Saturday, January 19, 2013

Curse of the Thirteenth Fey, by Jane Yolen

Time for another FTR! (Fairy Tale Retelling) This time around, it’s Curse of the Thirteenth Fey: the true tale of Sleeping Beauty, and really, it has very little to do with Sleeping Beauty. Rather, it’s about the evil fairy who cursed the princess to die on her sixteenth birthday. Only she’s not evil—she’s only thirteen.

(From the inside flap):

"Gorse is the thirteenth and youngest of the Shouting Fey, a family of faeries who are tied to the evil king’s land and [. . .] if they try to leave or disobey any member of the royal family, they will burst into a thousand stars.

When the accident-prone Gorse falls ill just as the family is Bid to bless the king’s new baby daughter, a story like—and unlike—Sleeping Beauty starts to unfold.

Sick as she is, thirteen-year-old Gorse wakes out of her fever and races to the castle [. . .] But that is when accident, mayhem, and magick combine to make Gorse’s story veer into the unthinkable, threatening the baby, the Shouters, the kingdom and all."

That’s a decent summary, but it only gives you an idea of the first six chapters or so. It tells you nothing about the selfish, exiled Prince Orybon and his loyal-but-not-loving bondsman Grey; it gives you only a vague idea of the importance of Shouts and Biddings and Oaths (you can tell how important they are by the capitalized letters); and it gives far more weight to the story of Sleeping Beauty than the actual novel does. Really, Sleeping Beauty is the side note to this story. It is the conflict that keeps Gorse going—she must get to the castle before the christening is over and give her gift, or else she and all the Shouting Fey will burst into a thousand stars—but it’s not the conflict that drives the story. That comes from Orybon and Grey’s captivity in a deep cave, where they are kept by magick until Orybon repents of an ancient evil…something his royal snootiness is not exactly willing to do. When Gorse comes along with the power of Shouts, which just might be able to free him, he forces her to take an Oath to help him. Driven by her Oath and her anxiety about her family, an uneasy partnership blooms between Gorse and the two exiled fey. Mix in a tribe of cave trolls, a malfunctioning Cloak of Invisibility, and a magicked Gate that refuses to fall, and The Curse of the Thirteenth Fey makes the transition from mere FTR to self-actualized story.

There were many things I loved about this book. Gorse herself is an amusing and likable main character, her motivations are clear and unforced, and her love for her family—as disagreeable and difficult as some of them are—is a sparkling point in the plot. She does tend to think too much. That’s my one beef with this book: when Gorse first falls into the cave-prison of Orybon and Grey, she spends approximately 29 pages out of a thirty-page section thinking. Now, thirty-ish pages of anything will get old. But Gorse’s life is being threatened by the sword-wielding Grey, and no fewer than ten pages pass between when Grey draws his sword to off-with-her-head and when we see him again, his hand back on his undrawn sword. We never even see him put it away. We spend ten pages in irritated suspension, being told about this wondrous place and all its glamorous glitter and beauty, while Gorse thinks about things we’ve already been told anyway. While the threat of death is hanging over her.

Now, I’ve had my little rant, and I have to admit that this is really the worst example in the book. There are a few other places where I thought, Honestly, Gorse, just stop thinking about it and do something. We’ve already seen these deliberations three times over. But those places are only a paragraph or two in length. I’m not sure what realm that massive section described above came from, nor how it slipped past editors, but it is—blessedly—the only such place in the book.

And other than that, this really was a delightful book with some fantastic worldbuilding. Shouting Fey and their histories and background are especially interesting, and there is a better portrayal of the Seelie/Unseelie courts than I’ve seen in most other places. Gorse’s father in particular—an elf who married a fey woman and whose love of books and learning drives several of the story’s development arcs—is a wonderful character that I quickly grew to love.

Speaking of characters I grew to love…(here there be possible spoilers) Grey is my favorite character in the entire story. This man who gave a foolish Oath in his youth (an Oath, I might add, that could be dissolved if the Oath-taker died before the Oath-giver) to the unworthy Orybon and followed his master into exile for several hundred years, is still willing to give his life for his spider-like leader purely out of honor. No love lingers between these two, if indeed there ever was any, but Grey is so blasted noble that he puts himself in harm’s way to protect this liege lord of his. He’s dryly sarcastic, a good storyteller, protects Gorse from Orybon’s short temper, and still manages to keep a sense of humor despite his dark and dreary circumstances. I do believe I fell in love. (There’s a bit of a twist with Grey’s story near the end of the book that I didn’t like too much, because it felt like a bit of meddling-where-meddling-wasn’t-needed, but on the whole I can forgive it because, after all, Gorse was only thirteen. Read the book and you’ll know what I’m talking about.)

So. Now that this review has gone on far too long, let me sum up: Curse of the Thirteenth Fey is a well-built story set in a world that has clearly defined rules (usually designated by the All Important Capital Letters) and nicely drawn characters playing out their parts in a compelling novel that draws from the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale while still remaining a completely original and wonderful romance. (And I mean romance in the literary sense, not the kissy-kissy sense. Romantic literature usually has a child/woman/noble savage main character, set in a world where nature is kindly, and decisions are made through emotion and intuition more than cold logic.)

The Brownie gives Curse of the Thirteenth Fey: the true tale of Sleeping Beauty a nice, comfortable four stars.


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