Fiction Friday: Into the Forest with the Storyteller

Long-time readers may remember that in 2011, I wrote a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” for NaNoWriMo.  Recent readers of The Wanderers have also met those princesses from another angle.  That NaNo novel is in the process of growing up into The Storyteller and Her Sisters, the companion novel to The Wanderers that I plan to publish in the fall of 2014.  I’ve been working on revisions this past week, so an excerpt seemed appropriate.

In this early scene, Lyra (the narrator and the Storyteller of the title) and her eleven sisters have gone exploring beneath their father’s castle…


A hundred yards along the tunnel, we reached the Gate.  The Gate was a great beast of iron bars and curling decorations, cutting across the tunnel, blocking the path to anything beyond it.  Vira’s candlelight didn’t reach far enough to show anything but more tunnel on the other side.  There was a lion’s head molded into the top of the Gate, and I had never been able to escape the feeling that it was looking at us.  I’d never seen it move, unless you count one very disturbing dream.

For fourteen years, the Gate hadn’t moved at all, not even the rational way gates are supposed to move when someone tries to open them.  There wasn’t any sign of a lock, but the Gate simply wouldn’t shift no matter how we pushed.  Not even a wobble.

Until the night in question.  Mina, the first to push, thought she felt it move.  The rest of us gathered around, and the more of us who tried, the more it seemed to sway and give.  Finally, when all twelve of us took hold of a bar and pushed, the gate swung neatly open, like two wings sweeping to either side.

You may not be surprised.  For us, it could hardly have been more shocking if a blank wall in our bedroom had opened.  Even though we kept trying the Gate, we were very used to the idea that it was never going to open.  I turned to Talya next to me and grinned.  She bit her lip and gave only a half-smile in response.

“Now what?” Laina said, the first to break the silence that followed the Gate opening.  The amount of detail in our plans for this eventuality had about matched our expectations of it actually happening.

“Let’s go back,” Talya said, wrapping her arms around herself.  “Let’s close the Gate and go back.  It’s dangerous through there, you all know that.”

“Our whole lives are dangerous,” Laina said.  I could see my own excitement reflected in the gleam in her eyes.  “We have to risk this.  It’s the best chance at escape we’ve ever had.”

“It may mean something that the Gate finally opened,” Mina pointed out.  “Magical things rarely happen randomly, and if a magic door opens it only makes sense to go through it.”

“But you know what could happen,” Talya whispered.

“We’ve talked about this from every angle for years,” Laina groaned, “are we really going to do it again now?  We’ve always agreed that it would be worth the risk if we ever had the chance.  Besides, it was all right for Mother so it can’t be that dangerous.”

“Laina’s right,” Vira said, raising the candle higher.  “In all practical ways, we decided this a long time ago.  So let’s go on and see if it’s how we remember it.”

I didn’t remember it, at least not with any certainty that I wasn’t just imagining memories.  But Vira had been ten years old, fourteen years before.  She remembered.

We all went through the Gate, Talya clutching my hand again, though even she had given a reluctant nod in the end to going forward.  I squeezed her fingers tightly, but for me it was anticipation, not dread.  I had been hearing about this my whole life.  I had always wanted to see it for myself.  It was like an adventure, like one of my stories.  People in stories didn’t turn back because the adventure was dangerous.

Beyond the Gate, we quickly didn’t need Vira’s candle anymore.  Around two more turns in the tunnel, it opened up into a broad cavern.  Shortly beyond the tunnel’s mouth, we came to the forest.  The trees were set out in an orchard of orderly rows, and the trunks of every tree shone like moonlight, casting a shimmering light throughout the cavern.  Above the trunks, the branches and the leaves were silver.

I don’t mean they were gray, or resembled silver, or were some variety of tree with silver in its name.  I mean they were silver.  They looked like some kind of elm, but made of a glittering metal.

It wasn’t a surprise.  Vira had remembered the trees, and so had a few others of my oldest sisters.  Hearing about it and seeing it, that’s two very different things.  Somehow, I had never quite believed in this forest until I saw it myself.  Talya’s hand got tighter around mine.

We slowly walked down a wide pathway between two lines of trees.  The trees grew up out of the cavern floor, and if they had ever shed a leaf, it wasn’t visible on the bare rock around them.  Mostly I was looking up.  I stared at those silver leaves above us, and almost without my noticing, my thoughts began to drift towards all that I could buy with just a few branches.

I wanted to keep looking at the silver trees, but at the head of our group, Vira kept pushing onwards.  Long instinct made us all follow her, and soon the moonlight-like silver forest gave way to a brighter stretch of trees.  These trees shone like sunlight.  These trees were made of gold.

