Retelling of classic fairy tales is fraught with danger. On one side lies the sugar overload (think Disney). On the other – the violent darkness of modern fantasy. Few found the golden middle, and T. Kingfisher is one of them. Her retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen is by turns hilarious and gloomy, gory and hopeful. It’s also one of the best tales of lesbian fiction I have read. It’s a story of Gerta and Janna, the Bandit Girl.
In fact, all the interesting human characters in the book are female. Gerta, Janna, Gerta’s grandmother, the storyteller Aischa whom Gerta meets on the road, and even the villain, the Snow Queen – they all affect the story, turn it, play a pivotal role in it. The males are secondary, and there are fewer of them. Kay, Gerta’s childhood friend, is more of a symbol of friendship than a real guy. He is the reason Gerta went on her quest but not the object of it. Gerta’s quest is clearly a story of self-discovery.
The book’s start is a bit shaky, kind-of dull, maybe because it follows Andersen’s tale too closely. Then Gerta meets the raven Mousebones, and humor springs to the fore. The story veers away from its origin, and the reader follows happily.
When the storyteller Aischa spins her tale out of Gerta’s story, I couldn’t resist thinking of my own stories, and of all the cliches writers put into their tales.
“Ah, let me see, how should the story go... You’re a princess, of course.”
“Naturally. Gran Aischa swatted her on the knee. “You can hardly do anything worthwhile in a story unless you’re a princess, you know.”
“That doesn’t seem very fair,” said Gerta, taking a sip of the cider. Her mouth crooked up at the corners despite herself.
“It isn’t,” said the storyteller. “But you’re young. Old women can be wise, but young women have to be princesses.”
“I’m a bit short for a princess. And a bit... err... round...”
Gran Aischa waved away this objection. “Doesn’t matter. Once you’ve left town, all they’ll remember is what I tell them. You’ll be devastatingly beautiful within a week. They were mostly looking at the raven anyway.”
Afterwards, the story becomes progressively darker, and even though it ends on a positive note, I didn’t like the denouement. Until the last confrontation with the Snow Queen, Gerta was a heroine. She did things. She got herself in troubles and out of them. She suffered. She helped others. Her courage and kindness, determination and common sense carried the story.
But Gerta is human. Snow Queen is not; she is an all-powerful spirit of winter. A human girl can’t defeat winter. She can only survive it. Gerta’s ‘duel’ with the Snow Queen could only end in disaster, and it did. And then a miraculous plant comes to Gerta’s aid and subdues the evil Queen, at least temporarily, so Gerta and her friends could escape.
It felt too much deus ex machina – the divine intervention of the Greek tragedies – for my taste. I don’t like the device. I prefer my heroes achieving their last victory themselves. But that is a minor objection, and overall, I liked the story very much.
This author also has a comic book, and I want to read it too.
Note: I love the cover of this book. So beautiful and eerie.