Welcome to my first short story review for Once Upon a Time IX, the internet-wide blogathon of Fairytale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythological fiction. I decided to do this in addition to the main book-and-film objectives because, first, I’d fallen out of the reviewing habit and I wanted the increase the challenge (maybe as a punishment), and second because, although I read a lot of short fiction, relatively little of that is in the outright fantasy genres.
However, I’ve been sitting on a copy of RETOLD – Six Fairytales Reimagined for ages, and this seemed a perfect excuse to boost my reviewing statistics six-fold in one fell stroke…
by S. L. Huang
A young girl is raised by her huntress mother alone, sharing a rich, simple existence deep in the woods – except for the presence of her aunt Rosa, a red-clad woodswoman who gifted her with the beautiful little gun her mother taught her to shoot with. This is a world in which hunters must be very aware of their prey: not every beast is merely an animal, and the law protects against the murder of familiars, cursed or natural shape-shifters and animals of extra-ordinary intelligence every bit as much as it does witches-in-disguise, or the life of any other human.
As the girl grows older, the gaps in her family history go unfilled. She knows nothing of her father, nor of what brought her mother from distant eastern lands to the country where they now live. Her aunt won’t break a confidence and has secrets of her own, like the mysterious room in her cabin that has been locked for as long as the girl has known of it – but her love for them both is stronger than her curiosity, and she is content to enjoy her life without attempting to uncover the past. Until, that is, the soldiers of the king carry away her mother for committing an unthinkable crime: the deliberate slaying of a magical beast with the human right to life and liberty…
…but her aunt may know the truth.
Before I share my thoughts, a digression. I picked up this small collection courtesy of a small coincidence. I’m a follower of the review site The Book Smugglers, and when they announced they were going to start publishing as well I noticed the first story, this one, was written by a name I knew. S.L. Huang is a spec-fic author who was gracious enough to host me on her old blog when my ill-fated novel came out last year, so I thought “I ought to read that”. Then I saw the artwork they had commissioned to accompany the story, and “ought to” became “have to”.
As you’ll see with each Sunday review, all the stories in RETOLD were accompanied by lovely “covers”. The publishers obviously put a lot of care and attention into making this an attractive book – the important question then was, were the stories up to a similar standard?
On the strength of Hunting Monsters, the prospects look good. The writing style is clear and pleasing to read, while the dramatic quirk of the storyworld is intuitive and well used. As you can hopefully tell from my summary, a big nudge is delivered regarding the most obvious fairytale connection here (not big enough? perhaps knowing that when Rosa was a child her grandmother had an unfortunate encounter will help…), but this turns out to be far from the last reference on hand.
The result is an effective commentary on the typical roles of female characters in fairytale narratives, so often the victim of some terrible beast or the prize won by the vanquishing hero (male beast, and male hero; marital prize, and sometimes marital victim too). It isn’t preachy, though, and the heart of the story is in the closeness and conflict between the main characters.
If I have a criticism, it is that Hunting Monsters doesn’t itself feel like a fairytale so much as a piece of fiction inspired by one (correction: by several). Nevertheless, it is a satisfying piece of fiction, so as criticisms go this one rather lacks teeth.
Next Sunday I’ll review In Her Head, In Her Eyes by Yukimi Ogawa but first I’m going to finally write up one of the best books I read in 2014: Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s Scale Bright, an urban fantasy that rebooted ancient Chinese mythology and plugged it into contemporary Hong Kong. Hope you’re not bored yet.