Poison, Sarah Pinborough

Sooooo remember when I said that I was concerned that Poison wasn’t going to work out for me? Poison…didn’t work out for me.

By rough synopsis, Poison should have worked flawlessly for me. It’s a dark retelling of the “Snow White” story (if you’re thinking, That story doesn’t need to be retold dark; it was dark when we got here, I feel you) that deals with the complicated relationship between Snow White and her stepmother and the expectations men have of women.

Except it doesn’t really deal with those things, at least not in any way that’s convincing or surprising. It looks like it’s going to, but we never really get a grip on Snow White’s stepmother’s true feelings for Snow White, or learn in any depth how she became the (evil) way that she is. Instead, Poison tells the Snow White story pretty straight. Which, if I’d wanted the story told straight, I’d just have read the story, in Grimm or Andrew Lang or whatever.

Now, I will say that I loved the ending. It’s no darker than the foregoing events of the book, but it twists the fairy tale in a way that the rest of the book fails to do. When I realized the book was over, and that was genuinely the way it was going to end, I was delighted with Pinborough’s audacity. Whether that will be enough to make me pick up more of her work — we’ll see.

I am participating in Carl’s Once Upon a Time challenge, and this has been my Fairy Tale book for it. Yet to come are a mythology book, after which I will have completed my Quest! Visit the reviews site to see what other people have been reading.

Cuckoo Song, Frances Hardinge

Note: I received an e-galley of this book from the publisher for review consideration.

My first experiment with Ana’s beloved Frances Hardinge was a mixed bag. A Face Like Glass started slow and continued very strange before getting abruptly very exciting towards the end. But Cuckoo Song looked more my speed from the word go, a story about Britain in World War I, about sisters, and about a changeling.

(British authors and cuckoos, have you noticed? They can’t resist them! The cuckoo has infilitrated the British subconscious and hatched its eggs there.)

Triss wakes up one day scrambling to recover her memories. With some effort, she’s able to recall her parents, father and mother, and her angry, rebellious sister Pen. But for the life of her she can’t remember the event that her parents say has made her ill, falling in the gammer nearby and having to crawl out of it again. She knows that Pen hates and resents her, and she knows that she is desperately, unceasingly hungry.

Like A Face Like Glass, Cuckoo Song is a little slow to start. Triss takes quite some time sorting out what I knew from the jump (cause title), and only after that do the true adventures begin. In the meantime, there’s plenty of groundwork to be laid for future plot and emotions, which could profitably have been pruned back without affecting the work they’re doing for the story. But once the full premise is out in the open, the book becomes hard to put down; and I read it all in a single sitting.

A spoiler follows that you could probably figure out on your own (cause title). My favorite type of changeling story is the type where the family keeps the changeling. This is the full premise of Brenna Yovanoff’s excellent The Replacement, and this year I’ve read two successive books — this and Holly Black’s The Darkest Part of the Forest — that each do something about kept changelings that I’ve never seen before. Triss’s realization that she’s not really Triss may be something of a foregone conclusion, but her journey to becoming a fully realized person in her own right is anything but.

Nestled comfortably into three of my particular sweet spots, Cuckoo Song is exciting and inventive without the studied whimsy of (parts of) A Face Like Glass. Frances Hardinge newbies will find it a perfect introduction to her particular brand of madness and suspense.

This has been my folklore read for the Once Upon a Time IX Challenge, which, I don’t want to be vain, but I am crushing it this year. Head over to the reviews page to see what everyone else has been reading.

Sunbolt, Intisar Khanani

Note: I received a copy of Sunbolt from the publisher, through NetGalley, for review consideration.

So all the bloggers have been on and on about the wonders of Intisar Khanani, and I finally got the chance to read one of her books (thanks, NetGalley!). Sunbolt is the novella beginning of a new series, about a street thief named Hitomi who’s part of a resistance force against the oppressive sultanate, and who secretly is the daughter of two (deceased) mages and thus a fairly powerful mage in her own right. I’d have already been in at street thief in a non-Europeanish fantasy world, but Khanani went and added secret magical heritage on top of that, and the whole thing became my exact cup of tea.

Let’s start with the (for me) weakest link, the secret magical heritage. When I say “weakest link,” I’d like you to appreciate that I really liked this novella, and “weakest link” isn’t much of an insult within that context. It’s the weakest link because it’s got striking plot similarities — as noted by The Illustrated Page — to one of my favorite books of all time, Robin McKinley’s Sunshine. And so I kept thinking, mmmm, Sunshine, that was a good book, and not focusing on the book in front of me. So actually, let’s let that go. It’s not germane.

The worldbuilding: Sometimes you don’t realize how status the quo was — and how stifling you were finding it — until you get something that shifts away from it. Hitomi lives in a decidedly non-European world. Light skin reads as foreign to the people in Hitomi’s native Karolene, the king is a sultan, and the fishing boats are dhows. There’s something refreshing and surprising about reading a fantasy book that doesn’t make you look around for Yorks and Lancasters.

(No disrespect to George RR Martin.)

(Just, not everywhere is England. Not everywhere is even Europe. It is good when books remind you of that fact.)

Meanwhile, Hitomi’s a street thief, which means she can sneak through alleys and run across roofs and pick complicated locks with the same sort of flair and insouciance you’d like to imagine you would possess as a teenage magic street kid. See how when you put those words together, “teenage magic street kid,” you automatically start to root for that person without knowing anything further about them? And on top of that, Hitomi thinks on her feet and is ferociously devoted to the resistance cause. When you leave her behind at the end of the book, you want to know where she goes from there. One novella (to steal a phrase from Ronlyn Domingue’s The Mercy of Thin Air) is not enough for the trouble of which she is capable.

Next I shall read Thorn! Everyone raves about that too, and it will be a perfect Once Upon a Time fairy tale read in case Poison doesn’t work out for me. (Facts: I have grave concerns that Poison isn’t going to work out for me.)

I am participating in Carl’s Once Upon a Time challenge, and this has been my Fantasy book for it. Still to come are mythology, fairy tale, and folk tale books. Visit the reviews site to see what other people have been reading!