Tag Archives: fairy tales

Roses and Rot

The quarrel of Oberon and Titania *oil on canvas *45.5 x 70 cm *signed b.r. monogram and dated 1880

Since Susannah Clarke’s brilliant Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I hadn’t read a book that dealt with the Fae, those simultaneously entrancing and terrifying Folk, in any great detail. Well, there were Patrick Rothfuss’s books, but since those are epic, and not portal or ‘second world’ fantasy, I don’t really include them here.

And then I stumbled across Kat Howard’s debut novel, Roses and Rot. It came to my attention thanks to tweeting from Neil Gaiman, an author whose work I love and who I trust to give me good recommendations. So without reading anything more about the book itself, or the author (I don’t really like doing the latter before I’ve read a book, to be honest), I went ahead and bought it.

roses-and-rot-9781481451161_hrI was not disappointed. Roses and Rot starts off slow, but Howard builds such an incredible atmosphere that you just have to surrender and lose yourself to it. Marin and Imogen are sisters, one light and one dark, one a dancer and one a writer, both prey to a horrible, hateful mother who has long desired to uplift the one and destroy the other. Despite their mother’s efforts, Marin and Imogen are the best of friends, the closest of siblings, and at the start of the book, arrive together to begin a nine-month residency at the prestigious artists’ and creators’ retreat: Melete.

The retreat is everything the two could wish for. Marin has the opportunity to work with, and eventually, fall in love with, Gavin, a famous dancer and head of a prestigious dance company. Imogen, soaking in the beautiful surroundings, embarks upon an ambitious project: a novel that weaves together the structure and metaphor of a fairytale, the stories that had sustained her, and her sister, during some of their darkest years. In Melete, they meet fellow artists, Ariel, a singer, Helena, a tortured poet, and perhaps most intriguingly, Evan, a sculptor of extraordinary talent, who seems to disappear, and reappear, among the bridges and elf maples of the campus.

As time wears on, readers discover that Melete and its residents pay a disturbing price for their success, one that might succeed in doing what the girls’ mother could never do: destroy their faith in one another, for good.

Roses and Rot is a fairy story, structuring itself as a large fairy tale with a wicked mother figure, beautiful, mysterious woods, charming mentor figures with strange pasts and magical talents, and mysterious, cursed love interests. It is also a Faery story, and that means the Fair Folk, those terrifying people who are, as an observant friend put it, ‘vicious and amoral’. Howard’s book really puts forth the question: what would you do to succeed in your art, to be remembered down the ages like Shakespeare and Beethoven? Many people would say ‘Anything’, but only those who go to Melete know what that really means.

For me, the most enjoyable bit about the novel was its atmosphere, the rich detailing Howard puts into the world of Melete, the interactions between its residents. I loved the relationship between Imogen and her mentor, Beth, the friendship that develops between her and Ariel, even the relationship between her and Evan. Howard’’s strength as a novelist is her characters, her minute observations of the manner in which relationships unfold between people who begin as strangers, lodged together in a house, and how time mutates them into friends, confidantes. Her characters are eminently relatable, and her setting, gorgeous. I found myself wanting to go to Melete, never mind the strange things that happen there. The Night Market would make it completely worth it.

Also, there’s a lot to be said for the fact that Howard’s book actually made me want to be part of a residency. I’ve never seen myself as someone who can shut themselves away from the world so completely and just write, needing distractions in the form of other work or engagement with people in order to function—-but Melete…oh I could do it for Melete. There’s something so luxurious about the idea of needing to do nothing but write, and surrounding yourself with people similarly engaged in artistic pursuits. Maybe some day.

The parts where the novel falters are, for me, Imogen’s writing. I loved her voice, and the manner in which she narrates her own story, but I couldn’t be similarly wowed by her literary work, whatever we see of it. Perhaps I’ve seen too many rewritten fairytales (John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things is still, for me, the pinnacle of writing in this genre), but her writing didn’t grip me. Of course, she is a fledgling writer in the book, and her book within a book is not a masterpiece, not when we see it, at least. Luckily, these stories within stories are few and far between, and Howard takes us back to the world of Melete and its scary fairy friends soon enough.

Would I take the ‘deal’ that Melete offers? My answer’s a bit long-winded. Once you read Roses and Rot, you can get back to me and I will fill you in. No point in my spoiler-ing it right now.

What are you waiting for?

The Star Touched Queen

One of the hardest things about writing epic fantasy is knowing when to stop.

