Valentine Week: Fairytale Fantasy wrap-up


Valentine’s Day, many believe, was an invention of Geoffrey Chaucer in his Middle English poem The Parlemont of Foules (Parliament of Fowls, Assembly of the Birds), in which birds of all social ranks gather to pair off, refereed by Nature Herself. In the end, as three guy eagles vie for the hand of a beauteous lady eagle, Nature changes the usual medieval order of things by decreeing that the lady eagle gets to choose which of the suitors she will accept–or not to choose at all, if that’s what she wants.

What better celebration of the day dedicated to romantic love than reading and discussing fairytale retellings?

Last year, I looked at a number of fairytale fantasy retellings from traditions around the world. This year, I focused on two “literary” fairy tales, Rapunzel and Cinderella. Both are popular sources for contemporary retellings.

I chose three novels for each tale. My favorites were: Bitter Greens, Kate Forsyth’s marvelous historical-magical realist-fantasy novel based on Rapunzel, and A Single Thread of Moonlight, Laura Wood’s Victorian romance novel based on Cinderella. Close behind them, more or less tied, came Megan Morrison’s Grounded, a great Rapunzel fantasy choice for young readers, and Sometime After Midnight, a wonderful YA Cinderella-themed romance novel with an LBGTQ+ focus.


Last year’s novels were all solidly fantasy. This year, the mix was a little fantasy, a lot of romance, some satisfying historical fiction, and a dash of mystery. But this is a fantasy blog! I suppose this year I focused more on the retellings than on genre.

If you are a fantasy fan who doesn’t like romance, sort through the choices to find the fantasy novels: Bitter Greens (fantasy at the core), Grounded, and the historical fantasy-romance JJA Harwood’s The Shadow in the Glass.

If you are a fantasy fan who also likes romance, try A Single Thread of Moonlight, Sometime After Midnight, and (but only if you like your romance on the very steamy side tending toward hardcore steamy) Measha Stone’s Tower.

If you love historical novels as well as fantasy and/or romance, wow, Bitter Greens is an amazing read. Both A Single Thread of Moonlight and The Shadow in the Glass deal very well with their historical settings, too.

P.S. if you enjoy cozy historical mystery novels in an Old Country House setting, A Single Thread of Moonlight is the book for you.

Bitter Greens, The Shadow in the Glass, and Tower are adult reads. Tower is very adult, as in “if this were a movie, it would get an R rating.” Bitter Greens is for mature readers, not in the sexual sense (although it does deal frankly with the sexuality of its characters) but because this is very sophisticated writing, skilled readers will probably like it more.

A Single Thread of Moonlight, Sometime After Midnight, and Grounded are YA. Grounded skews very young, while A Single Thread of Moonlight–labeled YA by the publisher–appeals to both adults and younger readers. I’m an older reader, and I loved all three.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this year’s Valentine Week blog series. Happy reading!

Valentine Week: Fairytale Fantasy #6

Cinderella Retelling number 3

If you missed the introduction to this year’s Fairytale Fantasy series of posts, find it HERE.

Laura Wood’s A Single Thread of Moonlight

Find the book on Wood’s web site (and check out all the other goodies there).

Laura Wood’s Cinderella-themed YA novel (Scholastic, 2021) is a lovely read, my favorite of the Cinderella re-tellings I’ve discussed in this Valentine Week blog series. Marketing copy claims this is a book for “the Bridgerton generation” and “perfect for Jane Austen fans,” all implying this novel is Regency romance set in the early 19th century. It’s not–it is set in the England of 1899, just at the end of the Victorian era. But it IS romance, not fantasy. There’s no magic in it at all. The Cinderella theme, though, is not simply tacked on but interwoven into the plot–a mystery plot!–and very skillfully, too.

The book’s epigraph is from The Count of Monte Cristo, and Wood’s novel is indeed a tale of revenge and a disguised, wronged main character. Her love interest has an equally intriguing sub-plot involving the same rich stew, and the intersection of these two characters and their schemes to right terrible wrongs is very satisfying.

The main character, Iris, is spunky and sparkling, the love interest Nick is sardonic and aloof but a swoony guy underneath the rough exterior–catnip for many a reader of historical romance. Even better, the two of them partner up to solve an intriguing mystery involving an imposing, opulent old Downton-Abbey-esque manor house. The novel exhibits its YA creds by having Iris tell the whole thing in the first person.

I suppose a lot of the plot elements are improbable, but I didn’t care. I can’t speak for most readers, but I was swept away and willingly suspended my disbelief. The premise is this: Iris, an heiress, is mistreated by an evil step-mother after her father’s suspicious death. Fearing she’ll be next, Iris flees to London and hides out there, pretending to be a seamstress as she makes use of the needlework skills imparted by her mother. She’s her own fairy godmother, sewing her own ball gown for the big scene where she attracts the attention of an actual prince.

Here’s just one example of how much fun this book is to read:

Iris, on the topic of her disguise and her ruse to regain her inheritance and solve the mystery:

You see, people always assume that I’m the pretty little piece of embroidery.
But I’m not.
I am the needle.

–from chapter one

What fun! Historical romance, cozy mystery, old house setting–this book has everything (except fantasy, so some readers of this blog may not want to go there). I really enjoyed this novel.

