editor's Note: I came across this ebook fortuitously, via an artwork search. I loved the cover, which instantly said "fairy tale" to me and looked into it further. I realized I'd read at least one of these stories before somewhere, and when I discovered where, I thought it was high time I brought it to other fairy tale folk's attention. I think you'll enjoy reading why from our reviewer's point of view.
Jacket description: 

From author T. Kingfisher comes a collection of fairy-tale retellings for adults. By turns funny and dark, sad and lyrical, this anthology draws together in one volume such stories as "The Wolf and the Woodsman," "Loathly," and "Bluebeard's Wife," along with an all-new novella, "Boar & Apples." 
Author's Note: Many of these stories have appeared in various forms on the author's blog.
This anthology by T. Kingfisher (AKA children’s fiction writer Ursula Vernon) is a wonderful assortment of retellings with vivid, crisp writing and dark undercurrents that echo the unvarnished fairy tales of the past. As her use of a pen name indicates, these stories are far from the Disneyfied versions and Kingfisher doesn’t shy away from the darker parts of human nature. While Toad Words may not be suitable for kids, by uncovering modern concerns, this collection is sure to resonate with adult audiences.

What I found most fascinating about this collection was how the retellings rely on transforming the tales’ core messages rather than simply swapping window dressing. For me, altering details like time periods and settings merely make a retelling a variation on the original. But several of these stories focus on self-examination and self-acceptance rather than the original tales’ emphases.

For example, Kingfisher’s retelling of Charles Perrault’s “Diamonds and Toads” is told from the vantage of the cursed sister. While the original story rewards correct behavior and punishes incorrect behavior, “Toad Words” considers the possibility that what seems like a curse may actually be a gift in disguise. Later on, “Bluebeard’s Wife” examines an alternate personality for the newly married heroine. She values the notion of privacy so much that she cannot think of impinging on another’s, even if there are signs indicating something isn’t quite right. If Bluebeard’s wife is changed from being insatiably curious to being completely incurious, will it alter the story’s outcome?

This anthology also reimagines the Arthurian Loathly Lady trope. The cursed maiden is no longer some prize won by a knight, but a metaphor for the acceptance of self, beast and all. This retelling neatly parallels the pathway many tread on their way towards self-acceptance--first hating themselves for seemingly monstrous flaws, then transforming themselves (in a traumatic way) to fit society’s expectations, and finally realizing that contentment requires embracing those so-called flaws regardless of what society thinks. 

A novella version of Snow White called “Boar & Apples” balances darkness and whimsy. What really made this story stand out for me was the reframing of classic tropes. Here, the queen is not monolithically evil, but a stand-in for parts of society where horrific deeds may be symptoms of mental illness. Snow is no longer the passive princess who has a prince rescue her. Circumstances force her out of passivity to take her own agency. Dwarves are replaced by wise-cracking pigs, which may sound unusual at first, but is actually an inspired choice. Because pig hearts have anatomical similarities to human hearts and have been considered by the medical field for possible transplantation, it makes sense that an old sow’s heart fooled the queen when the huntsman brought it back as “proof” of Snow’s death. There are many such instances illustrating how human the pigs are. Their kindness and courage not only give Snow a role model for behavior but turn the demeaning metaphor “behaving like a pig” completely on its ear. 

Adult readers who enjoy short story retellings with a modernist twist will find many gems in this collection. Kingfisher’s succinct and conversational tone in dealing with the darker issues harkens back to the matter-of-fact recounting found in the original tales that heightened their fantastic and gruesome aspects. But by fundamentally giving the stories new motivations and personalities, the author has put together an excellent fairy tale anthology that is not only well written, but also conceptually provoking.
Note: Additional novella by T. Kingfisher in same vein also available, though not reviewed here.

Description: Rhea is an ordinary miller’s daughter, engaged to be married under suspicious circumstances to a man not of her choosing. He has unknown powers and a manor house full of mysterious women. 

Rhea has a hedgehog.

It’s probably not going to be enough.

From T. Kingfisher, author of “Toad Words & Other Stories,” and “Nine Goblins” comes a retold fairy-tale of white roads, dark magic, and small mammals.
Disclosure: A complimentary copy of the eBook was given in exchange for an honest review.

S. Y. Affolee is the pseudonym for a biomedical scientist currently working in Southern California. Outside of the lab, she’s an avid bookshop hunter, tea drinker, and inveterate scribbler. She’s always been fascinated by fairy tales and enjoys reading retellings ever since she first picked up Robin McKinley’s Beauty in grade school.

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