May 19, 2007

Swan Sister: Fairy Tales Retold edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow

This collection presents fairy tales retold by fantasy authors, and these retellings are closer to the spirit of the old, original tales than to the post-nineteenth century or Disney versions. In the introduction, Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow tell us:
In these new versions of fairy tales, the Good were always unambiguously Good, and they always triumphed over Evil. Real life, however, is more complex than that. The old fairy tales were more complex than that too. Underneath their fanciful trappings, the old tales had a lot to say about human nature: about cruelty, vanity, greed, despair – and about the “magic” that overcame them: kindness, compassion, generosity, faith, persistence, and courage.
I think I liked this anthology even better than the one I’d previously read, A Wolf at the Door. This is surprising, because that one had more authors I’m familiar with and whose work I enjoy. But then again, perhaps that was part of the reason – I did not know what to expect from this one, and I was very pleasantly surprised.

The authors in this collection include old favourites of mine, like Neil Gaiman and Jane Yolen, but also authors I wasn’t familiar with, but who have very much impressed me. Something I loved about this book, and that A Wolf at the Door also had, is the fact that after each tale there’s a page with a few words from the author, explaining why they chose to retell that story in particular, and also with some information on them. It made me feel like I was getting to know the authors better, and it had useful information like their websites or where to find more of their work.

Now, a few words about some of my favourite stories:
  • Greenkid” by Jane Yolen is a story based on the British Green Man myths, and, like everything Jane Yolen, it was very, very good. It made me feel like reading The Green Man, another Windling/Datlow anthology that has been on my list for quite a while.

  • “Golden Fur” by Midori Snyder was one of my very favourites. I know Midori Snyder from Endicott Studio, but I hadn’t read any of her fiction before. I clearly need to get one of her books soon. This story is a beautiful, Arabian Nights-esque tale, featuring a very interesting talking cat.

  • “The Fish’s Story”, by Pat York, another author I wasn’t familiar with, is a retelling of “The Fisherman and His Wife” that tells the story of the fisherman’s neighbours. It also gives some insight about just how the magic fish came to be.

  • “The Girl in the Attic”, by Lois Metzger, recreates “Rapunzel” as a story of the loneliness of a girl who is locked not in a tower, but inside herself

  • “The Harp That Sang”, by Gregory Frost, was another one of my very favourites. This story is inspired by a traditional ballad that I was not familiar with. Still, the story unfolded in a way that I could predict with precision, but despite that, or perhaps because of that, it was very, very satisfying.

  • “Awake”, by Tanith Lee, is a retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” in which the heroine occasionally wakes up from her long slumber, and also where the thirteenth fairy is not as bad as she is normally portrayed.

  • “Inventing Alladin”, by Neil Gaiman, is the only story in this collection I had already read, because it is available in “Fragile Things”. This beautiful poem-tale is about Scheharazade, and also about storytelling itself, and I cannot resist sharing the last few lines:
    She does not know where any tale waits
    before it’s told. (No more do I.)
    But forty thieves sounds good, so forty
    thieves it is. She prays she’s bought another
    clutch of days.

    We save our lives in such unlikely ways.
  • “My Swan Sister”, by Katherine Vaz, is the sad and moving story of a baby girl whose parents are told at her birth that she won’t be able to survive for more than a few weeks. The story is told from the point of view of the baby girl’s sister, and is interwoven with the fairy tale “The Six Swans”
Like in all anthologies, I liked some stories better than others, but there wasn’t a single one I can say I disliked. Among the stories I didn’t mention, there is a retelling of “Bluebeard”, two versions of “Little Red Riding Hood”, and one of “Little Thom Thumb”.

Recently Terri Windling announced that there will be a third volume in this collection of anthologies, and I’m very much looking forward to it. The table of contents looks very promising indeed. I also need to try their fairy tale anthologies for older readers.

On a final note, the fact that the book is dedicated to Heidi Anne Heiner, creator of SurLaLune Fairy Tales, put a smile on my face. SurLaLune is one of my very favourite websites, and, quite simply, the best resource for fairy tales lovers on the web.

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Words by Annie


  1. Oh, this sounds so good! I'm ordering it today!

  2. I need to pick this one up. I have Wolf at the Door, and enjoyed it very much.

    SurLaLune is a brilliant website, a very interesting and useful resource, much like Endicott.

    I need to read some more stuff by Midori Snyder too.

    Great review!

  3. Robin: yay! I hope you like it. I think you will - it's almost impossible not to!

    Quixotic, I definitely think you'd like this one. And yes, Endicott is a precious resource as well, I didn't mean to demean it when I said SurLaLune was the best. It's just that when it comes to Fairy Tales in particular, I am in awe of the amount of stuff it has! So many ebooks, many of each are only available online there.

    And thanks!

  4. I didn't think you were demeaning Endicott at all. :) It is a different sort of resource after all, and you're right - it contains an awesome amount of information.

  5. This looks really good. I may have to pick this one up too!

  6. Quixotic, I just wanted to make sure what I said could not be read that way, because I do love Endicott!

    Stephanie, do! It's a fast and very satisfying read.

  7. This sounds like a really good book, just the kind I would love! I love fairy tales and fantasy so this is right up my ally.


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