They glittered and shone and enticed.  With a handful of these leaves, I could buy dresses and jewelry and shoes…  I blinked, momentarily confused.  I didn’t even like shoes very much.  It was Nila who was obsessed with clothes, not me.  And yet I suddenly wanted gold, lots of it, to buy piles and mountains of beautiful things.  So many beautiful things.

The gold trees ended too, and a third forest began.  This one glittered like starlight.  This one had trees made of diamonds.  I looked at the nearest branch, seeing delicate sprays of flowers and buds, crusted with shining stones.  A single branch had enough diamonds to make necklaces for all twelve of us.

With that kind of wealth, I could do anything.  I could buy castles and horses and armies…and books, I could buy so many books…and entire countries if I wanted to…and I wouldn’t need anyone, not Vira, not Mina, not Talya…

I was still holding Talya’s hand.  I looked down at our hands, then looked at her face.  She was staring up at the diamond trees with a mesmerized expression.  I looked around at my sisters.  Vira and Laina, their expressions were grim.  Mina and Rayna looked confused, as confused as I was feeling.  The rest looked entranced.

I was thinking thoughts that I knew I wouldn’t think.  Buying books, that was me.  That was a constant wish.  But buying armies, buying countries?  And while I sometimes (all right, often) wished to not be dependent on my sisters, the thought had had a nasty undercurrent to it that I didn’t recognize.

I should have recognized what was going on right away, but knowing the theory of something doesn’t always help when experiencing the reality, especially when the nature of that reality is to twist a person’s thoughts.

There was something very wrong with those forests.  They were beautiful.  And they were poison.  And it was an indication of how strong they were that they had pulled us in, made me completely forget the danger for a few moments, even though we had walked into the forest expecting it.  Vira had remembered the poison too.  It was the results of that poison that had reached into the world above, and had made our lives what they were now.

What Are You Reading, Spooky September Edition

What Are You Reading SpookyI’ve begun properly plunging into spooky reads for Readers Imbibing Peril, and you can expect the reviews to start multiplying over the next few weeks!  I reread Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland books which I madly love, and collected several more dark and shadowy tales from the library.

I recently finished A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz, a rather dark and, well, grim retelling of some more obscure Brothers Grimm tales.  Next, I’m midway through Doll Bones by Holly Black, which has been decidedly creepy so far!  I’m also reading a play version of The Phantom of the Opera–not the Webber one, but a different musical.  It was made into the Charles Dance miniseries, but without the songs, so I was curious to see the original script.

And then I have my big intimidating book of the month, The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo.  It’s actually relatively short, compared to Hugo’s Les Miserables…though most books are “short” relative to Les Mis!

Meanwhile on the screen, I’ve been indulging in lots of Hitchcock, continuing the spooky mood!

Have a wonderful weekend–and let me know what you’re reading.  🙂

Introducing the Twelve Dancing Princesses

Long-time readers may remember that for NaNo 2011, I wrote the first draft of a novel based around the fairy tale of The Twelve Dancing Princesses (or The Shoes That Were Worn to Pieces).  I’ve finally completed a revision of my other major writing project, The Wanderers, and I’m now about a month into revising the princesses’ novel, The Storyteller and Her Sisters.

Since it’s rather occupying my life 🙂 how about an excerpt?  You can read this post if you want more context on the fairy tale, but you don’t really need it.  This is roughly Page 3 of the novel, and begins to introduce some of the principle characters…


I think the real beginning of the story, for my sisters and me, was the day the Gate opened.

On that day, Vira, the oldest, was twenty-four.  The youngest, Talya, was fifteen.  I was seventeen.  We are each spaced a neat year apart, except for the two sets of twins.

It was evening when the Gate opened, and though that evening proved momentous, I remember little about the day that preceded it.  I assume it was the usual round of embroidery, penmanship and dancing lessons—we are all excellent dancers.  Whatever we did, it had to have been inside my father’s castle.  We were never allowed to leave.  The day no doubt closed with supper in the banquet hall with Father.  Such ran every day.

And in the evening, all my sisters were in our bedroom, brushing hair, pursuing hobbies, and chatting about a thousand different topics.  Rather like most girls, I think—not that I’d had a great deal of experience with a great many girls.  But I had read things.

Twelve of us shared a single bedroom, and there were days when it felt incredibly cramped.  In reality it was a large room, long and with a high ceiling.  There was a door at one end and a fireplace at the other, beds stretching in two rows down the length of the room.  I suppose we didn’t undergo that much hardship in our living conditions—though I defy anyone to share a bedroom with eleven sisters for fourteen years and not come up with a few complaints.

