Stray Far Away
To say that I enjoy fairy tales would be an understatement. I love them. And I particularly adore retellings of fairy tales, especially those that hearken back to the dark, bloody roots of these stories. As much as I love Disney, I also enjoy reading the original tales and connecting them to common beliefs and superstitions of the times.
I requested Stray because it seemed like an interesting twist on the fairy godmother archetype. I expected something fresh and new and instead got something that had a good seed of an idea, but kept straining to burst free. The idea was constrained by some ... interesting prose, halfhearted world-building, and lack of a compelling plot.
I do feel bad being so critical of this book, especially after I read an interview with the author and how happy she was to have her work published. However, I feel that publishers (and readers!) push writers to put out more and more titles in a shorter period of time. Some ideas need to marinate. Some authors need to put it aside and come back to it. This book would have really benefited from a lot more world-building and background information. Let's get down to it!
Aislynn is a princess at a princess finishing school. It's the night of the Big Ball (er, that sounds bad) where princesses and other royal people are "Contained" by men. I started feeling a bit uneasy at this point. Aislynn's world isn't your typical fairy tale world. I understand wanting to create something different from the usual fantasy trope, but the political and social structures introduced in Stray really need a lot more explanation than they're given. We get this weird info dump in the beginning:
"Aislynn's father was one of the handful of Kings in the North. Like all kingdoms, the North had one first-class monarch, who ruled over the entirety of his country. Under him were the second-class kings, who oversaw several provinces, each in turn run by third-class lords. And below those were the fourth-class royals, like Maris's family, who managed their own lands and servants. Once her father died, Aislynn's husband would take on the responsibilities of king and manage Nepeta and its surrounding provinces."
Uh, okay. We also learn that the land is split into four kingdoms: North, East, West, and South. So there are a bucket load of royals running around with literally nothing better to do than send their many daughters to these weird academies. Why send them away?
Well, obviously they need to be marriageable as the above quote demonstrates that only men can rule. Um, yay? However, women are also the only ones who work magic. When a girl has a magical outburst it is called an "Occurrence" and she is shamed for it and sent to school to learn how to control these occurrences. There is holy writ that teaches that using magic is wicked, lustful, and all those fun things, and the girls are shamed at every opportunity. Aislynn has particularly strong magic, so she's of course a huge outcast.
As a princess, she's also entitled to a fairy godmother. However, her fairy godmother mostly does stuff like pick out dresses, draw baths, and stuff Aislynn into her corset. Throughout the book, it's hinted that she has more power than she lets on, but we never find out because obviously this is going to be a series. Save me.
Aislynn is also one of those "I'm so ugleeeee" girls when she's really not at all. It's hinted that she's not whippet thin and likes to eat. What's so bad about that? Oh yeah, I forgot, princesses can't be fat.
She totally buys into her society's treatment of women, and this attitude doesn't change much throughout the book until the very end, until she does an about-face and suddenly decides to be her own person, which didn't feel particularly authentic.
Anyway, Aislynn disgraces herself at the ball and gets packed off to be a fairy godmother to Linnea, who's a MAJOR PRINCESS related to the EVIL QUEEN who lives in a forest of thorns. We don't know much about this evil queen, except that she is a) evil, b) a queen, and c) named Josetta.
Aislynn is also a very bad fairy godmother, but she makes friends with the maid Brigid and briefly has the hots for the gardener until her "loving heart" is taken away. The best way I can explain this is like in The Little Mermaid, when Ursula takes Ariel's voice and it's like a golden stream coming out of her body, and then Ursula bottles it up and packs it away. That's what happens to Aislynn's "loving heart." As far as I can figure this out, it means that she shouldn't be able to fall in love.
GUESS WHAT HAPPENS?!?!? Yes. Because Aislynn is a special snowflake, her loving heart like, grows back, or something. I don't even know. I was so confused at this point that I just kept clicking over to see what else was going to happen.
I talked a little bit earlier about the prevalence of shame and wickedness as concepts in the book. It's a bit unnerving, really. Aislynn believes that every strong feeling she has is "wicked." That's actually what the title, Stray, refers to. Anyone who leaves The Path (of how to control magic and be selfless and humble and blah blah blah) is a Stray. Various characters accuse Aislynn of being a Stray. It's like this world's equivalent of slut-shaming. Aislynn hasn't done anything wrong except be rather dense, but she takes this abuse with equanimity most of the time. She feels that she deserves punishment for being who she is.
Even at the end, when she goes on a quest to save her friends, she actually doesn't save her ward, the Princess Linnea. "Looking back at the academy again, Aislynn felt a sharp twinge of regret--almost panic--knowing that she was leaving Linnea behind. But that didn't mean that Aislynn would forget about her. That she wouldn't try again to protect her. To rescue her."
Well, if that isn't the wimpiest excuse I've ever heard.
When I finished this book, I honestly had no idea why the Bad Guy/Lady did what he/she did. I didn't know why the Wicked Queen sent an army out after Aislynn when it turns out she's not so wicked after all. I didn't know why Aislynn's parents were such total losers. There were just so many things introduced and then abandoned in the story that it seriously confused me.
I did like the little nods to aspects of familiar and not-so-familiar fairy tales. Aislynn makes the Mean Girl at her first Academy spit toads out of her mouth, and the Wicked Queen enjoys sending bits of Strayed girls' feet to their parents. The briars and thorns recall, of course, Sleeping Beauty.
Hm. I think I just gave myself a headache trying to logically describe and review this book. I think I failed at the logical part. It's hard to make sense of something that's so all over the place.
However, I do think there was so much potential here. If the writing had been more polished, if the plot had been clearer, and if the world-building had been given more time, this could have been an interesting story about a girl who realizes that the religious and moral system of her world is corrupt, repressive, and completely fabricated.
I received a copy of this title from Edelweiss in exchange for my honest review.