Fairest of All: A Tale of the Wicked Queen

Historically, I've not had a good track record with Disney's reworkings of fairy tales. However, good things happened with their Journey to The Force Awakens marketing push for TFA (see my reviews of Alex Bracken and Tom Angleberger's take on Epidodes IV and VI, respectively), and I was willing to give them another shot. In spite of my suffering through A Whole New World, I am drawn, moth to the flame, to the Braswell retellings series. It's my literary masochism rearing its ugly head again.

I was at the local Barnes and Noble* right before going to see the live action version of Beauty and the Beast, and the teen section was decked out with Beauty and the Beast swag, along with piles of Disney ephemera. Tables with Braswell's retellings abounded, but they were side-by-side with some other, more middle-grade focused titles with really lovely artwork. I am a sucker for a pretty cover, and if the book has special touches like beautiful endpapers or gilded pages, I will make almost any excuse to buy it. However, because of the thorough burn I had received from the hokey Aladdin retelling, I talked myself out of buying any of the Disney Villains retellings, turned firmly on my heel, and went to the movie.

About a month later, I was perusing the offerings on Kindle Prime** and saw the first book in the series was available. Since I didn't have to pay for it (discounting the fact that I do pay for a Prime membership and therefore it isn't wholly free, but if you divide the savings I've gotten from Prime plus the free items into the actual cost of them membership, I feel like I've come out ahead, so it's like more-than-free), I happily downloaded it, envisioning an evening of oohing and aahing over stilted prose and banging out a cranky review, which is the surest way to restore my mental equilibrium.


Except ... I was rather enjoying this tale of Snow White's stepmother. While some of the prose veered dangererously violet at times, it wasn't bad, nor was it a word-by-word recreation of the film (thank goodness!). In a short novel aimed at higher elementary and middle grade students, Serena Valentino managed to create a rather astounding amount of pathos in the Queen's character and a commentary on the way men treat women's looks as an indicator of their worth as a person.

Daughter of a talented mirror maker, the Queen never expected to, well, to become Queen. Why should the King notice her? Her father told her often enough how very unattractive she was. Is the King playing a cruel trick? But it seems as if he has truly fallen in love with her, and she with him. Additionally, the Queen cares deeply about his daughter, Snow. Like the Queen, Snow has lost her mother, and the Queen is determined to be a stable and loving influence in Snow's life.

But odd things happen in the castle, particularly when the King is away on a military campaign. His three cousins come to visit and threaten both Snow and the Queen. The King gives her a mirror made by her hated father, and there is something--or someone--inside. Watching her. Waiting for her to slip up. Alone, with only Snow and her faithful attendant Verona, the Queen's hold on sanity begins to break.

The king's cousins (who aren't really his cousins, of course) return and offer her something tempting: power over the mirror, which is magic, and the knowledge that she truly is beautiful--fairest in all the land, even. After the King dies in battle, the Queen retreats into herself, brooding on her beauty and cutting out anyone and everyone who should challenge her. In a way, she still loves Snow, but the corrupting influence of her father's wicked spirit in the mirror and the three cruel sisters turns the Queen's uncertainty and self-loathing into a hatred for others' happiness.

At the end of the book, we pick up the story where the Queen creates the poisoned apple and gives it to Snow, but in her guilt and horror at what she has become, throws herself over the precipice during her flight from the furious dwarfs.

My favorite part of the book is when the Queen confides in her husband and tells him the whole story of her childhood. "A day of my childhood didn't pass when my father didn't tell me how unattractive I was, how ugly, and that is how I saw myself." The emotional abuse of a child leaves deep scars, and here, the Queen's father directly related her worth as a person to her physical appearance. Is that not what society does to us today? Your selfies better be at just the right angle, otherwise you are ugly. If you don't have a body that conforms to the currently worshipped aesthetic, you're worthless. Who would ever love you? And yet, the Queen is loved. She is beautiful, yes, but when we first meet her in the book, it is her kindness and unwavering love for Snow that shines. It is only when she turns her focus to her outward appearance that her inner beauty is poisoned and dies.

As I'll further explain in my review for the Beast book in this series, I prefer to think of these as AU retellings, and not necessarily canon (although I suppose that by publishing them, Disney has made them canon, in a way). They offer a glimpse of what might have been or what could have happened to make things turn out the way they did.

The books in this series are quick reads, and not poorly written. They are also quite lovely in physical form--I may go purchase the Ursula volume to read as it's not available for free online yet. Surprisingly thought-provoking for movie tie-ins.

*It's right by the cinema, so please don't blast me for not hanging at the indie bookstores more often. Also I can get gluten free cheesecake there.

**I know this is coming off like RAH RAH BIG CORPORATIONS THAT ARE EEEEVILLLL but honestly there are only so many fights I can fight, and I like the discounts I get on gluten free stuff on Amazon. Also the two-day shipping. If that makes me a bad person, then okay. I am a bad person.


Comments

  1. I haven't come across any of these, or even heard of them. There are so many fairy tale books around anyway! Good ones, too. Tanith Lee's Red As Blood collection features her takes on various fairy tales, including some scary ones. Snow White is a born vampire. The Queen is trying to save her soul. The apple contains a piece of the host. The Prince has nail holes in his hands. Snow returns to the age of seven and her stepmother is putting a cross around her neck...
    And Jim Hines has some novels with fairy tale heroines in the lead roles; Snow does mirror magic through a choker made of bits of mirror. In Sophie Masson's novel, the Mirror is a newspaper which runs an annual "Fairest" competition!

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    1. Oooh, I read Red As Blood a long time ago--should reread. Love Tanith Lee. And I read the first two of Hines' series and then my library took such a long time in getting the third that I've mostly forgotten what happened!

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