“Once upon a time, there were two sisters, and there was a forest. The forest was, in the way of these things, full of secrets.
Not just the secrets of leaves and trees, of fur and feathers, of shadowed spaces. Certainly it had all of those, but it had other secrets as well.”
Imogen, the eldest. A writer of fairy tales.
Marin, the youngest. A ballet dancer.
Both are invited to Melete, a prestigious artist retreat, for nine blissful months of full concentration on their art. They’re excited about not only improving their art, but also getting to know each other better, for after an abusive childhood Imogen fled to a boarding school, and the two haven’t been close since.
A fairy tale often begins with abuse.
“You always tell yourself that there’s someone who has it worse, and if you lived through the abuse, there almost certainly was. There’s a horrible sort of comfort in reassuring yourself in that fashion—maybe you were hungry some nights, but you had food. Maybe you got slapped, but at least you didn’t get beaten. Maybe you got beaten, but at least you never had broken bones. You think of the worst thing that happened to you, and then you think of something even worse than that. If you survived, you always can, and so by pained, contorted logic, what happened to you wasn’t really that bad. . . . This is what you tell yourself. This is how you keep breathing. This is what happily ever after means.”
But Melete isn’t the safe haven for Imogen’s and Marin’s art they hoped it would be. The Fae run Melete and every seven years claim an artist as their 7-year tithe. This year is tithe year, and the first time there’s been two sisters at the retreat. Of course the Fae, with their darkly mischievous personalities, love the idea of sisters competing to be their tithe. Who will the Fae choose? Imogen, who is quickly falling for the last tithe and desperately wants to protect her younger sister, or Marin, who’s lover is the Fae king?
Here’s a video of the Mythra variation from the ballet Giselle, which Marin dances at one point in the novel:
Roses and Rot explores how far one would go for their art, the bond of sisters, and what happens when magic and reality collide. As a creative person, a sister, and someone who can’t quite not believe in magic, I loved it. It’s one I plan to reread, especially with someone else in the creative arts. Plenty of discussable ideas! I’m currently finishing a third draft of a fairytale novel, so I kept putting myself in Imogen’s shoes and asking myself what choices I would’ve made in the same situation. (For those of you who’ve read it, I’m on Ariel’s side. Also, I WANT ARIEL AS A FRIEND PLEASE!)
Neil Gaiman recommends the novel on the front cover, and the two writers are similar in some respects. Both have deceptively simple prose, so when an achingly truthful line appears, it hits you right in the gut. I read Roses and Rot in 3 sittings, yet despite the fast pace it’s a thoughtful novel that I highly recommend to any fan of fairy tales or of fiction about creativity. I’ve been reading Kat Howard’s short stories for several years, and was so excited when I heard she had a first novel coming out. I’m even happier now to find that it’s good. So glad I splurged on it.
The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness: About half of the Goodreads group I read this with loved it, the other half hated it. I loved it. Inspired by the fairy tale The Grateful Crane, George is awakened one night by a keening, and discovers a crane that’s been shot by an arrow in his backyard. He helps free the arrow from the crane’s wing and watches it fly away. The next day, while cutting out shapes from old books in his graphic design shop, a woman, Kumiko, walks in and asks for help on her own art—feather cuttings. Guess who’s the crane wife? This is a really lovely, humane novel.
The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson: Some kitsune, the Japanese word for foxes, have magic and can shape-shift into human beings. But that choice has costs. The Fox Woman weaves three diaries into a story about a kitsune who falls in love with a human. First, there’s the fox woman herself, whose love of Yoshifuji drives her to become human. She forces her family to become human with her and creates an entirely magical world in order to seduce Yoshifuji. Yoshifuji’s diary entries describe his growing fascination with the foxes, and also the frustrations of his marriage to Shikujo. Shikujo is the ideal 11th century Japanese wife, but that ideal means she’s rarely free to act out her own desires, or to even know what those desires are. Shikujo’s entries show her perfection, but also how that perfection inhibits her relationships with everyone. A complex historical novel that makes me really glad I was born in the nineteen eighties.
