Review: A Curse as Dark as Gold, Elizabeth Bunce

Oh, the Once Upon a Time Challenge has returned to gladden our lives once again! I am delighted about this, as you may imagine, because it is making me get back into the swing of reviewing, which I completely fell out of while on vacation. Also because I love hearing about the books y’all are going to read, and also no. 2 because I have a girl-crush on Anne-Julie Aubry and rejoice in any excuse to display her beautiful art. I’ve decided I’m going to choose which banner to display based on which one I think matches the book in question better.

A Curse as Dark as Gold is my first Once Upon a Time Challenge read, a retelling of the story of Rumpelstiltskin. After the death of her father, Charlotte Miller and her sister Rosie find themselves in financial difficulties as they work to keep their mill in operation. Working against them are an alleged curse on the mill, a mortgage that threatens to eat up all their profit, and a louche uncle who shows up to “help” them. Unwilling to lose the mill, Charlotte and Rosie call upon the services of one Jack Spinner, who claims to be able to spin straw into gold.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must say that I have never liked the girl in Rumpelstiltskin. Oh, yeah, go on and have my firstborn son, that’s totally fine, I’m sure I won’t care about the kid once I have it. Really, Rumpelstiltskin girl? Really? In a similar spirit I wanted to take Charlotte Miller and shake her until her teeth fell out of her head. Not sure what that would accomplish except I guess she would have to get dentures and I bet dentures weren’t very comfortable in pre-Industrial Revolution times. So, uh, take THAT, unsympathetic protagonist!

One of my big bookish pet peeves is when the protagonist’s big problem has an obvious solution and s/he refuses to take it for a reason that doesn’t really make any sense. Like when kids refuse to tell their parents/teachers/the cops about their problem because they don’t think their parents would believe them — this can be okay sometimes, but mostly it’s just a cheap way of keeping the plot up and running. Charlotte acquires a source of funding that would solve all her problems, particularly the problems that make her agree to the first-born-child thing (she doesn’t agree to it specifically; she says “Anything” but that’s obviously a stupid thing to say to a sketchy fairy man). But she just won’t use it. No genuinely good reason is given for this, and nobody ever says “What the hell, Charlotte?” about it later. Dislike. If you are going to have your protagonist behave badly, you should at least let her be taken to task.

The fantasy aspects of the book didn’t hang together terribly well either. Dire hints were dropped about a curse, but given wildly varying degrees of credibility, so when they start taking the curse seriously I still wasn’t sure if I should do the same. The book was a messy hodgepodge of village magic (corn dollies, things happening at crossroads), the occasional splodge of high fantasy language (people saying “gods” as an exclamation), and modernization clashing with tradition (banks with mortgages, more efficient mill tools).

Nevertheless, I am not giving up on Elizabeth Bunce! I never wanted to read A Curse as Dark as Gold in the first place. I always wanted Starcrossed, and A Curse as Dark as Gold has not put me off wanting to read Starcrossed.

Review:

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In other news, Diana Wynne Jones has died. If you have been reading for a while, you probably know that I adore Diana Wynne Jones. I am crushed. I wanted her to live forever. She wrote magic.

  • That is the cutest image ever on the button! I went to her website and looked at her gallery, and I could totally join you in the girl crush! Looks like her shows are all either in San Francisco, LA, or Paris. I think we should follow her around! :–)

    • I think we should too! If only she’d had a show in California while I too was in California!

  • I had the same reaction as you, so much so that I Did Not Finish, which is a rare and scary event for me. Even worse than dentures. But also like you, I still want to read Starcrossed.

    • Starcrossed sounds really good! Starcrossed appeals to me more in its basic plot outline than A Curse As Bright As Gold ever did. So I am hopeful.

  • I wasn’t going to join the challenge this year but I’m feeling inspired all of a sudden. I think I need to see what I have around.

    • There are always plenty of books around that qualify. 😀

  • I never liked the original fairy tale so I’m sure I won’t be getting this one. Still, I had fun reading this post. I like Aubry though. I mean, I dropped by her website a couple of years ago because of some blogs I read and I liked the art there kind of like.

    Funny but I never joined any Once Upon a Time Challenge ever. I don’t know why. Probably because we have no Spring season here (then again, I always join Readers Imbibing Peril even if there’s no Autumn here or something, hahaha).

    Let’s look forward to DWJ’s yet to be published book.

    • Well, Louisiana doesn’t have much of a spring to speak of — it goes pretty fast from winter to summer — but I still enjoy this challenge. Spring hasn’t quite hit NYC yet in any case.

      I do look forward to it. I selfishly wish it were a long grown-up book though, or at least a young older-YA book.

  • Ela

    Erin at Aelia Reads reviewed this a while ago: I seem to remember she liked it better than you!

    DWJ – oh no. I am sad. Her books have meant so much to me since I was a kid and read ‘Charmed Life’ for the first time. 🙁

    • I liked it quite a bit more then Jenny did. But she made completely valid points about it.

