This is my in-depth (no, really) critique of the book.
Beware: beyond this point spoilers abound.
And because I made you wait about a week for the critique, I loaded it up with extras!
Information and pictures and downloads galore!
Instead of writing one huge article, I separated all the information into easily browsable sections.
Please enjoy ^_^
Part One: The Summary
History of the Book
Serena Valentino was approached by an editor at Disney Press asking if there were any Disney characters she'd like to write a novel about. Valentino replied she would like to write about the Wicked Queen and Maleficent, and as the Queen was the editor's favorite character they decided to start with her. During the production of the novel, Valentino was also grieving the loss of her sister and found that her grieving process & emotions gave the Queen an added dimension that was otherwise undeveloped in the original film (Source - start at 9:35).
Characters & Setting
The character list is as follows:
- The Queen
- Snow White
- The Huntsman
- The Prince
- The King
- The Prince
- The Mirror Maker/Slave/Man in the (Magic) Mirror
- Verona, the Queen's maid
- Uncle Marcus
- Aunt Vivian
- The Odd Sisters: Lucinda, Ruby, & Martha
- Rose, Snow White's mother
- Tilley, a maid
- Lurid, a horse (no, really)
Did you notice something odd? How every minor character, no matter how minute a role they play in the story, has a name but the main characters whose lives and decisions shape the narrative are nameless beyond their titles? Yeah, that bothered me, too. It would have possibly been bolder and more fairy tale-esque if Valentino had chosen to give no one a name and referred to everyone by their positions within the story, but for some reason she elected to do a mash-up.
The other qualm I had was with the chosen names themselves: Verona, Marcus, Vivian, Lucinda, Ruby, Martha - these names are too contemporary to appear together. This may be purely preferential, but the names of characters should indicate the time and place in which they are living, no matter if the story occurred centuries ago or only a few decades. Names like Verona, Vivian, and Marcus suggest an Italian setting while Martha, Lucinda, & Ruby are strongly English.
Even more confusing is the fact that none of the named minor-characters are strictly native to the setting of the novel - they're traveling relatives or servants. Neither the characters that do live in the castle (the King or Queen) nor their neighbors (the Prince) are named as to indicate their environment.
Valentino may have been trying to create a more 'free-floating' fairy-tale environment without ties to specific cultures or countries but by adding in a modern mix of character names the setting & characters end up confused.
The strongest indication of when the story takes place is the mention of men wearing tunics and the Queen's reading illuminated manuscripts, placing the tale in a medieval time period. However, anachronisms abound when the weird sisters arrive wearing ballgowns ("They were cinched tightly in the bust and waist, but overly voluminous in the skirts, creating a bell effect.") and the mourners wear black armbands to the King's funeral, which is a modern practice.
Character Development (Tirade Section)
My biggest qualm was the over the Queen's character growth. While the elements and stages of her descent into madness are all in place, they don't ring true. All the plot-advancing decisions she's supposedly made for herself in the film turn out to be the machinations & manipulations of the three witch sisters insulted by the Queen. Without their interference we're led to believe the Queen would have led a blameless life, yet she still dies horribly in the end! What?
If a character acts on villainous instincts that harm the heroine we expect them to be punished in equal measure for a happy ending. Here, the Queen presumably had villainous instincts toward vanity and murder but only after their cultivation by these wicked sisters did the Queen act on them.
So either we're led to believe she was entirely manipulated or wanted to do these things but is simply using the sisters as a scapegoat. Someone coerced is still a sympathetic character, thus making her death and punishment pointless for her as a villain. She is a villain! She does things that are villainous!
If the Queen really was a sympathetic character she would have made more of an effort to preserve her good nature. Her one act of rebellion in sending the mirror away after Verona returns, and then recovers the mirror through her dreams/presumed sleep-walking. It's a set-up to show there is nothing she could have done to escape her fate - but there were things she could do! She could have imprisoned or executed the sisters, she could have broken the last mirror, she could have stepped down as Queen, she could have sent Snow White away - she could have done anything but sit back and take the abuse.
The Queen became a puppet for other villains, villains who have no other motivation than wanting to stir up trouble in the castle. She makes no strong attempt to regain her sanity - she goes quietly, bending to the wills of the other characters and following the paths they set out for her. When she's needed to go crazy for plot development, she does. She submits and then aggressively kills others? That makes her more a tool or a golem than a person.
What really bothers me is here how weak & ineffectual this writing choice made this previously awesome villain. The Queen is a legend among Disney villains mostly for how much she scared little children on Snow White's first theatrical release. Walt himself even regretted how extremely cruel and unrelenting her character was, thereafter deciding to dial it back on all future villains. Her entire cold-hearted reputation hangs on how far she was willing to go to murder her own child, even giving up what was most important to her to pursue the murder of an innocent. That in itself is chilling.