The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan: Another divisive read in my Goodreads group that depicts a small island’s history of capturing seal brides. I love selkie legends, and this one’s visceral and dark. The story haphazardly follows the life of Misskaella, the witch of Rollrock Island, though only the second chapter is in her perspective. The other chapters follow a family through the generations, and the personal toll the magic that causes seals to turn into brides takes on both the islanders and the selkies. It’s a psychologically intense novel, each chapter immediately dropping into a very close 1st person with little back story, which is jarring but also completely effective. I see this listed as a teen book on Amazon, but it’s adult to me.
Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier: First in a Celtic fantasy series based on “The Wild Swans” by Hans Christen Andersen. Sorcha is the 7th child and only daughter of Lord Colum of Sevenwaters. He remarries an enchantress, who curses Sorcha’s brothers by turning them into swans. To turn them back into their human form, Sorcha must remain mute for seven years and weave the brothers shirts made from nettles. There’s no way a summary can do this novel justice. Fae, danger, magic, romance, it’s everything I want in a fantasy. Despite the main character remaining mute most of the novel, it’s detailed and surprisingly fast-paced. I’ve reread this several times, yet I’ve never read the rest of the series!
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle: This is a classic, and probably needs no introduction. Whenever I think of animal transformations, I think of this. Most animal transformation novels are tinged with sadness, and this is a perfect example. If you’ve only watched the movie, read the book. They’re both equally good, but Beagle’s prose reads like poetry.
Short Stories and Poems
“The Tiger’s Bride” by Angela Carter: A classic, chilling take on “Beauty and the Beast” that opens, “My father lost me to the Beast at cards.” You can find it in her excellent collection The Bloody Chamber.
“The Animal Women” by Alix E. Harrow: A little girl in the 1960s South makes friends with a group of mostly ‘colored’ women that live near her home—and occasionally she captures pictures that show them as something more than human. Examines both racial and gender discrimination. Powerful read.
“The Bone Swans of Amandale” by C.S.E. Cooney: Novella. The shapeshifting swans of Amandale are being hunted and killed and their bones made into instruments beneath the juniper tree at the bidding of ogre mayor Ulia Gol. But shapeshifting rat Maurice has an idea to save his lady love Dora Rose, one of the swans, with the help of his good friend the pied piper Nicholas. Super creative.
I’m in the minority among fairytale lovers—“Beauty and the Beast” is not my favorite fairy tale. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I dislike it.
Let me clarify: it’s the best-known versions by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont and Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve that make me cringe; however, animal bridegroom and transformation tales in general are my absolute favorites. I love tales where human and animal collide.
I revisited these tales and many, many new ones (for me) in Beauty and the Beast: Tales from Around the World. This collection is amazing: 188 fairy tales collected in more than 800 pages. I can’t imagine the effort put into editing a collection like this. I bow to Heidi Anne Heiner, the editor (which I may have literally done the single time I met her).
The tale we know of as “Beauty and the Beast” was originally written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740, but the best known version is Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s, an abridged version of Villeneuve’s written just seventeen years later. You can find the Beaumont version online, but I can’t find any full-text versions of the Villeneuve. The Beaumont version is the one all the movies are based on, and by all I mean the Disney movie and Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete, the only two I’ve seen. I thought I had read the Villeneuve version before, but I was very wrong. There are a lot of differences between hers and Beaumont’s. The beginnings are very similar, the main differences being in the earlier Villeneuve version Beauty dreams of an unknown prince; a menagerie of monkeys and talking birds follow her around (which is cool); and the Beast’s castle has these special rooms where she can essential watch TV as tricky mirrors capture the latest theatre and opera (also pretty cool). But where Beaumont’s version ends—the beast is transformed, they’re going to marry, that’s it, right?—the Villeneuve version continues. In fact, it’s not even halfway over, because then the Prince’s mother tells her story, then the prince his story, then the fairy tells her story, then the king, and then the merchant father shows up. So I kept thinking it was almost done, and then, nope! Someone else just has to continue with their own sob story.