      • I wish I’d liked it more than I did! I wanted to like it. Sigh.

    • Same here, except for me it was the Tough Guide to Fantasyland. 🙁 🙁 🙁

  • Mumsy

    Any review that uses the word “louche” is the review for me. (Although, if you wanted to toss in “inchoate” also, my brain might explode with joy.)

    All the reservations you express (the holes in the plot, the senseless actions, the high fantasy language, etc.) are things I would dislike intensely. Bummer. I always kind of liked “Rumpelstiltskin,” and I wish someone more excellent would take another stab at a rewrite.

    • I don’t want your head to explode, darling Mumsy. But I’m glad you enjoyed “louche”. It has taken me some years to come to terms with the correct use of the word “louche”.

      Indeed? What do you like about Rumpelstiltskin?

  • Hopefully Starcrossed will be much, much better. Also, the parents being enchanted not to listen thing does sound very DWJ. *sniff*

    • Hopefully Starcrossed will be much much better and my library will have it. One’s no good without the other. :p

  • I was very sad to learn of DWJ’s passing. How very sad! I am planning to read a bunch by her in the next little while because I hav ebeen slacking so bad… That’s the plan anyway!

    • It is so sad. I support your plan to read more by her — I always support DWJ-reading plans. 😀

  • I still haven’t read DWJ but she has influenced some of my favorite authors (Neil Gaiman, Robin McKinley). I am sad about her passing though. Always sad when an esteemed author dies.

    As for Bunce, I’ve read Starcrossed and enjoyed it. It was easy to get into and the mythology/religion was fun. Sad that you didn’t love this.

    • I really recommend her (I mean obviously, I recommend her all the time, with loud shrieks :p). She’s brilliant and all of her books are wonderful in different ways.

      I know, I read your review and that was why I went and looked for it at the library. But they only had A Curse As Dark As Gold. :/

  • “Boggis, Bunce, and Bean
    One fat, one short, one lean”
    is formerly all I could think of with this author’s last name. It’s probably a common British last name. But Dahl has made it forever funny.

    • I have never heard of that before. Or maybe I have — did it happen in one of his kids’ books?

      • Yes, Fantastic Mr Fox. A family favorite.

  • I also think I’ve read the book where the parents are enchanted not to listen, but I can’t remember what it was. It sounds very DWJ, but I’m fairly sure I have not yet read any DWJ books where that happens. Hmmm.

    I keep seeing this book at the library and thinking it’s by Henry Holt, since the publisher (Henry Holt) put their name where I think the author’s name should go. I was all excited because it looks like a traditionally girl-book but was by a guy, and I figured he was crashing through gender stereotypes by using his own name instead of pretending to be a girl (like most guys who write traditionally girl-books do). Then I realized that wasn’t the author’s name, and I was rather disappointed.

    …unless I have this one mixed up with BEWITCHING SEASON. Which Google says I do, so never mind (only I figure I might as well leave it undeleted, since it took a little while to type out).

    • Hahahaha, I have had so many moments like that. The Henry Holt thing and the Bewitching Season thing. My brain has to work to catch up with itself. :p

  • I thought of you as soon as I heard the news about Diana Wynne Jones! I suppose you read Neil Gaiman’s tribute on his blog already. It was wonderful.

    • I did read it, and it was wonderful. I’ve loved reading all the tributes to her by various fantasy authors.

  • Oh, and P.S. I forgot to say that Rumpelstiltskin freaked me out when I was a kid. Almost as much as Hansel and Gretel.

    • It did? How come? Just because the poor girl never had a chance?

  • You forgot mine: http://wp.me/pPJcV-fO 😀

    I felt very differently about it, but I can see your point on every one of your issues.

    As far as Starcrossed? It’s like… Trickster’s without crows.

    • And by that I mean “Pierce’s Trickster’s Choice” series.

      I am very sad about DWJ, but I’m not entirely surprised.

    • Sorry! I’ve added the link. I should always search my Google Reader as well as the Book Blogs Search Engine.

      I don’t remember Trickster’s Choice that well but Starcrossed didn’t sound similar in plot. Or do you just mean in tone and the way the heroine acts?

      • Well, you get a girl who’s got un-naturally high spying skills ingratiating herself with a noble family, and working at rebellion…. just… one has crows and is related to Tortall.

  • I abandoned A Curse as Dark as Gold for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate to myself, except that I was kind of bored? but now I’m glad I moved on to a different book.

    • Yeah, good decision, I think. Nothing ever pays off in the end. 🙁

  • I am not participating in any challenges this year, but am avidly following all Once upon a time posts, hoping I will get some reccos. But this one doesn’t sound like it will work for me either.

    • I will do my best to read better Once Upon a Time books that I can recommend you whole-heartedly! 😀

  • I once read a short-story retelling of Rumpelstiltskin that I really enjoyed and normally I would definitely be intrigued by a retelling in a full length book but after reading your review I think I’ll pass on this one. All the examples you cited of things that annoyed you about it sound like they would annoy me too.,

    • Oo, what was it? I love fairy tale retellings.

