The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland on The Slate Book Review

October 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

My first review with Slate is up today, on the latest in Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two. Here’s an excerpt:

GirlWhoSoared_Lo-600x899The emotional crunch of book three, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, is September’s worry that her Persephone visa, which allows her to return each spring to Fairyland, will soon be null and void. Valente’s imagination for whimsical locales in this series reaches a pinnacle with this book, as we follow September to a highway in the stars, a moon-city that grows along the swirling insides of a giant shell, and a lightning jungle that crackles with electricity. But the Fairyland books are not about Fairyland itself—its wonderful locations are merely colorful backdrops for September’s transformation from a Somewhat Heartless 12-year-old into a complex 14-year-old. And despite the presence of beloved characters from earlier novels, The Girl Who Soared is an adolescent’s tale, full of raw emotion, unabashed wonder, and touching uncertainty.

Read the rest here.

I’m terrible at being coy: I’ll go ahead and admit that having an article on Slate is a big deal for me. Two years ago, when I left school and moved to Poughkeepsie, I started this blog in my off hours working at a restaurant, hoping that eventually it would lead to something good. It’s led to a ton of good, and the book that first inspired me to start blogging was Valente’s Deathless, a dark, adult take on Russian folklore. So publishing a review in a mag like Slate, about another of Valente’s books, seems satisfyingly full-circle for me. I’m very grateful for the chance, and I hope it leads to even more good stuff in the future. Thanks for reading!

Six-Gun Snow White: A Victim’s Trickster Tale

February 27, 2013 § 6 Comments

It’s a real shame that neither of Hollywood’s big-budget Snow White adaptations could boast Catherynne M. Valente on their writing staff.

Too often, in the ouvre of fairy tale adaptations, we’re told that we’re going to see something new—the tale like it’s never been told!—and what we end up with instead is the same shlock, with better CGI. The art of the creative, thoughtful, and powerful fairy tale retelling is a quiet one that thrives less in Hollywood studios than it does in literary magazines, YA publishing houses, and small presses like Subterranean. If you, like me, gagged on your popcorn when Mirror, Mirror’s Snow White was told by the prince that she tastes “like strawberries,” then get thee to Subterranean Press’s site, and don’t balk at the $40 price tag of Valente’s limited edition of Six-Gun Snow White, because in its pages you’ll find all the beauty and sorrow that got left on the cutting room floor of last year’s feature films. Infused with Native American trickster tales and Spaghetti Western dudes, this retelling is less of a stretch than you might think—in fact, it’s an adaptation that transcends its patchworked nature, strips the archetypal characters to their raw human bones, and reveals the true beating heart of the fairy tale.


Cover illustration by Charles Vess

In Six-Gun Snow White, Snow White is the cruel nickname given to the daughter of a silver baron and his first wife by his second, the proverbial stepmother. Snow White’s tragic mother was a Crow Indian woman who was forced into marriage with Mr. H, and who, after a failed suicide attempt, dies giving birth to the half-breed Snow White. Snow is kept a secret from Mr. H’s second wife, a pale and beautiful white woman who, once she finally meets Snow, makes it her terrible mission to teach Snow about beauty, womanliness, and whiteness. Snow White’s brown skin is the marker that makes her different from her stepmother, and it becomes her curse when she takes off from home in her father’s clothes with her pistol, Rose Red, by her side. « Read the rest of this entry »

Halloween, the Hollow Queen, Princess of Doing What You Please, and Night’s Best Girl

October 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

…Or so September’s shadow has become, in The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, since being cruelly sliced from September’s side and taken down to Fairyland Below in the first book of the series, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

Now September has returned to Fairyland to find that her shadow, Halloween, has caused a panic in Fairyland-Above by stealing everyone’s shadows (the source of their magic) to join her in her nightly revels in Fairyland-Below, with the help of the mysterious Alleyman. September must stand up to her impish and impulsive shadow, resist the temptations of constant, unbridled magic-making, and find a way to restore balance to Fairyland.

In Fell Beneath Fairyland, September is a slightly older, and more emotionally muddled, heroine—now a budding teenager, September’s heart is a bit more aching, and her instincts are a bit more honed. Her shadow is still the spitting image of the September who saved Fairyland in the last book, missing shoe and all—a couple of years younger, and so much more impulsive. Halloween is very much September’s Id, the child-self that growing September is leaving behind, and it’s this contrast that Fell Beneath Fairyland seeks to explore: what happens to a child heroine once she’s no longer such a child? Does a one-time savior of Fairyland get to enjoy the magical fruits of her labor and let untapped wishes loose, or is a heroine’s work dependent on balance? « Read the rest of this entry »

Baba Yaga, My Love

May 6, 2012 § 5 Comments

If you just heard a loud, resounding “sweet!” echoing across the mountains and valleys of upstate New York and wondered what just happened—it was me. Sorry if I scared your dog.

