Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

13206760I don’t know why I waited so long to pick up this sequel to the remarkable Cinder – The Lunar Chronicles #1. Having loved the first book and how it reinvented a beloved fairy tale in a different genre, I think I didn’t want to be disappointed if the next book didn’t live up to the promise of the first. Silly me.

Scarlet, The Lunar Chronicles #2, more than lives up to what were very high expectations as it continues the story of Cinder, the cyborg mechanic at the centre of a not only a love affair with Prince Kai but a burgeoning war between earth and the Lunars. It also introduces new characters which are loosely based on Little Red Riding Hood. But don’t let the source material fool you into thinking this is a walk in the woods. Like the original tale from which it harkens, “little” red-riding hood, the flame-haired and capable Scarlet, is anything but a victim, to wolves or any other kind of predator.

When Scarlet Benoit discovers her beloved grandmother is missing, she leaves no picnic basket unturned in an effort to find her. Along the way, she discovers that her nana isn’t quite the person she thought. On the contrary, what a big secret you have grandmamma, one that can affect the fate of the earth.

Befriending a street-fighter named Wolf (yes, the analogies are swift and fast, but don’t let them put you off, they are very cleverly done), Scarlet tries to track her grandmother’s whereabouts. Along the way, she meets Cinder and uncovers a connection between them that makes them two of the most wanted people on the planet. Trying desperately to stay one step ahead of those who seek to capture and kill them (looking at you Queen Levana), Scarlet and Cinder quickly learn who their friends and enemies are – sometimes they are one and the same.

Fast-paced, well written and characterised, this is a terrific re-imagining of fairytales casting them into a genre that lends itself in so many ways to exactly this treatment. You don’t have to be a fan of sci-fi, fantasy or fairy tales to enjoy this – it is just a great read.

Tightly plotted, it’s an easy yet fulfilling tale that makes you yearn for the next instalment. Despite my pile of reading books, I won’t leave the next book so long.

 

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The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

I’ve taken a bit of time between reading and reviewing this book, partly because I wanted to absorb the dark beauty of this stark, moving and occasionally horrifying tale, and partly because I’d no choice. I was rendered not just speechless by this marvellous novel but, for a time, wordless too as I sought ways to describe the richness of Forsyth’s work, the wonderful layers that make up the tale of Dortchen Wild, a gregarious young girl who grows up in the small kingdom of Hessen-Kassel during the Napoleonic Wars, living across a narrow lane from the then unknown Brothers’ Grimm. The beauty of the characters, the intimacy, joy and awfulness of the settings as well as the research and direct and subtle references to the forbidding stories the Grimm brothers themselves collected and retold, initially evaded me. It’s only now I can write about this amazing book. I was stunned by what Forsyth has done and urge anyone who loves the history of fairytales, history itself as well as a wonderful, page-turning novel about love, sacrifice, loss, family and the ties that cruelly and gently bind, to seek this one out at once!

Told from Dortchen’s point of view, the novel spans many years and many tribulations – poverty, war, and separation. The reader is given insight into the rise, and fall of the Wild and Grimm families’ fortunes as well as that of the rather stern ruler of Hessen-Kassell who is later replaced by a hedonistic relative of Napoleon.

The Wild GirlJakob and Williem Grimm are scholars who decide to collect what are fundamentally “old wives” and children’s tales for publication. Obsessed with preserving what’s a part of their country’s culture and past, they search for interesting variations and folk to relay the stories which they painstakingly record. Enter Dortchen, by now a teenager and a very able and imaginative crafter and re-teller of the old tales. It’s as a storyteller that Williem, a handsome if somewhat unhealthy figure, finally views his neighbour and little sister, Lotte’s playmate, Dortchen, through different eyes, seeing her for the beautiful young woman she’s become.

Dortchen’s growth into womanhood is a wondrous and painful awakening into beauty, sexuality, responsibility and reality, the latter from which her friendship and passionate feelings for Williem Grimm and the stories that surround her have occasionally allowed her to escape. But reality catches Dortchen all too quickly and bleakly. Forbidden by her stern father from being courted by the impoverished Williem, Dortchen tries to accept what fate offers; but as a girl who loves stories, she also desires a different outcome. Alas, as she and Williem shift into different social circles and circumstances and people become obstacles that grow insurmountable, control of her destiny seems like something that belongs in one of Williem’s fairytales.