  • I am SO with you on that most irritating thing, the Refused Obvious Solution. Gah! Drives me nuts. If you’re telling a story the least you can do is provide plausible motivation. Also very sad about DWJ – she will be sorely missed and much mourned.

    • Yes! There are so many ways to make up excuses about why you’re refusing the obvious solution, including trying to take the obvious solution and it makes things worse. You’re the writer! You can make it make things worse! But at least have them try it.

  • trapunto

    I do like the story of Rumpelstiltskin, but I think it is one of those fairy tales that it’s impossible to turn into a convincing-not-annoying novel. I haven’t read A Curse As Dark As Gold, but I’ve read a couple of others with similar problems. When you try to give personalities to the characters, they become cardboard passive-aggressives and victims.

    To channel Diana Wynne Jones: Rumpelstilstskin has no hero.

    Perhaps it just isn’t a proper wonder-tale, so not really a good framework for a fantasy?

    • Except I bet if Diana Wynne Jones had wanted to, she could have made Rumpelstiltskin into a good novel. She wasn’t huge on straight fairy tale retellings apart from Tam Lin, but I think she could have been if she’d felt like it.

      • I bet she could have, at that. Sigh.

  • My first book review ever was actually about this book! I just re-read my review and it sounds like I found it alright, but most of my review is just me gushing about how I love to read and how I wish I could read more etc etc.. so not very much in terms of actual reading experience.

    Perhaps since this book was the first thing I grabbed whilst emerging out of a dry spell of reading, it appealed to me more. But, I’m looking back on it, and honestly, I do agree with your opinion more. I remember liking the “house” character more than the actual characters.

    • Drat, bother, I missed yours too! I’ve added a link now.

      A good reading experience can make a just-okay book seem really wonderful. There have been a lot of books that I read at just the right moment for me and that book, and when I tried to go back to them, the moment was gone. It’s a thing.

  • By the way, also read Starcrossed a while ago. I found it alright, too (didn’t bother to review it, though, for some reason). Can’t wait to see how you fare in those waters..

  • Erm sorry for all these posts, but just realized you were talking about another book (I read Star-crossed by Linda Collison…there’s just this tiny dash in between the two words).

    • *laugh* It’s not that unusual a title, I’m not surprised you got confused.

  • I’ve been avoiding signing up for more challenges since I’m failing all around on my existing ones! I love the button for this challenge though, so I am considering…

    I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve not read any Diana Wynn Jones. Maybe I can start with her work for this challenge?

    • I didn’t sign up for any challenges this year because I failed so badly last year. My new thing is that I don’t formally sign up, with an announcement or anything, but I just participate in them if I happen to read something that fits. 🙂

      You should absolutely start with her work for this challenge. Howl’s Moving Castle is a good place to start.

  • Oh, how I love reading other versions of fairy tales. Yet so often they…are not great. (Gregory Maguire comes to mind here). Why is that? Aren’t archetypes made to be improved on?

    I’m sorry to hear about Diana Wynn Jones.

    • YES. Exactly what you just said. Hope springs eternal, and I keep trying with all these fairy tale adaptations, but the fact is that most of them are only so-so. Alas.

  • I had this on my tbr list so I’m glad taht I can take it off after reading your review. You brought up some great points about the character and her lack of sense.

    • Oh wow, you take books off your TBR list after reading bad reviews? I almost never remember to do that. Then I see the book on my list later, remember someone whose opinion I trust didn’t like it, and never ever read it. But it just hangs out on my TBR list forever. :p

  • Hmmm…I was afraid that joining this challenge was going to mean feeling that all I’d ever be reading for the rest of my life would be titles from the challenge. Thank you for giving me one that it sounds like I can skip. I might not read the book, but reading your review of it was a pleasure. I, too, hate that Refused Obvious Solution.

  • Jenny

    I do think there’s some enchantment on the adults in The Merlin Conspiracy, but also in Edward Eager’s Magic By the Lake, the kids make it one of the conditions of the magic that the adults won’t notice the magic so they won’t think they are going mad. So of course then they can’t ask for help or advice.

    • Other Jenny! YES! That is EXACTLY what I was thinking of. I knew it felt like a DWJ trick but the voices in my head (“Of course, dear!”) didn’t sound like DWJ characters. YES. It was Magic By the Lake, and I was also sort of thinking of the time in Half Magic when they fixed it so the mother agreed with everything the kids said. Solid call.

  • When I heard that DWJ had died I decided to re-read The Dark Lord of Derkholm. Loved it all over again, but then I couldn’t write an intelligent review of it. Must have another go, I admire her work so much I want to say something wise about it. Think I’ll read something of hers for the challenge and maybe I’ll manage to at least sound halfway sensible by June!