Terrible, horrible, ugly weeds: Reading for (not-so) fun.

I recently discovered that I had missed discovering a series dedicated to re-writing faerie tales.  It was called, obviously enough, Once Upon a Time.  I was shocked and felt like I wasn’t doing my job (self assigned though it may have been) of keeping up on YA/Children’s lit, especially that concerning faerie tales.

Now that I’m about halfway through the series (there are 19 books so far, I can’t tell if they’re done or not as it’s more of a thematic series than a plot series), I’m seriously regretting my decision to read it.  Unfortunately, I’m not regretting the decision enough to stop.  Why?  Because the series has some redeeming factors.  I think I’ll talk about them first, because I do have something of an impressive rant to follow.

Once Upon a Time seeks to redefine the context of faerie tales into something that’s more relatable.  The magic is still there, the fantastic is still–in the main–kept alive and well in these tales, but they’re put in contexts that modern teens can better understand.  One story (“Rumpelstiltskin”) is set in the late 1800’s and the poor farmer’s daughter is recast as the daughter of an Irish immigrant fleeing the potato famine.  Another (“The Frog Prince”) is set mid-World War I.  There’s even a post-Camelot (and yes, Camelot counts as semi-historical) retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.”

However, the re-contextualizations I found myself enjoying most were not the historical ones, but the political ones.  Violet Eyes, which takes on “The Princess and the Pea,” sets up the purpose of the ridiculous tests of a “true princess” as a way NOT to offend every neighboring kingdom.  In this version, the current monarchy is first generation, choosing a wife for their son means picking the first of their alliances.  The tests were an arbitrary way to pick that alliance and to sidestep the ready-to-explode political bomb as well as pick a wife with a good character and an honest spirit.  The “Jack and the Beanstalk” novel includes a coup and Robin Hood sewn seamlessly together (AWESOME!!!!!).

If these had been the only elements of this series, I would recommend it left and right.  As it stands, I whole-heartedly stand behind my first assessment, which I recently offered to a friend: NEVER read this series.  Yes, I am writing a Weeds Review of an entire series as a warning.  Because it is of a series with multiple authors, I’m going to have to break my rule about providing the long passage of writing and just hope what I detail gives you a good enough idea of style.

Where Once Upon a Time succeeds, it does fairly well.  Certainly well enough for me to support it in the endeavor to re-introduce faerie tales to mainstream literature.  However, there are some things it does not do well.

ONE: Some of the novels are based on historical figures.  This is lazy.  There are plenty of faerie tales left out there.  What about the oft-neglected Tam Lin!? Anastasia Romanov is not a faerie tale character, neither is Hua Mulan, though I will give that they have been semi-mythologized.  This is insulting, not only to the original countries and cultures from which these real people stem, but also to the readers who are reading faerie tales and then must suddenly divorce fiction from fact.  If the reader knows better, this is merely annoying.  If they don’t, this is BAD.

TWO: After putting all this work and care into re-contextualizing the faerie tales, some of the stories are just lengthened versions of the tale.  The authors got lazy, again.  They didn’t feel like finding a historical or political setting.  They just went and did.  Thppppp on you.

THREE: This is my major complaint.  These books perpetuate what I consider to be the one, and only, damaging faerie tale out there: love at first sight.  It isn’t real, it doesn’t exist and training teenage girls to expect it out of every day romance is about the worst thing a book–which is supposed to be a wonderful source for escape, yes, but also a source for learning about life–can do.

Now, my little brother points out that just because I haven’t run across love at first sight doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist (this is the same little brother who recommended Heart of Darkness, he’s so good for me).  Granted.  That’s not the only reason I think love at first sight doesn’t–and can’t–exist, but I will admit to it being a decent part of my thinking (maybe 40%).  Even so, should I consider that forty percent of my conviction to be on shaky ground because my personal experience isn’t all-encompassing, the alarming frequency (sometimes three couples in one book!) with which love at first sight occurs in these books is still damaging to the target audience.  Teens, please forgive me for this, but teens are still at the stage where they are learning what to expect from life by what they are told in movies, literature, magazines, etc.  Is this wrong?  Yes!  Entirely!  Doesn’t mean it’s not true.  And, if they are told by the books that they read that love at first sight not only happens but happens so often that every hero and heroine across ages, countries, statuses, political situations, and economic levels can expect it to happen at some point in his or her life, the message is still HORRIFICALLY WRONG.

