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?

When Princesses Take Over the Fairy Tale

I’ve read many (many) fairy tale retellings, but rarely have I come across fairy tale crossovers, mixing characters from more than one tale.  That’s exactly the premise of Jim C. Hines’ Princess Series, of which I just read the second one for the Once Upon a Time Challenge.  This also goes towards my Finishing the Series challenge (two more books in this series to go!)  Since I hate to start out by reviewing Book Two, I’ll just tell you a bit about both, and try for a minimum of spoilers for the first one.

The Princess series books (so far, at least) are about adventures after the traditional fairy tale ends.  The main character is Danielle, also known as Cinderella.  The first book, The Stepsister Scheme, opens with Danielle recently married to her handsome prince, Armand.  Her stepfamily, however, is not ready to accept defeat, as becomes clear when stepsister Charlotte attacks Danielle, and kidnaps Armand.  Fortunately, Danielle finds valuable allies ready to help her rescue her prince.  Her new mother-in-law, Queen Beatrice, likes to take princesses-in-need under her wing, and has a kind of secret service made up of Snow White, a powerful sorceress (she doesn’t like the term witch) and Talia (Sleeping Beauty), who has used her fairy-given gift of grace to become a skilled fighter.  Together, the princessess set off for the realm of fairies to rescue the prince.

Book Two, The Mermaid’s Madness, brings in another fairy tale–and this is definitely not Disney’s version.  In the original story, the little mermaid can’t marry her prince, and instead sacrifices herself to save him.  Hines’ mermaid killed her prince, and went mad as a consequence.  With Queen Beatrice mortally wounded and a war brewing between humans and merfolk, the princesses have to find a way to capture the mermaid, the only one with power to save the queen.

There’s so much to enjoy about these books.  I love the interpretation on the princesses.  Their abilities are grounded in the original fairy tales (Talia gets skills from her fairy gifts, Snow White’s magic revolves around mirrors), but reinterpreted to make the girls so much stronger and more powerful than they ever were in the originals.  I love the gender reversal of the first book–not only are these princesses not sitting around waiting to be rescued, they’re setting out to rescue the prince!  When I was around ten, I started writing a short story about a knight who was rescued by a girl.  The story never went very far, but I feel like it was motivated by some of the same impulses that make me love this series.

The girls are complex characters as well.  We get bits and pieces of backstory for them all, and it becomes clear that these girls didn’t live Disney movies, and maybe not even the Brothers Grimm stories.  Talia, at least, is coming from an even older and much darker version of Sleeping Beauty.  They have tragedies and they have complexities.  But there’s also humor in here too.  The relationship between the three girls is often a lot of fun, and it’s nice to see a story focusing on female friendship.

Much as I enjoy that, it also brings me to the one thing I don’t like as well.  I feel like Armand is under-developed as a character.  With Danielle as the lead (though occasionally Snow or Talia will narrate as well), I feel like her husband should have a bigger part!  He’s in it just enough for me to notice that he’s not in it enough, if that makes sense.  I love the focus on the girls, but I’d like a little more balance to give Armand and Danielle’s relationship some time too.

That’s a minor complaint about an excellent series, though.  If you like fairy tales and strong heroines, these are the books to read.  They’re from the grown-up section (is there a proper term for that?) and I’d probably classify them as appropriate for older YA, because of some of the darker themes.  I’d recommend starting with the first book, as a better way to get to know the characters, though the plots are independent.  I think I enjoyed the second one a bit more, but more because I was getting to know the characters better than because it was an inherently better book.  They’re both great!

Author’s Site: http://www.jimchines.com/

Other reviews:
Shiny Book Review
Bookshop Talk
Bookish
Yours?

After Waking the Princess

What happens after the hero kisses the sleeping princess?  It’s far more complicated than “they lived happily ever after,” especially when the hero is from the modern world and knows nothing at all about swinging swords or fighting evil witches!

Enchantment by Orson Scott Card was my second book for the Once Upon a Time Challenge, and it also goes towards my Dusty Bookshelf challenge.  Abridged background: I picked it up at a book swap my book club did, I think roughly last summer.  I picked it up because, well–Orson Scott Card!  At the time I actually hadn’t read anything by him, but I had been hearing about Ender’s Game forever (which I did finally read).  I was also intrigued by the plot summary: as a child, Ivan sees a sleeping princess in the forest one day, and runs away.  But then years later, he comes back…

That was all that was in the summary, and it turns out to be only the very beginning.  It also wasn’t clear until I turned to Page One that Ivan lives in the modern world.  He’s from Eastern Europe, though his family emigrates to America when he’s a child.  He returns to Ukraine to work on his dissertation on fairy tales, and ends up drawn to a clearing in the woods, where he finds the sleeping princess he had convinced himself he imagined.  He fights the bear guarding her and wakes up Katerina, a princess from the 9th century.  He ends up back in her time, where the imminent threat of Baba Yaga is just part of his troubles.

I love the concept of this one.  It gets at some great questions about the original fairy tales, and points up a fundamental problem usually ignored–the man waking the sleeping princess is not necessarily at all suitable to be king, or to marry the princess!  Ivan goes through a lot of trials trying to deal with the society of the time, from his lack of prowess with a sword to disconcertingly different views on nudity.  I especially liked it that Ivan goes into this with a scholar’s knowledge–his focus is old fairy tales, so he knows how the stories work, a fair bit about the history, and also what Disney says about it.  One of my favorite moments is when he arrives in Katerina’s village and is trying to reconcile what he’s seeing with his historical knowledge, and with Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

I did have some trouble getting into this book.  The beginning is spent on Ivan and his life in the modern world; it’s necessary, but it also dragged a little.  It picked up when he woke up Katerina.  I liked the part in the past (although I think I liked the IDEA a little more than the actual handling of it).  The book really got good for me when Ivan and Katerina come back into the modern world (slight spoiler, but it’s only halfway through).  Besides how interesting it is to watch Katerina deal with the modern world, there are some fascinating revelations about Ivan’s family and, perhaps most important, the story gets much more focused on the fight with Baba Yaga.