Such as the problem of eternally being interrupted in the good parts of stories. Continue reading “Introducing the Twelve Dancing Princesses”

Fairy Tale Round-up: Sleeping Beauty

A look at another classic fairy tale this week: Sleeping Beauty.  Like Cinderella, it shows up in the Brothers Grimm and in Charles Perrault.  Grimm gives us a very brief story, “Little Briar Rose,” about a princess who is cursed at her christening, pricks her finger when she turns fifteen, and falls into an enchanted sleep for a hundred years, guarded by a hedge of thorns, until awoken by a prince.  Perrault gives essentially the same story in “The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods” with more detail, and an entire second act involving the prince’s evil ogre mother.  That part doesn’t seem to have filtered out quite so much!  But I have seen quite a few retellings of the first part of the story…

Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley is my favorite retelling.  McKinley’s princess, Rosie, has a life and a personality entirely separate from her curse.  She is defiantly herself in the face of all her christening gifts, and she deeply loves her adoptive family of fairies, who are hiding her from the curse.  I love the way McKinley plays with the elements of the fairy tale to make characters and a story that, in some ways, feel completely original.  I’m not wild about the romance, but it’s a wonderful book despite that.

The Princess Series by Jim C. Hines features Sleeping Beauty as a major character.  His Sleeping Beauty, Talia, comes from a darker version of the story, from before the Brothers Grimm.  She does have fairy-given gifts, like grace and balance, which she uses to become a skilled warrior.  She joins up with Snow White and Cinderella, and together they’re a force to be reckoned with!  The third book in the series, Red Hood’s Revenge, while partially about Little Red Riding Hood, also delves much more into Talia’s past, and a new interpretation on the Sleeping Beauty story.

Sleeping Helena by Erzebot Yellowboy is an odd story about a family of sisters who enchant and then raise their niece, Helena.  The oddness comes in part from the fact that the aunts are all around 105 (and feel it) and partially from Helena’s own wild nature.  She’s fascinating, almost a slave to her christening gifts.  Some interesting concepts in this one, but also…well, odd.

The Wide-Awake Princess by E. D. Baker tells the story from Sleeping Beauty’s sister’s point of view.  Annie nullifies magic around her, so she’s unaffected when the rest of the castle falls asleep.  She goes questing through other fairy tales, looking for a prince to wake up her sister.  I LOVE the concept…but found the characters rather shallow and simple.  Probably a good one for younger readers, but don’t expect anything too deep.

The Healer’s Apprentice by Melanie Dickerson is a very loose retelling.  Rose is the healer’s apprentice of the title, trying to decide if she really wants to be a healer, while torn between the two handsome sons of the local baron.  The Sleeping Beauty part comes in because there’s an evil magician stalking the older son’s betrothed with a curse.  The princess has been hidden away…and it’s pretty obvious right from the beginning who she’ll turn out to be.  It’s a good story in its own right, even if the Sleeping Beauty elements are more of a hint than a major focus.

The Sleeping Beauty by Mercedes Lackey, on the other hand, tosses around Sleeping Beauty elements with abandon.  This is a mash-up of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, in a novel that’s very willing to poke at the original fairy tales and have fun with the conventions.  It’s book five of Lackey’s 500 Kingdoms series, but I somehow contrived to read it first and it didn’t seem to matter.

Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is one of my favorite classic Disney cartoons.  I like the song, “Once Upon a Dream,” and I like Prince Phillip.  I think it’s because he argues with his horse; it gives him a smidge more personality than most early Disney princes.  Although–in a very bizarre turn, Phillip doesn’t have a single line of dialogue after Rose falls asleep.  He’s in scenes, and people talk to him, but he doesn’t have a single line.  I really have to wonder about the decision process there…  But anyway, rather like Disney’s Cinderella (which is all about the mice) this one is also really about the “supporting” characters–the fairies.  They’re quite funny, and also a big inspiration for my own fairy tale world in my writing.  Watch one of their scenes some time: they are shooting sparkles out of their wands all the time.  Not just when they cast spells, but constantly.  Those women really ought to be awash in glitter…

I’m betting there are other versions of Sleeping Beauty I haven’t covered.  What are your favorites?

Fairy Tale Round-Up: The Twelve Dancing Princesses

I focus on fairy tale retellings often, and right now it’s the season for them, since I’m participating in the Once Upon a Time challenge.  I thought it would be fun–and maybe useful to someone–to spend a few Fridays gathering together lists of the retellings I’ve read.

I decided to start with a relatively minor fairy tale that has been getting a lot of press lately, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses or The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces.”  It’s certainly not on a level with Cinderella as a cultural touch-point, but I stumbled on a number of retellings in the past few years, and then when I decided to write my own version, I started seeking them out.  It seems to be a popular story at the moment.