So why am I still reading this series?  I don’t know.  Part of me recognizes the redeeming factors, even rejoices in them.  While love at first sight is most out of control in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” that is also one of the best developed political situations.  Some of the characters are good!  Some are horrible stereotypes.  The romances are chaste, which is another big benefit.  I think too many authors try to make teens adults too early.  I suppose I continue to read to try to weigh it out.  The scales currently hang in balance.  They have to tip soon.

Reasons why I chose this book series above all others:

  • It’s caused a lot of conflict in me–that’s good, right?
  • I worry about this one and DON’T want a friend of mine recommending it to a teen they know.
  • I do respect the re-contextualizing that’s being done and think the authors deserve recognition for what they are doing.
  • I want to explain all my tweet rants about love at first sight from the past couple weeks.
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Such pretty weeds.

This week has been a pretty exhausting week when it comes to blogging.  I upped my schedule to include two personal blog updates, added a Saturday update (I can’t be lazy with this blog anymore, oh noes!), and did five book reviews just to get me back on schedule.  I am ashamed I let it get that behind.

Thankfully, I had a light at the end of the tunnel: Slathbog’s Gold (Adventurers Wanted series) by M.L. Forman.

I read this book about a month ago and decided it was going to be the first OP book I was going to review.  But, when it came time to do my first Weeds Review this past week, it didn’t feel right.  This book definitely deserved its own spot–not a book squished in the middle of four other reviews.  So, even though this was the first OP book that screamed for a review, I decided that it could, would, and should wait until the end of the week.

When I sat down to read Slathbog’s Gold, I was still in the bookstore.  I was looking for something good to read and I stumbled across this one.  I have this silly rule that I have to be engaged by a book by the end of ten pages or the first chapter in order to buy it unread.   It makes for a good weeding out process.  I read one and a half chapters of Slathbog’s Gold without realizing it.  When I did pull my nose out of the book long enough to realize I was over thirty pages in (triple my usual allotment), I figured this was a good book to buy.

It was torture waiting to read it, but I got this book when I was in the middle of Atlantic by Simon Winchester, which was good but giving me enough trouble that I felt it was a good idea to concentrate on it alone.  When I finally got back to Slathbog’s Gold, I was very happy to curl up with an OP book.  Atlantic had been wonderful, but I needed something light.  I needed a break.

Thankfully, said break was not so “fluffy” that I felt like my brain was rotting.  In fact, the book kept me guessing.  I wondered how on earth this was going to turn out.  I knew, somehow, that Slathbog (the evil dragon who guarded his hoard) would be defeated–otherwise, what was the point?–but that was about all I knew for sure.  It was all about the journey, not the destination.  That’s the kind of book I like to read.

One of the most impressive things about Slathbog’s Gold was its treatment of magic.  Magic and its treatment is kind of a pet peeve for me.  I’ve grown up surrounded by faerie tales from all different countries and cultures (French and German, like most, but Swedish, Celtic, and Italian, too–I sought out even more as a teen and adult), and all of them have different attitudes about magic.  It is annoying, to say the least, that in mainstream literature there are two approaches to magic: 1) It freaks the character out and takes them a long time to acknowledge this power, or 2) The character has always known about it and never takes a second thought to their attitude towards it (whether devotion or suspicion).

M.L. Forman throws both approaches out the window with this main character, Alex Taylor.  Alex is quite suddenly thrown into a magical world from this one.  Rather than be immediately suspicious, he reacts in this way:

“I still don’t understand,” said Alex.

“What’s not to understand? A magic bag lets you carry all your gear in a very small space.  And believe me, it makes life a lot easier.”

“I’m sure it does, but how does it work?” Alex questioned.

“It’s magic,” laughed Andy.  “It’s like Arconn always says, ‘If you’re willing to accept the fact that there’s magic involved, everything else is easy.'”

Alex had never really thought about magic, or at least not real magic, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about it.  He had seen the table at Mr. Clutter’s [bookshop] move and change shape, but that wasn’t really the same as [these rooms inside a bag], was it?  Looking around the stone room, however, he had to believe there was magic.

The character approaches things logically, but hesitantly.  He accepts the magic, because he knows there’s no other choice, but he also doesn’t jump in with both feet.  It takes Alex some more time to accept magic in general, as well as his magic specifically (and what a discovery that was), but he doesn’t shun it.  He learns about it.  And there is no crisis! in which he all of a sudden needs to tap into his magic NOW.  He learns at a good pace and applies what he knows.  It’s marvelous.