The characters didn’t make a huge impression on me, good or bad.  Katerina and Ivan’s relationship was ultimately satisfying, although at times I thought Card was a little heavy-handed about it.  They spent much of the book misunderstanding each other, and there was a little too much of “Oh, I thought he meant THIS but what if he meant THAT and in that case maybe I’ll feel THIS way instead of THAT way…”  Less explanation and analysis probably would have been preferable.

Despite being a fairy tale, this is definitely an adult book.  It’s adult-level writing, and also Baba Yaga has a thing for torture.  There isn’t huge detail, but there’s enough.

On the whole, a good book.  I liked it.  I didn’t love it.  I don’t plan to keep it because I don’t see myself as likely to revisit it–but it was good to read once.

Author’s Site: http://hatrack.com

Other reviews:
Breathing Fiction
Wynter Adelle
Semicolon
Anyone else?

Sleeping Beauty’s Sister, Questing Through Fairy Tales

I decided to give E. D. Baker another chance.  She wrote the highly disappointing Frog Princess–but I was so intrigued by the premise of The Wide-Awake Princess, I decided to try it anyway.

The story is about Sleeping Beauty’s younger sister, Annie.  She’s immune to magic (in fact, she nullifies it around her), so when the entire castle falls asleep, she stays awake.  She goes in search of princes to kiss her sister, picking up a handsome guard for a traveling companion.

To give Baker due credit, she’s really good at ideas.  I mean, the princess kisses the frog and turns into a frog–that’s brilliant.  The chancy part is what she does with the ideas.  Fortunately, this book was packed with clever ideas, and the follow-through was an improvement on The Frog Princess.

While out looking for princes, Annie encounters elements from half a dozen other fairy tales–Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and Rose Red, Rapunzel, the Princess and the Pea, even the Frog Prince.  They’re all a little bit tweaked, mostly in clever ways, and the fast flow of them all keeps the book interesting.

My main reservation towards the book was a lack of depth.  The major characters had some development but were not very complex, and they didn’t seem to feel anything very deeply.  As an example–all the royals, including Annie’s family, are magically enhanced from christening gifts.  Since Annie nullifies magic, they all become less beautiful, less graceful and so on while around her (again–brilliant idea).  As a result, Annie is forbidden to touch her family, and they never hug or kiss her.  In Susan Kay’s Phantom, the Phantom has the exact same problem, that his mother refuses to kiss him.  For him, it’s a deeply scarring situation, causing him real pain as a child, and on into adulthood.  Annie, on the other hand, seems to be a little wistful on the subject.  (Really–her mother never touches her–that should be painful!)

To some extent it’s apples and oranges–Phantom is high drama, this is a children’s comedy.  But characters in comedies can still feel things.  And children’s books can have depth–the end of The House at Pooh Corner has real pathos, and Abel’s Island is about a character’s existential crisis.

Then there was the treatment of life-threatening situations.  Characters choose to plunge into danger without much motivation.  And while in dangerous situations, Annie is never afraid.  She’s uncomfortable, irritated, occasionally worried, but not afraid.  It got to the point where I was rooting for her to get scared some time, just to prove that she’s human.  I love feisty heroines, but even Alanna (a lady knight dubbed the Lioness) gets scared sometimes.  I don’t care how light your story is meant to be, your characters still have to be believable according to human nature.

But the ideas were really good.  The plot was fine.  Annie, despite not having much depth, is a fun character, and her love interest is a good guy.

In the end, it’s a fun story.  Just don’t expect it to be more than that.

Author’s site: http://www.edbakerbooks.com/

Romance and Religion in the Middle Ages

In my ongoing quest to find fairy tale retellings, I recently found The Healer’s Apprentice by Melanie Dickerson.  I’m actually not sure how, because it’s only very loosely Cinderella, and equally loosely Sleeping Beauty.  But it was a good read regardless.

The healer’s apprentice is Rose, who became an apprentice to dodge the arranged marriage her mother wants for her.  The setting is Germany, somewhere in the Middle Ages.  There’s a little bit of fairy tale in it, but it reminds me much more of Karen Cushman‘s books, which so vividly bring history to life (another review, perhaps).  Rose finds herself torn between the two sons of the local baron, Wilhelm and Rupert.  Meanwhile, she’s also trying to figure out if a healer is really what she wants to be.  In the background, there’s a story about an evil magician stalking Wilhelm’s betrothed.

There’s a little bit of a Mary Sue situation here, where every man seems to be intensely interested in Rose.  But a couple potential interests turn out otherwise, and Rose goes through enough ups and downs in her romances that it’s not too painful a Mary Sue.  Besides, I can deal with it better when the heroine is actually a decent person with some admirable character traits (unlike, say, Twilight).

Rose and especially Wilhelm struggle a lot with trying to do the right thing.  Part of this is centered around their religious faith, which I found very interesting.  You (or at least, I) don’t often see religious characters in fiction, especially not in something that has even a mild fairy tale element to it.  I thought Dickerson handled it very well, in that their religious convictions seem plausible for their time period, without feeling archaic either.  Some of the morality tales and religious beliefs of past centuries don’t sit well with modern concepts, but there was a good balance here.

On the whole I enjoyed the book–better than Sleeping Helena, not as good as Spindle’s End (although a more satisfying romance)–and all in all a good read.

Author’s Site: http://melaniedickerson.com/