Welcome to my final review for Once Upon a Time IX, the internet-wide celebratory blogathon of Fairytale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythological fiction. Also, the sixth and final story from the small collection RETOLD – Six Fairytales Reimagined. And without further ado..:
The 99th Bride
by Catherine F. King
Dunya is the daughter of the Sultan’s Grand Vizier, born small and weak and expected to die like her mother, who was not the Grand Vizier’s favourite wife and went unmourned. But she lives, raised by her grandmother, her great-aunts and their friends, loving them and listening to all they have to teach her. Of course, over time they pass away, one by one, until she is alone and reluctantly brought into her father’s house, where his three other wives and her many half-siblings all jostle for position and attention.
And then the Sultan’s one, adored, wife dies, and he goes mad.
The people are thrown into turmoil, fearing each new day, and the Grand Vizier prepares to send his family into hiding — but of them all, only Dunya comes to him and offers whatever help is hers to give, anything he asks. Her father knows he must demonstrate loyalty to his master, so he pledges to the Sultan his own daughter’s hand in marriage, knowing what this really means. For the Sultan has taken many wives since his first one died, and each one enjoys only one night in his company before facing execution in the morning. But Dunya accepts her father’s charge and takes her place amongst the Sultan’s remaining wives, waiting until it is her turn to face him.
She is the last. But when her night comes… something happens.
I confess, I have not read the One-Thousand and One Nights, aka the Arabian Nights, so when I did a little research after reading The 99th Bride I learned some things. Catherine F. King has taken the framing device from the original text and reworked it with, on the surface, relatively little change.
In the source, the (for me) unpronounceable Scheherazade delays the death of her sister — Dunyazade, betrothed to the mad sultan — by telling him stories, never quite finishing them before dawn. He is thus compelled to postpone the execution for another day, only for her to unveil another tale provoked by the previous, and on, and on, and…
Finally, one thousand and one nights later, Scheherazade’s repertoire is exhausted but the Sultan pledges his love, and instead of having her beheaded they are wed. Here, in a nutshell, the value of reworking classic stories is clear: only in the least appealing of worlds would marriage to a homicidal maniac be considered a happy ending! This is not a piece of didactic finger-wagging, though — and, as with other examples of feminist revisionism, what is “lost” are obvious failures of logic that, in this case, suggest a woman would be anything but forever terrified for her life if she won such a fate for herself.
Any thinking person of either sex should see in the traditional Scheherazade not a character but (and even this is optimistic) a symbol of what patriarchy might demand in A Good Wife. However, in The 99th Bride our protagonist is not the storyteller but the sister, and Dunya is the focus of her own tale. We watch a person without any sort of conventional power gradually become what we would most want our “betters” to be: decent and humble, open to the wisdom of others and with the will to act on what they learn, who works for the greater good instead of solely their own. If you know of a world leader, now or ever, who meets those criteria… well, enjoy your padded cell.
This is the longest story in RETOLD by some margin — almost twice the length of the next — at it represents a fine, satisfying closer to the collection. All six stories individually are entertaining and well written, as a set they offer pleasing variety, and the obvious care that has gone into the book — epitomised by the sometimes gorgeous artwork but supported by what seemed to me flawless attention to the texts themselves — makes this a excellent example of what a small press publisher can offer.
So, that’s it, I’m done. Sixteen reviews of fantasy, fairytale, folkloric and mythological books, stories and games (plus that movie, in two halves) in just thirty-nine days — that’s one every two or three days, not bad! All that remains is to say farewell…