There are eight adventurers on the trip and, despite all those names that begin with “A” in the quote, they’re easy to keep track of.  Forman does very well defining his large cast of side characters, giving them enough individuality to be distinct without over-taking Alex.

I was very impressed by the over-all quality of this book.  I’m anxiously awaiting the second one to come in at the library and are they ever being poky about it.  I was most impressed because there were so many things that weren’t the norm, but it didn’t feel like the author was trying to BE DIFFERENT in his writing.  This book felt natural in its differences, I am excited to see if they are maintained in the next installment.

Reasons I chose this book above all others:

  • Treatment of magic.
  • Large cast of characters, all distinct.
  • Unforced self-discovery in the main character.  Crises happen, but they don’t require the main character to suddenly change.
  • This book surprised me.

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P.S.  There has been an influx of writers from Utah/Idaho in the YA/C industry in the past few years.  Off the top of my head, I can name Brandon Mull (Fablehaven, Candy Shop Wars, The Beyonders), James Dashner (The Maze Runner, The Jimmie Fincher Saga), N.D. Wilson (100 Cupboards), and now M.L. Forman (Adventurers Wanted Series).  I don’t know if they’re all LDS (commonly know as Mormons), though it certainly wouldn’t surprise me, but I know at least three of them are.  I am sure there are more LDS authors (I have a sneaky suspicion about Obert Skye (Leven Thumps series, Pillage Trilogy), but that’s all that is).

While I am not complaining by any stretch of the imagination, it has been an interesting phenomenon to see.  All these nationally acclaimed books for young adults and children that I don’t have to worry about a single bit.  I know if I pick up books by those five authors, I am always in for a good, clean read without being preached at (which can be something of a problem in LDS authors, or any religious author).  Some, admittedly, are better than others.  But all are good enough that I would re-read any of them.  Thankfully, without exception, I suspected the religious connection after I read and liked at least one of the books by each author. That fact does make me feel better about supporting them.  (Oh, I guess Stephanie Meyer (Twilight, The Host) belongs on this list, but I really don’t like her half so much as these men.  Also, she can be a little preachy, so she sort of falls in the “Mormon author, but not that great” category.)  So, if you notice more LDS authors on this blog (no plans in that direction as yet), I beg you not to assume bias.  There have been a couple in the past week, but this is not because I feel I “have to” support them by any means. They get in on their merit alone.

First foray into the weeds.

I have been trying my best not to write reviews for OP books and, since I haven’t been doing a lot of OP reading, it hasn’t been particularly hard.

And then the past few weeks happened.  I did TONS of OP reading.  I finally read some program books that didn’t take the whole week.  Also, a bunch of books came in the library that I had been waiting for, so I had to make the time for said books.  Funny enough, my reading schedule the past few weeks was right on target, it’s just my blogging that’s been off.

Of course, when that happened, I stumbled across two great books that I just HAD to review despite the OP-ness of them.  Too bad, so sad.  Even though I’m behind on regular reviews, I figure now was a good time to break into the weeds and post one of the irregular ones.

Rules for OP Reviews (Hereafter referred to as Weeds Reviews):

  • They will hereafter be AFTER the week’s book review is complete.
  • They will not exceed 1,000 words, nor will they be under 500.  (Most of my regular reviews are over 1,300 words, those that aren’t should have been . . . need to not be lazy.)
  • There will be at least one decently long quote (which will contribute to word count) to give an idea of style and flow, as there is less room in the review to discuss it.
  • Reasons for choosing this book to review (as opposed to all the other OP books) will be provided (which will not contribute to word count).
  • Each one will be titled with a weed reference so that they are easy to pick out.

Alrighty, I believe I’m established.  I mostly wanted to set those boundaries not because they were truly necessary, but because I knew it was pretty likely I’d end up spending too much time outside the goal of the 52 books per year.  This is not what I intend or want.

This review is for the book The Thirteenth Princess by Diane Zahler. Besides having the honor of being one of the last books on my shelf, it is also one if the better executed novelizations of a faerie tale I’ve come across.  I’ve found, from reading and writing experiences, that faerie tale tend to naturally show flaws when expanded.  Stories with faerie tale elements, but original plots do much better.