This story is not. By withdrawing the Queen's culpability you lose all sympathy for her as a protagonist. Why should I care what happens to her when the Queen herself doesn't? Why expand on the film if only to exonerate her villainy? In reading this book I never wanted to lose the Queen as a villain, I only wanted to know more about her - if there was any part of her history that made sense of her cruelty. In this regard, Fairest fails. The Queen here is weak-willed and pathetic by tale's end. Simply put it's weak and unrealistic character development, devaluing an otherwise intimidating and impressive villain.
The writing itself was hit and miss. For every line I liked there was a line of description or dialogue I found myself groaning at. The dialogue especially was unrealistic, over-expressive, & blunt. The Queen's explanation of her childhood trauma is four pages of just her talking without any mention of the King's reactions or breaks in the text. Then she reveals her father told her "I never loved you" before he dies. Her father never did a decent thing for her in her life - she already knows he hates her. It's the kind of over-the-top broad statement that's hard to believe which occurs with alarming frequency in this novel.
In fact, my biggest note was that the writing was "histrionic." Early on, the Queen thinks she cannot tell anyone about hearing the voice in the mirror because:
a.) they'll call her crazy, which will lead to
b.) burning her alive as a witch.
... What? That just doesn't follow. She's a noblewoman now, a King's wife with a huge amount of influence. Nobility could get away with a lot of eccentricities because of their power, even in medieval times, so why couldn't the Queen just let her freak flag fly? The paranoia really comes out of nowhere in this book and then just persists, baseless and unbidden. Witches were peasants and other poor persons blamed for the failings of the community. Nobility was rarely persecuted, so why is the Queen so worried about being pursued as a heretic? And then when she does start up her witchy activities, she never thinks twice about getting caught.
Stylistically arguable: the author left out several sections of the Queen's dialogue from the dungeon and cottage scenes from the movie. When in the dungeon she doesn't recite the ingredients or implications of the spell or even talk to the crow. At the cottage, she doesn't even shout, "Now I'll be fairest in the land!" after poisoning Snow White. It's an adaptation in part, but those lines are classic and define much of what defined the original character, so to leave them out feels like an abandonment of the character's essence.
Though I do think the editor is partly to blame for the writing quality of the novel. The novel was originally slated to be released in winter 2009 but might have been rushed ahead to coincide with the re-release of the DVD in October 2009 (it was officially released in August 2009)(Source). So the editor may not have been as exacting as he needed to be because he was under pressure to publish the book ahead of schedule. This was the author's first novel and it really did need better editing. The story she told was her own, but the logic in some places was so lost it was impossible to concentrate on being immersed in the story. After two years of writing and editing I thought this would be a much better novel than it is (Source).
I'm just going to throw some quotes at you:
- "Sometimes in these night terrors, a man would crawl out from the mirror, grotesquely contorting his body, falling onto the ground, then grasping a large piece of broken mirror, clutching it so tightly it cut his own hand as he chased the Queen onto rocky cliffs." (p 60)
-"'I'd cut her into bits and we'd make a potion of her.'
'Oh yes, and we'd all drink her...'
'Indeed. She'd make us beautiful and young again.'
'We'd need a raven's-'
'Feather and the heart of a dove-'
'Of course, and don't forget-'
And they all said, 'A lock of her dead mother's hair.'" (p 71)
- "Desperate to find the mirror, she would dig for what felt like an eternity, her hands bleeding, her body weak, and her mind spinning out of control. Finally she would feel something soft and wet covered in cloth. After unwrapping it she would discover there in the cloth, a heart, its blood pouring all over her hands. 'Momma?' she would hear. It would be Snow, a young girl once again, standing there with a look of terrible sadness on her little face, her white dressing gown covered in blood, dripping from where her heart once was." (p 190-1)
- "'Show me Snow White!'
Snow White was running in the dark forest, full of fear and anguish. She was panic-stricken, alone, and heading back to the castle. Back to her mother, who would surely have the Huntsman punished for attempting to hurt her, and weaving lies that she plotted her own daughter’s death.
The forest came alive; it was visceral and dangerous. It wanted Snow White’s life. The Queen’s rage penetrated the trees, bringing their leafless limbs to life. As if they were hands, the tree branches scratched and grabbed at Snow, entrapping her, pinning her to the ground. They wrapped themselves around her neck, choking her, and clawing at her chest for her heart. The forest would do what the Huntsman could not." (p 198-9)
"It was blood—pools of it— mingling with footprints, leading from the Queen’s bedside out her chamber door. The Queen took a torch for light and followed the bloody trail out the castle and into the forest. The forest was blackened, as if destroyed by a fire; there was no light from the moon or stars. It was a dead place, ruined by her jealousy and hate. The only source of light was the torch she carried. The bloody trail finally ended. Snow’s heart was within the claw-like branches of the dead tree, looking like a strange, bleeding fruit, blood glistening on the branches in the torchlight. The Queen just stood there, feeling empty and alone, her own heart shattered." (p 200-1)
The odd thing about the violent, gruesome content in this book is almost all of it happens exclusively in dreams, which is strange for how much violence there is in the story naturally. Fairy tales are almost always visceral in some regard so it was odd to have this story feel so 'clean' except when the Queen went to sleep. Even the actions that take place in reality, like the Queen showing the Mirror the heart of the pig or the Queen stabbing the Huntsman in his gut, don't get as much description as the dream sequences. Real horror is weightier and more consequential than dream horror - you wake up from a dream, you live in reality - so what really haunts the reader?