But that’s how excited I am to learn that Catherynne M. Valente has sold a companion book to 2011’s Deathless, a dark, sexy take on the Russian tale of Koschei the Deathless, set during the siege of Leningrad (you can read my full review of that here). In 2014, we’ll be treated to Matroyshka, a companion novel, which I can only hope means more dark Russian folklore, more sexy-times with undead men, and more of my favorite fairy tale character OF ALL TIME.

Readers, it’s time to tell you about my love affair with Baba Yaga.

There’s been much talk (and much writing on my end, which I hope to share with you soon) on the subject of the fairy tale figure of the Evil Queen/Stepmother, who is the permeating witch figure in German and English folklore. Thanks to our full helping of Snow White-related entertainment this year, we’re getting to see a lot of her, in all of her complex, mysterious dumbed-down glory. But as fascinating as the wicked stepmother/evil queen trope is in Grimm (if not in Hollywood), even more fascinating, even more dangerous, and even more chock full of contradiction is Baba Yaga the Bony-Legged, of Slavic folklore fame. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente, and A Lament, by Me.

February 8, 2012 § 3 Comments

When I read something of Catherynne M. Valente’s (which I’ve tried to do as often as possible since dying a thousand glorious times over Deathless), I experience two overwhelming reactions.

One: I revel.

Her sentence-level writing, plot development, characters, narrative voice, etc. all thrill me—not only because she’s very good at all of them, but also because she takes every opportunity to surprise and delight and to reach into collective memory and yank on something meaningful while doing it. Valente holds no punches–her character meets her own Death, and sings it a lullabye!–and I worship her for it.

Two: I despair.

There is nothing left to write. Catherynne M. Valente has written all the words–her character meets her own Death, and sings it a lullabye, you guys.

Seriously, why try to write in a wry, self-aware narrative voice (which I spent much of my MFA trying to do, not always successfully)? Catherynne M. Valente does it with more aplomb.

Why even attempt to write knowledgeable folklore retellings? Catherynne M. Valente has, or is in all likelihood about to; I mean, the woman is prolific. Anything I might be thinking of writing right now, she has probably already written, or has in her head to write, oh, sometime this afternoon. Just look at the woman’s list of publications, all within the last seven years.

No really, click on the link. I’ll wait. « Read the rest of this entry »

Deathless by Catherynne Valente

October 14, 2011 § 5 Comments

Keep me and obey me, the secret said to her, for I am your husband and I can destroy you.

Not all the reviews I’ll write on this blog will be so glowing as what you’re about to read, but I figured, let’s start strong.

I’ve just finished the most wonderful book. One of those reads that hardly lets you up for air, and when it does—or when you go against its wishes and come up for air regardless—you wonder how knew, what strange goblins they have working there who put that book on the “Others Who Bought Such-N-Such” List. And you wonder, too, who these Others are, so you can seek them out, and you can clasp hands and be so glad to meet them at last, at last, at last.

I never saw Deathless on any bestselling shelves, or recommended by Barnes and Noble’s intrepid staff of hand-written card-writers. It wasn’t given to me by a friend or fellow writer—it came out of the blue—or O.O.T.B, as one of my professors liked to write next to passages of confusing prose. I can’t even remember what I must have been purchasing when Amazon threw it out there. And it’s marvelous.

It combines items from a long list of things I’ve wanted to incorporate in my own writing (but never did, and may never do, nearly so well), and things that I love reading—darkly appropriated folklore, clever historical revision, an intense and complicated (oh! So complicated) female protagonist, and bare-knuckled recklessness in the face of genre and market tropes, frank sexuality, and gorgeous, spilling-over lyrical prose. Well, ok, occasionally the prose gets a tad too fancy for some tastes, but it’s in the service of a stylistic folk tale retelling, so a certain brazenness with language has to be forgiven.

Deathless makes loose work of the Russian tale of Marya Morevna, who is pursued by two “men”: the immortal Koschei and the brave (if a little dim) Ivan, the ever-hero of Russian tales. In so far as following the tale exactly, Valente includes the marriage of the sisters to birds, but they are Marya’s sisters, not Ivan’s. Valente includes the witch of all witches, Baba Yaga, but it is Marya who receives Baba’s help as well as her threats, not Ivan. Marya is met by Ivan on a field of battle, true—but not before Valente details her history with her dark and terrible husband, Koschei—a history that the tales never give us, as we’re meant to assume that Marya must want to escape such a being as Koschei from the get-go. It’s Marya’s bond to Koschei , established long before Ivan strolls over in his shiny boots, which makes this retelling so fascinating and raw.

