Fantasy: Not Beastly
J.R.R. Tolkien says that “the world of fantasy is accessed by a meeting between the narrative skill of the author and the imaginative willingness of the reader.” This is a powerful quote, because it underlines the readers’ advisory tenet that only a collaboration between reader and writer determines reading preferences.
There is a huge body of work written about how to define fantasy, too long to cover here. One definition I appreciated, by John M. Timmerman in the book Genreflecting, and condensed down to a summary paragraph:
The job of the fantasy story is to create a world and characters so believable, a plot so urgent, and a conflict so daunting that the reader must live with and through it to the end. The story must have relevance to the everyday lives of the readers, and the way fantasy creates that relevance is to create protagonists with a common nature, regular folk with beliefs and values. The fantasy world must be different enough from that of the readers’ so as to engage them in its uniqueness; but it can’t be too obviously fictional. The evocation of the world must be immediate; the world is provided and we as readers step into it. There must be an essential conflict, usually between good and evil. There is oftentimes a quest, with a specific goal, usually to restore the society’s well-being. There is the presence and/ or use of magic. And fantasy is, for the most part, persistent in its optimism for humankind, with a positive resolution.
Contained within this broad description are nearly endless small differentiations of subgenre, which are defined by their world (unique, alternate, paranormal, crossworld), by the kind of protagonist (hero, commoner, adventurer), by the origins (unique, faerie, fairy tale retold), by the setting (legendary, urban, dark), and by the tone (humorous, epic, frightening). Lou Anders, an editor at Pyr Books, says that “nothing will land you an ax in your skull or a dagger in your spine faster than trying to define fantasy subgenres.” He notes that there are always exceptions to the rule.
With all that as lead-in, let me tell you about a particular fantasy I just read. It fits into the “fairy tales retold” subgenre, but the setting could be described as a “crossworld,” since the primary protagonist is physically transported from our own contemporary world sideways into a fairy tale. She is a “commoner” dropped into a role in a medieval kingdom still defined by swords and daggers as weapons, horses as transportation, and rulers and servants as characters. The world-building is fairly minimal, but both sufficient and believable because of its extreme familiarity. The conflict is provided by the specific fairy tale trope, but the author has inserted some twists. There are multiple conflicts, both personal and kingdom-wide, with enemies and heroes within and without. There is a specific goal; there is magic; and there is a resolution.
The book is A Curse So Dark and Lonely, by Brigid Kemmerer. I bought it along with four other fairly new young adult titles, and I left it until last to read because I was almost sorry I had chosen it. First of all, I am not particularly enamored of fairy tale retellings; I’d rather have an original story any day than one that is restricted by a precursor. And “Beauty and the Beast” is among my least favorite fairy tales, for so many reasons, paramount among them the compulsory nature of the romance—she either loves the Beast or experiences an epic fail, but who (besides sufferers of Stockholm syndrome) believes this is possible? I equally dislike the dark, original tale (the father’s love being used against him), and the Disney version of my childhood (with the dancing dishware). There’s just too much coercion and self-effacing pity involved for it to survive as a believable romance.
Second, as is usual with YA literature, the critics, the publishers, or other readers are way too busy comparing it with other books. At least a dozen sources said, “If you liked A Court of Thorns and Roses, you will like this.” Well, I didn’t read ACOTAR (heresy, I know), because I read Throne of Glass, by Sarah J. Maas, first. A brief synopsis of my review is that the protagonist (and thus her author) couldn’t decide whether to be a ninja or a Disney princess, which was really irritating. Other readers opined, “If you loved Caraval, by Stephanie Garber, you should read this book!” I hated Caraval. Apart from the flimsy world-building, vague story line, and confusing game, here is my quote, which should also enlighten re: my previous caveat: “The protagonist, Scarlet, reminds me of the supposed badass assassin, Caelena, in Throne of Glass, who can’t decide whether to kill the male characters or to ‘pillage’ them (plural). I call it ‘dithery fiction’ because we spend the entire book listening to the characters saying ‘what if’ a lot but never settling to a decision. Yes, they show moments of resolution…which dissolve like sugar in water at the first sign of opposition, and then it’s reset: start over. It’s tiresome.”
I have said all that to emphasize that taking read-alike claims seriously will sometimes backfire, either on the reader or on the publisher. I got it out of the way in order to give an original review to this book, which I read in less than 24 hours and couldn’t have loved better.
First of all, major props for originality on the part of Kemmerer. The protagonist, Harper, is a tough lower-class kid with a brother who’s an enforcer (but only because he owes guys money) and a mother with cancer. One of Harper’s legs is affected by cerebral palsy, so she isn’t as strong as she could be, and moves with a limp, but she doesn’t let any of this stop her. One day, she sees a guy attempting to kidnap a girl off the street and, realizing there’s no other help nearby, she tackles him. Somehow, the girl has suddenly disappeared, and the guy and Harper are…somewhere else. Somewhere that looks like a medieval fantasy, with a castle and swords and horses, filled with food and drink, posh accommodations and fancy dress, but no people except for her kidnapper, Grey, commander of the Royal Guard, and a guy called Rhen who says he’s a prince. Is she sticking around for this? She is not. They lock her in; she climbs down a trellis, steals Rhen’s horse out of the stables, and tries to escape…but where, exactly, is she going to go? She’s in the middle of nowhere, she has no idea where her home world is or how to get there, and so, when she’s recaptured by the two men, she decides to let things play out and try to figure out what’s what.
There is quite a lot of revelation about her circumstances, unlike in the original fairy tale; Rhen lets her know that he’s been caught in an enchantment loop for many years, and the only thing that will get him out of it is if one of the girls he sends Grey out to kidnap falls in love with him. Upon hearing this, Harper is not just skeptical, but aghast, and determined not to fall for any wiles. What does move her, however, is her eventual knowledge about the sad state of his kingdom and the people in it while he has been otherwise occupied; apparently a horrifying wild beast has been savaging and killing whole communities every year! This is the one factor not revealed to Harper (that Rhen becomes that beast). So she turns on him and chastises him for not caring about the people he was sworn to protect while he ruled, and together the three of them—prince, warrior, and girl from another world—begin to take that commitment seriously. But there is more to his curse than she knows, and more evil awaiting his subjects than he himself offers them in his guise as the beast. And amidst all of this, Harper yearns to return home before her mother succumbs to cancer and someone makes a permanent example out of her brother Jake.
The book is written from dual points of view—those of Rhen and Harper. This proves quite effective, giving the reader the inner thoughts of the proud but needy enchanted prince, who wants nothing more than to resolve his situation but can’t quite bring himself to trust, and the scrappy import, who has to figure out, on the fly, how to deal with a completely new situation. This book is the antithesis of YA “insta-love,” and the emotions of the two protagonists are ably portrayed from every angle. The writing is good, the scene-setting and details are excellent, and the story moves along at a satisfying pace, with little of the “dithery” bits included in each character’s self-examination. The side characters are equally well fleshed out and provide extra drama without distracting unduly from the main story. Finally, although there are threads left hanging at the end that will be addressed in a sequel, the book has a satisfying resolution and could be read as a stand-alone, if you’re not a sequel kind of person.
If every fairy tale was retold this well, I would happily read them all.