The horror elements were a tease. There was horror but it was tangential - you could remove it from the story and still have a workable plot, albeit a less scary one. There were darker elements already in the film that could have been explored - the skeletons in the dungeon, the vultures on the cliff flying after the fallen body of the Queen - so I can't quite classify this as a dark re-telling of Snow White as much as a re-telling of Snow White with dark elements.
I do love the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, that much is obvious. However, I'm not obsessed with the film (I'm obsessed with the history of the film, there's a difference >_>) but I do have an uncanny ability to recall details. As I was reading the novel (without being anywhere near a DVD player) I caught the following inaccuracies from the book to the film:
- When the Prince first spies on Snow White at the Wishing Well she is with bluebirds; technically it's not a scene from the film, but in the film doves follow Snow White around the Well and she talks to them; It's a placement issue, really: in the courtyard she talks to doves, in the forest she talks to bluebirds.
- When the Mirror first tells the Queen she's no longer the Fairest in the Land, the line written in the book is "A lash for her!" (p 213) (Film line: "Alas for her!" as the Mirror prompts it with "Alas, she is more fair than thee.")
- When the Queen is in the peddler's disguise talking to Snow White at the window, the line from the book is "It's apples that makes the menfolks' mouths water. Pies made from apples like this!" (p 237) (Film line: "Pies made from apples like these!")
- The King dies in a war with another country. After his death the war is never mentioned again or affects the plot at all. The opposing forces even attacked the castle in earlier chapters but never do so again. Did they just want to kill the King, was he their only problem? He seemed like a nice enough guy.
- The sisters tell the Queen they were instrumental in her birth because her mother wouldn't conceive except by their magical influence. Chapters later, the sisters reveal to the Queen that her mother was a witch (p 215). So the mother had magical ability but couldn't use any of it for or on herself, while the sisters used magic on themselves to come and go and haunt the Queen's dreams?
Fairest of All: ** / *****
Would read again: No.
Would buy: No.
Would recommend: With extreme prejudice.
Would read from author again: Yes. She's done good work before and I believe she'll do good work after this - though the novel might not be her best medium.
The Book In Real Life
Here it is in the
Vampire Romance Dark Fantasy section.
And if you're wondering if the Hag cover is a bookflap on another edition...
... it's inside the cover of the bookflap! Aw, SNAP!
This is actually the fourth re-telling of Snow White I've read from the Queen's perspective. And just to give you an idea of what other works are out there, I've prepared a few summaries:
1. Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman. Still the best - it's short, the language is clear and precise, the themes are well-integrated from the original fairy-tale. Even with the new themes of vampirism, pedophilia, & necrophilia it still holds together as well as any classic folktale. Read it here.
2. White As Snow by Tanith Lee. This one is an impressive original - Lee combines the story of Snow White with that of Persephone of Greek Mythology. It's a fascinating tale - and fair warning, extremely adult, wherein rape, murder, & abuse abound aplenty. However, the novel doesn't reach the top spot for me because it gets and stays very bleak. I was more depressed by the ending of this book than I was by George Orwell's 1984. Still, I praise it on high for it's superbly original re-working of an old fairy-tale. You can buy it here.
3. My Side of the Story: Snow White by Daphne Skinner. Yes, yes, yes - it's a children's book, but once you get beyond that this is a fun & funny series! One half of the book is devoted to the heroine's side of the story (which is sometimes in itself an adaptation of the movie) while the other half is devoted to the villain exonerating themselves for their seemingly malicious behavior.
In the Queen's case, she was just a health nut!
That explains everything XD
Plus, I just love this picture. Snow White's like, "Ok, whatever you say!"
Buy the book here.
4. Honorable Mention! The Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Parody from The Simpsons "Four Great Women and a Manicure." A four-part episode that contains parodies of Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Snow White, Macbeth, and The Fountainhead, the satire of Snow White is obviously & hilariously lifted from the Disney version, with Snow White played by Lisa and Lindsey Naegle playing the Queen.
However, the parody gets the Honorable Mentions specifically for this joke:
The Queen: "Bring me Snow White's heart in this box!"
The Huntsman: "What'll I do with the rest of the body?"
The Queen: "Put it in this box!"
The Queen: "And then you'll get your reward!"
Watch the episode here!
And if you made it this far, I'd like to congratulate you with a download!
Here is a high-quality version of the Fairest of All cover
1688 pixels by 2063 pixels, 1.73MBs
You'll be astounded by the detail!