However, that’s not why I dislike these tales; it’s the heavy-handed morality I find cringe-worthy. Both tales teach that good girls are meek and acquiesce to their father’s will, that if you’re patient enough you’ll learn to love the man you’d never have chosen to marry. This is compounded in the Villeneuve version, for not only is the Beast, well, a beast, part of the spell he’s been put under requires him to act dumb. So he can’t even have intelligent conversations with Beauty. Not only must she marry someone physically unattractive, but seemingly stupid as well. On top of that, while the Villeneuve version claims that morality dictates class—that a lowborn lady of superior character is the equal of a prince—she negates that statement by making Beauty in fact royalty, and brought up by the merchant with no one knowing her true station.
Yes, I find these morals irritating, though I understand that the tales were written in 18th century France, a time of arranged marriages. “Beauty and the Beast” prepares young girls to enter marriages their fathers arranged with seeming beasts and to try and find something loveable in them.
Most who love this tale say it’s their favorite because it’s about learning to love people despite their looks, and while I get that, Beauty is essentially kidnapped and eventually falls in love with her captor. It doesn’t matter what he looks like, it’s a cringe-worthy scenario.
Painting by Amanda Clark. You can find her prints on Etsy.
But those are only 2 of the 188 tales collected, and I found a lot more to enjoy. Many of the tales in this collection employ a similar plot to “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” and if you haven’t read it, you really need to. In this fairy tale, a father gives his daughter to a white bear who promises him wealth. She rides on the bear to his castle and he visits every night, though without any light so she never sees him. Lonely, one day she asks to visit her family and the bear agrees, so she travels to her childhood home where her mother convinces her to light a candle while the bear sleeps to make sure she’s not sleeping with a troll. She does so, and upon seeing the attractive prince the white bear turns into at night, she can’t help but kiss him. As she does so, some candle wax falls on him and he awakens (see Cupid and Psyche, also in the collection). The prince cries out that now he must leave her and go to the castle east of the sun and west of the moon, where the witch who’s cursed him lives, and marry a different princess. If she had only stayed with him for a year and day in his bear-shape, without looking upon him at night, they could’ve remained married.
So the prince disappears, and the girl decides to find him. She travels, asks nicely for directions from three old women, who give her gifts in exchange for her kindness, then goes to the four winds for help, rides the North Wind to the castle, but alas, the prince does not recognize her. So she dresses as a peasant, tempts the princess the prince is now engaged to with the gifts the three old women have given her, and sleeps with the prince every night, whispering the truth of who she is in his ear. But the princess has given him sleeping droughts, and it’s only on the third night that he hears her whispers. Realizing who she is, he marries her.
This is only a brief summary, and I strongly recommend reading the entire tale. While similar at the beginning to “Beauty and the Beast,” I prefer this tale because the heroine still has agency—she decides to find the prince. No one forces her. Certainly, from a feminist perspective, there’s still a lack of complete agency. Her father gives her away for money; her curiosity causes her to loose the handsome prince. But it’s still a lovely fairy tale.
The many non-European fairy tales are the best thing about this collection. One of my favorites is “The Monkey Prince” from India, which I had never read before. In this tale, a Raja has seven wives but no children. He goes into the forest and, as directed by a fakir, gathers 7 mangoes and tells his wives to eat the mangoes in order to become pregnant. But his youngest wife is sleeping when he comes home, and the other 6 wives eat all the mangoes and leave none for her. Despairing, when the youngest wife awakens and finds all the mangoes gone she eats the mango stones instead. All 7 wives become pregnant, but because she ate the stones instead of the flesh, the youngest gives birth to a monkey. The monkey prince is smart and clever and taught by the fairies underground.