NEXT (and last) UP: Valentine Week Fairytale Fantasy recap

Valentine Week: Fairytale Fantasy #5

Fairytale Fantasy discussion

Cinderella Retelling number 2

J. Phillips’s Sometime After Midnight

If you missed the introduction to this year’s Fairytale Fantasy series of posts, find it HERE.

Sometime After Midnight (Viking, 2018) is billed as a “CinderFella” story–a reimagining of the Cinderella story through an LGBTQ+ lens. It’s a fun, sweet read, but it’s not fantasy. This is very diverting and lovely YA romance.

Find this book HERE.

This YA romance alternates chapters between the two main characters, Nate and Cameron. Nate is a poor boy, while Cameron is rich. They meet at a club where an indie band is playing, and it looks like sparks are going to fly. But then Nate realizes Cameron is the son of the man who maybe caused his own father’s death, and Nate flees before Cameron can get his name. All Cameron has to go on, as he yearns for Nate, is a blurry picture his phone snapped of Nate’s DIY-decorated Chuck Taylor high-top sneakers. The romance goes on from there, following a familiar romance arc. But you can see the Cinderella elements even in this brief description: the poor person reduced to scut-work (in this case, Nate has to work at his grouchy step-mother’s Dairy Barn drive-up), the rich person who is pretty much a modern-day prince whose dad is the king of a far-flung and powerful recording empire. And the shoes! Instead of going door-to-door with the photo of the Chucks, Cameron’s twin sister posts the pic on social media, and the hunt is on.

The way the author twines the Cinderella story into the romance tropes is tons of fun. The music industry backdrop is completely fascinating. I don’t know much about that stuff, but I was enthralled, and it’s clear the author knows what she’s talking about.

A couple of the novel’s features did not completely satisfy me as a reader, but since I’m an older reader and not the intended YA audience, I’m not sure how seriously you blog readers should take my misgivings. First, the middle of the novel seemed to me to sag under the weight of young adult angst. As the novel nears its end, though, the angsty feelings made more sense to me, and the romance was truly satisfying.

Another part that hit me wrong: Cameron is a singer/songwriter, Nate is a guitar player who would have made his doomed guitar-playing father proud. That’s all fine. But the author gives us a bunch of Cameron’s lyrics, and they turned me off. Nothing is really wrong with them–they just seem like the kind of bad self-absorbed poetry any random teen would write. Now, this may have more to do with my own taste as a poet and reader of poetry than anything else, and besides, lyrics are not the same as poetry intended to be read, either silently or (best) aloud. They’re intended to be set to music. But we don’t have the music. We have to imagine that.

This kind of problem, it seems to me, can really hurt a work of fiction. I’m thinking, for example (speaking of fantasy!) of the third book in Scott Lynch’s wonderful Gentleman Bastards series, The Republic of Thieves. For all its great features, it has one (avoidable) flaw. The plot involves our rascally heroes, Locke and Jean, on the run with a troupe of actors performing a play very much like one of Shakespeare’s. Unfortunately, we get too much of the play in the novel–lines and lines of it, and it’s not Shakespeare, folks. Well. . .maybe one of Shakespeare’s really bad early plays? This part of the book does the novel no favors.

I think something like this can be done very well, though. I just finished reading Emily St. John Mandel’s fine dystopian novel, Station Eleven, involving a mysterious art zine. Mandel’s novel gives us bits of the dialogue, and they work well. This may be because we’re talking about essentially comic book dialogue, not Shakespeare (or, in the case of Sometime After Midnight, song lyrics supposedly the next big genius indie thing). Mandel sets us up to understand the context by ingeniously doing stuff like quoting Star Trek.

Here are two other places I’ve seen similar devices work very, very well. One is in the film Hustle & Flow (2005, directed by Craig Brewer, produced by John Singleton), with a very similar plot device: indie musicians trying to make it in a tough recording environment. The advantage the film has over a novel, of course, is actually letting us hear the music. The film’s theme song, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” (Three 6 Mafia/Cedric Coleman) won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, and was performed in the movie by its star, Terrence Howard with co-star Taraji P. Henson. The other example I’m thinking of is the superb over-the-top amazing Jim Jarmusch film, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), although in that film, the compelling music by Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA is used more as a Greek chorus device, so maybe it’s not comparable. I see I’ve used two examples from hip-hop. Full disclosure: I know next to zero about hip-hop. All I do know is that in these two films, the music is used to brilliant effect.

My quibbles aside, Sometime After Midnight is a fine YA novel, and I really enjoyed it. It’s not fantasy, but the Cinderella material is not just tacked on, the way the Rapunzel references seem to be in Tower (discussed earlier this week). Sometime After Midnight is a delightful update of the Cinderella story. . .er. . .CinderFella story, and I recommend it.

NEXT UP: the last of the Cinderella retellings, Laura Wood’s A Single Thread of Moonlight.

ADDENDUM: I can’t resist adding one more example of novels in which embedded works of other types of art play a major part. That’s Margaret Atwood’s 1988 novel Cat’s Eye–Atwood in realism mode, not dystopian. The main character in Cat’s Eye is a visual artist. Atwood’s descriptions of this character’s paintings that don’t exist except in our imaginations are so compelling that they might as well exist. (Or I could be wrong about that–Atwood could have actually painted them. I believe she did do her own cover art that her publisher replaced with its own.)