Hardcover, 464 pages
Published September 15th 2015 by HarperTeen
If you’ve been reading us for a while, you’ll remember that one of the first essays I posted on The Book Wars was called Disenchanting the Fairy Godmother: An Exploration of the Evolution of Fairy Godmothers in Modern Retellings of Cinderella. In the essay, I examined two contemporary retellings of Cinderella and analyzed the changing attitudes towards magic and fairy godmothers expressed in them. I found that both Princess of Glass by Jessica Day George and Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine showed a definite move away from dependence on magic and fairy godmothers as a way for female protagonists to achieve happiness. The modern trend is to put greater emphasis on agency and the clever use of resources already in hand to achieve the destiny the protagonist chooses herself. Fairy godmothers are shown in a negative light with both books suggesting their benevolent magic is little more than a mask for a more sinister agenda.
Ash and Bramble by Sarah Prineas is one of the more recent retellings of Cinderella that I have come across. Though the book contains elements of other canonical European fairy tales, the primary tale being retold is Cinderella. The book is a bit too long and the pacing choppy, transitions from one part of the story to the next are a bit awkward, and some ends that needed closure are left open-ended.
That said, I enjoyed the novel for the innovation it showed in its retelling of the fairy tale. I enjoyed Pin/Pen and the implicit discourse on the importance of names. I liked Shoe/Owen and the way Prineas played around with gender constructions. I liked the diversity and the setting and I liked the story. Now let’s talk about the Godmother.
The novel opens with the protagonist opening her eyes without any memory of her self except the knowledge that she has recently come out Nothing. She only has a thimble clutched in her fist with no idea how it got there. She is dressed in coarse clothes and taken to a room where there are other women sewing and told that she is Seamstress and she must sew because her job is what she is. Without memories or even a name, Pin (as we will know her later) begins her new life. She finds out that she and her companions have all been taken from their life outside the fortress they’re now captive in. Their memories of their past lives have been erased and all they’re supposed to do now is fulfill the role given to them. The accoutrements that accompanies fairy tales (glass slippers, gingerbread men, clothes) have to come from somewhere and these poor folk are the ones who slave away for the Godmother.
Pin, with the help of s Shoemaker (Shoe), escapes the fortress but not the Godmother who places her in a fairy tale–Cinderella with her memory erased once again. Shoe who did escape the Godmother due to a propitious run-in with a sympathetic Huntsman goes after her to the city where he interrupts the fairy tale and flees with both Pin (now Pen) and the destined fairy tale prince, Cornelius. They meet other rebels and plan to overthrow the Godmother.
There is a realization that the Godmother may be as much in the thrall of the Story who feeds on the power generated by the forced ‘happy endings’ as the memory-less players. The metafiction, the aware of the characters of their presence in a story, adds an interesting texture to the narrative. The Godmother is shown as pretty unforgivable committing acts of absolute brutality without even a hint of a conscience. Magic is not shown in as negative a light as in the other two books I mentioned because Pin does have a magic thimble with which she generates heat (contrasting with a frost-generation thimble the Godmother carries) but she does not depend on it overly.
Prineas subverts the fairy tale every chance she gets with the stepmother and stepsisters more actual people forced into roles by the Godmother than 2-dimensional caricatures Disney is so fond of. The romance is not my favourite but I didn’t mind the love triangle because it serves a purpose to the narrative. The most interesting character is the protagonist who is pragmatic, logical, and determined to do the correct thing despite the appeals of Shoe who has a more compassionate nature than her.
This would make a wonderful primary text for anyone wanting to write an essay about modern fairy tales. It offers a lot of complexity and can be deconstructed and discussed in many different ways. Where entertainment value is concerned, I enjoyed reading it. It wasn’t perfect but it satisfied the fairy tale aficionado in me.