In a nearby kingdom, King Jamarsa wants a strong son-in-law for his daughter, Princess Jahuran. He decides to have a competition: whoever can hit her with a heavy iron ball can marry her (this seems like a strange way to find a son-in-law!). All six of the Raja’s human sons try and fail, and the monkey prince accompanies them, though he takes off his monkey skin and comes as a handsome human prince (unrecognized by his brothers). Catching sight of him, the princess decides she wants him and no other. The monkey prince manages to hit Jahuran 3 times but when no one is looking, and he decides not to tell anyone that he’s hit her (for undisclosed reasons). But the princess wants him and no other for a husband, so the next day she takes a bow and arrow and before he can escape, shoots him in the leg! He manages to run away anyway, puts back on his monkey skin, and the princess orders a servant to find whoever in the camp is injured in their leg and bring him to her. Searching, the servant can find only one, and brings back the injured monkey prince in his monkey form.
So Jahuran marries the monkey, even though her father tells her not to, and at night takes off his monkey skin. He says he wears the skin because he’s afraid his brothers will kill him out of jealousy, which turns out to be true. On a boat to visit their mother, the brothers try to kill him six times, but the princess saves him each time. They live with his mother for a while, who still thinks he’s only a monkey, and then one day the princess burns the monkey skin to show his mother that her son is really human. Unlike many tales where the wife burns the skin, everything turns out fine. When everyone sees the prince’s human form, they’re glad, and the couple live happily ever after.
It’s probably obvious why I like this tale so much—the princess and prince are both unique characters who make decisions for themselves. The princess chooses whom to marry, saves her husband multiple times, and is the one to ultimately reveal his true human form. This tale comes from Indian Fairy Tales originally collected by Maive Stokes, and since it has a bit of a literary touch to it, I wonder if she changed anything about it. Either way, I want to read the entire collection.
These are only 4 of the 188 tales in Beauty and the Beast: Tales from Around the World. Obviously, it’s a treasure trove of animal transformation tales. If you’re a fairytale scholar, or you love animal transformation tales like I do, then you’re going to love burying yourself in this collection.
One minor quibble, I read this on the kindle, and it did not keep track of the time remaining in each fairy tale, but rather in each broad section. This made it difficult for me to judge when a tale would end and if I had enough time to read it, which was especially problematic with the French tales, since they’re often quite long and involved.
As a joke about my reading habits, my husband coined the railway that passes behind our home Reading Railroad, the trains bringing me ever more books to satiate my bookish needs (if that’s even possible). So I’ve decided to name my monthly reading roundup after the railroad. I’ll post a Reading Railroad thread at the beginning of each month with brief reviews and/or links to fuller reviews for everything I’ve read in the previous month; that is, almost everything. I’m not posting the individual essays and poems (outside of collections) I’ve read because I don’t keep track of these, but maybe, eventually, I will.
In June, I read 3 novels, 1 memoir, 1 fairy tale collection, 1 magazine collection of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and 2 short stories. My average rating for the month is a 4/5.
Bear Daughterby Judith Berman. Published in 2005. A fantasy inspired by Native American mythology and Western quest myths, about the daughter of a bear god and a human who has to learn to embrace both her inner and outer bear in order to complete her quest. My full review is on Goodreads. 3.5/5
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler. Published in 1979. Time travel and historical fiction. My full review is right here on this blog. 4/5
“Red as Blood and White as Bone” by Theodora Goss published by Tor.com in May 2016. Fantasy, fairy tale inspired. During Pre-WWII, Eastern Europe, a kitchen maid dreams of being in a fairy tale, and when one night a woman collapses at the kitchen door, the maid knows she’s a princess come in disguise to attend the ball. But there’s something much darker going on. Superior story. You can read it for free online. 5/5
“Blessed are the Hungry” by Victor Fernando R. Ocampo published by Apex Magazine in July 2014. Science fiction. On a spaceship fleeing an apocalyptic Earth to colonize a new planet centuries away, a girl and her family are starving. Robot priests have taken over the spaceship and are rationing food. This felt like it needed to be a novel. You can read it for free online. 3.5/5