The Brothers Grimm story is “The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces,” and is about twelve princesses who are wearing out their dancing slippers every night, even though they’re locked in their bedroom.  Their father the king puts out a call for champions, who will each be allowed to spend three nights in the princesses’ chamber.  If they can solve the mystery, they get to marry a princess.  If they fail, they lose their heads.  After a number of champions fail, an old soldier comes to try.  With the help of an invisibility cloak, he’s able to follow the princesses through a magic forest of silver, gold and diamonds, across a lake to a castle where they’re dancing with twelve princes.  By telling the king what’s happening, the soldier breaks the spell and marries the oldest princess.

It’s fascinating to see what is and isn’t in the original story, compared to the retellings.  There are definite trends in how the story has been retold.  The original is entirely the soldier’s point of view, but most of the retellings are from the princesses’ perspective, or from a new, female character who’s seeking to help them.  In the retellings, the king is well-meaning and at worst a bit stern; I’ve yet to read a retelling where heads are actually being chopped off.  The princes in the castle are usually cast as demons or monsters, although I personally don’t think that’s clear in the original.  And almost everyone struggles to develop twelve princesses as characters, which really is a remarkably large number to deal with.

So let’s see what’s been done more specifically…

Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier was one of my first retellings, and a very loose one.  Only five girls, they’re not princesses, and they go dancing at a fairy court that is not as terrible as in most versions.  This story combines with a retelling of The Frog Prince, so that brings in some significant different elements.

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George is a much closer retelling, and one of the few that gives at least part of the story from the soldier’s point of view.  It does better than most at developing the relationship between the soldier and the oldest princess–and I rather love that the hero is brave and strong and also knows how to knit (soldiers have to get socks from somewhere!)  It also has some of the best-depicted princesses.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Marianna Meyer and illustrated by Kinuko Craft is a very beautiful picture book.  It doesn’t do anything too exciting with the story (though it is another one from the champion’s point of view) but the illustrations are exquisite.

“The Twelve Dancing Princesses” by Robin McKinley is a longish short story in her book, The Door in the Hedge.  I had such high hopes for this one (I mean, Robin McKinley!) and they were only partially met.  It’s a beautifully-written retelling with vivid imagery and all the details of description and character emotion that the Grimms always leave out.  But…there’s really nothing innovative about it either.  It’s pretty much precisely the original story (minus the head-chopping).

The Thirteenth Princess by Diana Zahler supposes that the princesses have a thirteenth sister, Zita.  Their mother died when she was born and their father banished her to be a servant in his grief.  She evades the spell that captures the rest.  It’s a cute version in some ways, although the twelve princesses are unusually undeveloped as characters.  The focus on Zita’s story means less focus on the twelve princesses’ adventure.

The Phoenix Dance by Dia Calhoun is another one that brings in a new heroine, this time the royal shoemaker’s apprentice.  Her master’s reputation is being ruined by the constantly worn-out dancing slippers–which, by the way, is a fantastic idea!  The original fairy tales never address that kind of detail.  I loved that premise, but then I didn’t love the heroine as well.  This is also a fantasy look at bipolar disease, and while I respect what Calhoun was trying to do, I actually had difficulty getting a sense of the character through the mood swings.

Entwined by Heather Dixon is one of the latest retellings, which made the rounds of all the blogs I follow.  This one more than any other I’ve read emphasized the beauty of the dancing, and played with the princesses’ love of dancing.  There are twelve princesses named in alphabetical order, which was very helpful for keeping track of the relatively bland younger nine.

The Night Dance by Suzanne Weyn meshes the dancing princesses with Arthurian legends. It’s a clever idea, but the book is hampered by some very slight characters.  They served their roles, but I can’t remember a single character’s name anymore.

Troll’s Eye View has “The Shoes that Were Danced to Pieces,” a short story by Ellen Kushner.  Mostly pretty light and silly, this captured better than any other version how annoying it could actually be to have eleven younger sisters.  The princesses are universally devoted to each other in other versions, and it was fun to see an oldest princess who finds her clamoring crowd of sisters overwhelming.

There you have probably more versions than you could ever actually want.  🙂  Recommendations…if you want a close retelling, go for McKinley’s short story.  If you want something close but more elaborated upon, read Princess of the Midnight Ball.  If you want to look at beautiful pictures, definitely get Craft’s picture book.  And if you just want to know which book is overall the best read…it’s only a loose retelling but a wonderful book…Wildwood Dancing.

And if I’ve missed a version–let me know!