"Koschei the Deathless 2" by NegativeAllied at Deviant Art

Koschei, whose “death” is a thing separate from him, hidden away in an egg, is just as terrifying as I remember him being in that Russian Folklore seminar I took in grad school, but he’s also alluring and sensual and, in the most opportune moments, vulnerable. Their love, which, in Valente’s novel, spans decades, is both abusive and transcendent—they attack each other because they are terrified of being without one another. Koschei is not human, but feels human pain as Marya’s lover, and Marya, who begins the novel as an innocent girl, becomes a woman who has power over him that she is not afraid to use. She works her power because she is afraid of being too far away from him and his world, even when she succumbs (as the story demands that she does) to Ivan, who has no clue what he’s in for. The novel lends itself to clever self-reference on this point, when a dying Gamayun tells Ivan his fate before he even meets Marya:

“The boyars always shave their beards. The Church always splits. The Ukraine always withers in a poison wind. But I still want to hear the world tell (the stories) the way only it can tell them. I want to quiver when the world imitates a wolf. It still has to happen for it to happen. You have already gone into that tent. You have already made off with her. You have already lost her…You will always lose her. You will always be a fool. You will always be dead, in a city of ice, snow falling into your ear.”

The novel spans Russia’s transition into a communist state in the early 20th Century, and takes us from Marya’s “Young Pioneer” youth to the siege of Leningrad. The historical background serves as a meeting place of two worlds which Marya feels pulled between—the “real” Soviet Union, and the world of magic, of the “great war” between Viy, the Tsar of Death, and Marya’s skeletal lover Koschei, the Tsar of Life. She weaves between these two worlds at her choosing, which is a refreshing change for a female fairy tale heroine—she chooses when she is carried off, so to speak—and she experiences war, tragedy, and starvation as well as passion and plenty. She becomes a soldier in both worlds and a wife in both, and thus she experiences twice the ache.

I would love to go from here and tell you everything that happens, but my real goal is to get you to read the book, so I have someone—someone!—to talk to about it. So I’ll say no more about the plot, just about a few things I found interesting, especially in this book’s relation to the genre of fairy tale retelling as it exists out there.

When I see a book that is clearly a retelling of a fairy tale, I automatically assume, in today’s market, that it’s a young adult book. No matter, I think, I’ll enjoy it anyway. And what tends to happen in the more contemporary retellings I’ve read (or seen, for oh, the fairy tale is making its way back to the screen in a big way), is that the retellings usually end up being as formulaic as the tales they are attempting to add nuance to.

What so pleasantly surprised me about reading Valente’s novel is that the further in I got, the more it separated itself from those assumptions. Deathless is less a part of the Catherine Hardewick zeitgeist, and more akin to the world of Angela Carter, the British writer who died too soon, but not before giving us gems like The Bloody Chamber, to inspire fans of the darker fairy tale for years to come. Like Carter, Valente allows her heroine to be sexual (and like it) and strong, and allows the beauty of her imagined world to grow out of blood and fur—Buyan, Koschei’s island of Life, is made up of huts constructed of human skin and hair, and rather than recoiling from this threatening landscape, Marya embraces it. What’s more important is that Valente does not allow her story to follow any formula—we are always somewhere we did not expect, despite the feeling of rightness, of familiarity that resonates throughout Marya’s journey. No tame YA novel here—and you don’t really need Baba Yaga using the C-word to clue you in.

So then, who is this book for? I couldn’t help but wonder who, besides myself, was reading this. Fairy tale retellings and fantasy are largely sold to the younger crowds, and all I ever hear from the likes of Kate Bernheimer, fairy tale expert extraordinaire, is that the readership of fairy tales in the grown-up world is diminishing, that the fairy tale needs saving. Could Deathless save it? Perhaps—but not if it only shows up, O.O.T.B on obscure recommended lists, and not on the bestseller’s shelves.

So much I could say—I despaired that I couldn’t bend the pages of this library copy, so I stuck pieces of paper throughout it, marking the places that made me weep and the places that made me remember the original story and marvel at Valente’s use of the original lines and tropes. For example, here’s an excerpt from the original fairy tale:

”Prince Ivan has come and carried Maria Morevna away,” the horse said.

”Then can we overtake them?” Koschei asked.

”You could sow barley, wait for it to grow, you could harvest and thresh it, brew beer from it, drink the beer till you were drunk, sleep it off completely and then ride in pursuit: and still we would catch them.”

And the same line in the novel (spoiler alert):

“Don’t worry,” Marya whispered, kissing his forehead. “My old bones will follow yours soon enough.”

“Wife, you could sow wheat in the rocks of Dzerzhinskaya Street, wait for it to grow, reap it, thresh it, grind it into flour, bake it into bread, and eat the bread and share it round, and even then, you could not catch me.”

And then Ivan died in her arms, his last breath spiraling up to the ceiling like cigarette smoke.

The role reversal! The catharsis!

But I won’t go on. I’ll just say this: Deathless is epic, beautiful and surprising, and full of all the best kind of aches. It stuck with me all the while I read it, and it is still sticking with me days afterward. Read it. Then find me. I want to discuss.

An excerpt:

Another (more brief) review: (A note: this reviewer mentions that in the original tale Ivan and Marya are brother and sister, which is not true, though he can be pardoned for his mistake, since one of Ivan’s sisters is indeed named Maria (Marya), but it is not the same woman.)

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