The Starlit Wood, edited by Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien
Posted October 19, 2016on:
published Oct 18, 2016
where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (thanks Saga!)
I grew up with the standard mix of fairy tales that most American kids in the 80s were probably familiar with – Jack in the Beanstalk, The Pied Piper, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rumplestiltskin, The Red Shoes, Hansel and Gretel, and more. They were a part of my childhood, in everything from Disney movies to bedtime stories. Most of these stories were cautionary tales: be a good/obedient/quiet child, otherwise something bad will happen to you. In a handful of the stories the child was good and obedient, but their parent wasn’t, so the child paid the price. Moral of the story? Being a child is garbage, you better grow up as fast as possible.
Playing with fairy tales is fun, it always has been. Turning them on their side, fracturing them, giving them a modern take, taking them apart and putting them back together again. I’m not sure who has more fun in this situation – the author retelling a fairy tale, or the reader who gets to enjoy the finished product. The original stories were always so sparse, so light on the details. What happened before the story started? What happened after it ended? Did the person really deserve what they got? Maybe the witch had a really crappy childhood, maybe the little girl really hated her grandma, maybe “magic beans” means something different, maybe Rumplestiltskin was just really socially awkward. And don’t even get me started on the Pied Piper of Hamlin (Thanks Cooney!).
The Starlit Wood, edited by Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien joins a fine literary tradition of inviting authors to give an old story a new twist. While I was reading this book, my husband asked me if it was like one of it’s famous predecessors, Snow White, Blood Red, edited by Datlow and Windling, and I said this new one was a far more modern take. Granted, it’s been years since I read Snow White, Blood Red, but I don’t remember quite as much recreational drug use, post-human characters, 3-d printing, or humor. Yes, some of the stories in The Starlit Wood are laugh out loud funny, but others are just as horrifying, disturbing, and cautionary as the original tales. The sheer variety of types of stories and styles of storytelling in The Starlit Wood sets this anthology apart from others in the same vein. It’s as if the editors told their authors “I trust you. Now go do your crazy magic”. And the authors did their magic, and suddenly witches became caretakers and advocates, giants became not-so-godly post-humans, parents forced their losses on to others, children told themselves stories to escape their own awful childhoods, stories intertwined and diverged and then and found each other again, fortunes were made, and some people even got a happy ending. If the original tales were cautionary, these new ones are about throwing caution to the wind.
Randomly, the first two stories I read were the most humorous and had me laughing out loud – Daryl Gregory’s “Even the Crumbs Were Delicious” (Hansel and Gretel) and Max Gladstones “Giants in the Sky” (Jack and the Beanstalk). The “witch” in the Gregory tale is a semi-homeless druggie who, for reasons you learn about later, decides to 3-d print a ton of drugs and wallpaper his house with them. Two kids wander in, start licking the walls, and in their drugged out state assume the half asleep guy with bedhead who is yelling at them is a witch. It gets weirder and even more off the wall from there. You’ll laugh, I promise. Gladstones’ take on Jack and the Beanstalk has a different kind of incidental humor involving post human intelligences, common misunderstandings, and good intentions. Again, you will laugh. In fact, I need all of you to read these two stories ASAP so we can share all the inside jokes on twitter.
But don’t think this is a book of humorous stories, because it most certainly is not. Catherynne Valente’s “Badgirl, The Deadman and the Wheel of Fortune” (The Girl With no Hands) offers up a little girl who is too young to understand drug addiction. This is a haunting version of a story where the innocent child pays the price for their caretaker’s sins. And many of the stories get darker and twistier from there: Stephen Graham Jones’s brilliantly haunting “Some Wait” about a videogame that steals children; Marjorie M. Liu’s heartbreakingly beautiful “The Briar and the Rose” ) in which Sleeping Beauty and the witch who cursed her inhabit the same body; Naomi Novik’s take on Rumplestiltskin “Spinning Silver” in which a shrewd money lender quite literally turns nothing into silver and gold and then beats a monster at his own game; and Charlie Jane Anders’ bizarre “The Super Ultra Duchess if Fedora Forest” the absolute strangest story I’ve ever read about a bird, a mouse, and a talking sausage, all of whom are friends. Blanketsaurus makes an appearance.
If none of that seems your cup of tea, and all your looking for is absolutely beautiful writing, you’ll want to immediately read Sofia Samatar’s absolutely charming and uniquely presented “The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle”, and the sharply rendered “In the Desert Like a Bone”, by Seanan McGuire. I’d quote some beautiful lines from those stories, but I’d end up quoting the entire thing. Also, Samatar gets epic brownie points for all her fourth wall breaking. I’m not sure how I feel about the McGuire. She presses all my buttons when it comes to writing style, with lyrical phrases that beg to be put into poems, but the plot of the story itself didn’t do much for me.
If you were ever fascinated by fairy tales as a child, if you have ever read a fairy tale to a child and watched their face light up, this is an anthology for you. But, you probably don’t want to read any of these stories to young kids!