I don’t want to ruin the story for those who’ve not yet had the chance, but be warned, as I said above, this novel does not steer away from dealing directly with the darkest aspects of human nature – something which fairy and folk tales have always confronted – often (though not always) through allegory and metaphor. Whereas the Grimm’s were forced to moderate their collected tales for the market, here Forsyth let’s the human capacity for evil loose. Nightmares come to life in this book and it’s testimony to Forsyth’s skill and sensitivity towards her threatening subject matter that she deals with it unflinchingly and with rawness; it takes your breath away. I found myself dwelling on this part of the book and my emotions were thrown into a tumult. It may be because of personal history, but I also feel it’s because readers are able to empathise with Dortchen and the cruelty and paternal tyranny that’s inflicted upon her. It’s utterly shocking. And that’s before I discuss the casualties of war – not only those who lose their lives because of a game of politics thrones and power – but those who survive and simply endure its abuse and horror.

Against this darkness, however, a light shines in the form of love – that between siblings, friends and soul mates. No-one expresses yearning quite like Forsyth. She did it so beautifully in her first book, the wonderful The Witches of Eileann, she does it again in the sumptuous Bitter Greens but it’s here, in The Wild Girl, that it culminates into a palpable ache that reaches beyond the pages and into the reader’s soul.

Forsyth has undergone a great deal of research to write this book and come to some original and compelling conclusions about the tales and their tellers as well. The novel is peppered with some of the better and less known of the Grimm collection, so we’re given stories within stories and can draw our own comparison between the rich imaginative world of the women who pass them to the Grimms and Dortchen’s life as well.

Original, compelling, exquisitely written, this is a novel of epic and passionate proportions that offers readers so much and then even more. A book ostensibly about story-telling it’s also by a story-teller par excellence. I really think Forsyth is one of the finest writers of this generation and her work deserves the widest of audiences. She clearly takes so much pleasure and pride in what she does – but better still, she offers it in abundance as well.

Cannot recommend highly enough.

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Book Review: Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens

Recuperating from pretty awful surgery has given me the chance to indulge in my absolute favourite past-time: reading. I read a great deal anyhow, particularly when researching my novels and for my newspaper columns, but for sheer joy doesn’t happen often enough. One of the upsides of being unwell is that it’s given me an excuse. Over the next few days, I will try and post reviews of some of the wonderful novels I have immersed myself in, starting with Kate Forsyth’s magnificent work, Bitter Greens.

I confess I’m a long time fan of Kate Forsyth’s work ever since I read the The Witches of Eileanan and sent my first email ever to an author to express my appreciation. I know the high standards Kate sets and that which her readers have come to expect and what a marvellous storyteller she is, even so, this did not prepare me for the experience of reading Bitter Greens. Quite simply, this is an outstanding, mesmerizing book that is one of the finest works of historical fiction I have read.

Weaving the tale of the infamous French writer, Charlotte-Rose de la Force with the tale of Rapunzel, Forsyth delivers a luscious, sensual and incredibly moving tale of love, betrayal, politics, religion, female friendship, desire and gender against the backdrop of Renaissance France and the court of the Sun-King Loius XIV and the heady life of a courtesan in Sixteenth Century Venice.

Moving from Charlotte-Rose’s story to the apparently fictitious one of Rapunzel, known in this book by two different names, and yet again to another major female character (in at least Rapunzel or Margherita’s tale), the bella strega (beautiful witch) and courtesan, Selena Leonelli, the reader is admitted into three what seem at first very different female lives, cultures and times. Only, as their stories develop and unfold, the similarities far outweigh the differences. From imprisonment created by sex and gender roles, to that enforced by faith and parental rules, to the laws laid down by king and country, it becomes evident that Rapunzel’s tower is not worst kind of entrapment a women can endure. Cleverly using the tower as a metaphor for the different ties that cruelly and gently bind, as well as the redemptive power of story-telling, Forsyth has crafted a beautiful and powerful story of three strong women that lingers in the imagination long after you put it down.

Written as the creative part of a current Doctorate, it’s clear that Forsyth has done her research. Anyone who has plunged into the history of fairytales understands that it was the Brothers’ Grimm whom we have to thank and curse for many of the current and highly sanitized versions of centuries old and told folk tales that frequent contemporary culture – Grimm and Disney. Forsyth has eschewed these and returned to earlier and darker source material and in doing so, given the novel a veracity and depth that is simply breathtaking. The detail of French court life, of the nunnery, and the way she brings Venice of that time to life is deftly done, never detracting from the plot of character development. In the acknowledgments you read about the translations Forsyth commissioned and the trips she took as research for her novel. They were well worth it and as someone who has both researched and taught the history and signifance of fairytales and myths at university, I would love to read her thesis when it’s complete.

Overall, I thought this a simply amazing book that once again left me in awe of this woman’s formidable talent and grateful that she (and I!) live in times where women can write their tabulations and share them. A tour de force indeed!

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