The Thirteenth Princess is, as you may have guessed, a novelization of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” originally a Grimm tale.  It is simultaneously one of the most beloved and worst treated tales I know of.  People have abused this poor tale over and over (what is this, making the old soldier fall in love with the youngest daughter, or turning him into a prince in disguise, or a palace servant), for the sake of what?  I can never tell.  Because of these abused versions (which are never very good), TDP has fallen out of favor and is just barely starting to make a comeback.  The Thirteenth Princess will go a long way towards that, as it is a re-imagining that is fastidiously faithful to the important components of the original tale:

  • The sisters shoes are worn out in the morning.
  • Several men of other kingdoms have come and gone.
  • They are well past marrying age.
  • There is a lake and a castle underneath the castle where they dance.
  • They are rescued by a soldier who is aided by a witch.
  • The soldier chooses to marry the eldest daughter.

There are many variations in between these points, but changing these changes the fundamental nature of the tale.  The aristocracy being saved by an unrelated commoner has always been part of the appeal of this tale.  The troublesome daughters, well on their way to becoming old maids, are the concern of every loving parent.  Magic is vital.  The worn out shoes start this whole mess.  Changing these details changes the story.  It’s just a bad idea.  Now, I don’t object as much to changing the number of princesses, but I like that this author kept the original twelve in tact, adding a thirteenth, rather than reducing the number of enchanted dancers.

Perhaps the most appealing part of the book was Zita’s desperation to please and to belong.  Zita, the thirteenth unwanted daughter of the king, was made to work in the kitchen so she would not remind her father of the wife he lost at Zita’s birth.  She spends much of the book trying her hardest to please him and her sisters, as well as find out just where she belongs in this world: somewhere above the kitchen, but somewhere below her sisters.  Zita seems so much more real to me than many of her counterparts in other novelizations.

Also nice was that, while never knowing her mother certainly informs her life, it doesn’t rule it.  Rather than long unerringly for a mother who can never return, Zita concentrates on the father who won’t acknowledge her.  Much more sensible.  And, in her quest to be acknowledged, she finds a mother figure in the witch who helps the soldier break the spell over her twelve sisters.  Babette, who lives in a magically concealed house in the wood, is marvelous, teaching wonderful lessons about respect (of self and others) as well as offering home-made cookies to soften the sting.

It is from one of these scenes that I take my quote:

Babette did her motions and spoke her words, and the water shimmered as we peered into it.  Then a picture began to form.  It was not the stables, as I had expected, but a clearing in the woods… There, sitting on a log and shivering, was Breckin.  He was obviously lost.

“Oh dear,” Babette said, and I giggled.

“I guess he couldn’t picture the path [to the house],” I said smugly.  Babette frowned at me, and I quickly said, “Should we go look for him?”

“You should,” Babette said pointedly.  “It is getting late.”  I nodded, feeling a little ashamed…

“C-can I–,” I stammered.  “May we come back?”  I looked at the floor.  I felt the weight of Babette’s disapproval, and I wasn’t sure I understood.  What had I done wrong?

“You must always think of how others feel,” Babette told me.  “Try to put yourself in Breckin’s place.  How would you feel?”

I was embarrassed–and slightly offended.  “I thought of the frog,” I reminded her.  “I knew it did not want to be a door knocker.”

“You must think not only of frogs, but of other people,” Babette said firmly.  So I thought about Breckin, sitting alone in the forest.  Perhaps he had been walking for hours.  If it were me, I would be tired, hungry, and thirsty.  Afraid.

“I’ll find him,” I promised.  “I’m sorry.”

Babette smiled. “Come visit again,” she said.  “The days are short, and the cold makes me lonely.”

I love the way the lesson is taught here, as well as the exchange.  Plus–live-frog door knocker?  How awesome is that!?

I think a lot of the flaws that can come out in novelizations were avoided here by staying simple and true to the tale.  I was  impressed with Zahler’s grasp of her characters and also with her relatable situations (despite all the magic and castles and witches).  I would highly recommend this book to any lover of the story itself, as well as anyone looking for a princess story with a good message.

Reasons I chose this book over all the others:

  • Good faerie tale novelizations are hard to find.
  • This specific tale is one of my favorites.
  • This isn’t a “poor, helpless me” princess book.
  • Supporting a new author.
  • The setting is fanciful, the emotions are not.

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