Stop with the worldbuilding. Stop with the background plotting and the side quests. Stop adding new characters and giving them fascinating powers or stories that derail from the ‘main’ quest, and end up padding your book till its the size of a respectable brick and can, conceivably, be used for the same purposes—if you don’t mind your house getting a little soggy during the rain.

One of the ways to avoid that is to take the seemingly less ambitious ‘narrated fairytale’ route. You still have the magic, the mystery and the life altering quest, but if the setting is less clearly realized, its politics and history not so defined, it is alright. What you focus on, in this case, seems to be the voice of the person doing the telling, with all that entails: emotion, beauty, and more often than not, a greater attention to the how of the telling, than the what.

REVISED-Star-touched-Queen-coverIt’s for this reason that I would place Roshni Chokshi’s The Star Touched Queen in the realm of the fairytale, a cosmic romance narrated by the clever, wilful Mayavati (or ‘Maya’, as she’s more commonly known). ‘Partnered with Death’, Maya has always been shunned when not outright bullied by her half sisters and the ladies of the king of Bharata’s harem. Her only friend is her little sister, Gauri, to whom she tells nightly tales of her own spinning. Maya has a talent for riddles and for listening in on the courtly happenings, but she doesn’t have what the harem ladies prize: great beauty, a respected mother, or a good horoscope.

But things seem to turn around when, during a particularly action-packed swayamvara, Maya is taken away to the magical land of Akaran by her new husband, the mysterious Amar. In her new palace, Maya meets Gupta, Amar’s extremely meticulous assistant, and wanders in myriad rooms, each of which seems to have a unique treasure hiding behind its door. There is a courtyard which houses a glass garden, a room whose floor is the ocean, and perhaps most mysteriously, a tree whose fruits are candles, which enclose within them shards of someone’s memory. Most importantly, in Amar and his new queen’s throne room resides a humongous tapestry, each of whose threads represents one life, and it is the task of the rulers of Akaran to tend it and thereby maintain the balance of the worlds.

Of course, every mysterious palace has its troubled prince, and every troubled prince has a hidden story, whose telling, or lack thereof, causes complications. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that though Amar promises his ‘jaani’ that he will tell all when the moon turns, she loses patience and, enamoured by the words of a mysterious woman in a mirror, takes matters into her own hands, with tragic results.

But just as a fairytale can’t exist without someone going off the path and courting trouble, they can’t come to an end without the protagonist overcoming his or her problems, at least to some extent. Maya really comes into her own in the second half of the book, when she has to cross worlds and face down enemies mythical and human in her quest to win back the love and memory of Amar, the Dharma Raja.

The strength of The Star Touched Queen is its writing. Each sentence is soaked in metaphor, offering surprising images that tie together disparate elements, and yet somehow managing to paint to a picture in the reader’s mind. Whether she’s describing the marigold-garlanded halls of Bharata’s palace, or the ice-sharp flowers of the Akaran glass garden, the scent of thunder wreathed around a mystical elephant’s tusks or the bloodlust of a demonic horse, Chokshi’s pen dances through words and worlds, drawing a reader gasping after it. I can forgive elements that seemed strange, unexplained (such as Maya’s shadow, which sometimes goes missing, or the rather jumbled politics of Bharata and its neighbours) simply because of the beauty of her prose. It’s evident that this story and Maya’s voice comes from someone who has dedicated love and effort to crafting every sentence that speaks of it, and Chokshi has the talent to do this mythical, mystical world justice and more.

Finally, what does this novel mean to me, a reader from India, watching as many of the tales she grew up with took on life in a new form? I’ve long felt that one of the hardest things for an Indian writer seeking to write fantasy is obtaining distance from the mythological beings and elements that  we might desire to use in our own work. ‘Suspension of belief’, I called it here. Chokshi has solved that problem by, as I said, positioning her work not as an epic fantasy set in a world that is completely her own, but retreating to the hazy realm that exists between fairy tale and myth, where certain things can be left unexplained, such as the structure of the kingdom, the geography—what prevails is the magic and the character’s adventure through it all. Maya is part of something cosmic and huge, which is greater than the nittygritty of any one kingdom. Her story, and Amar’s, occupies the space of myth, larger than the relatively much more human concerns of an epic fantasy. In her mistake lies the potential for imbalance between the worlds, and the death of Death itself. I’d say that’s a bigger deal than who gets to sit the Iron Throne.

Would I recommend this book? Definitely. It’s beautifully written, and the story is compelling. Maya is a lovely narrator, and her tale the stuff grand love stories are made of. Not to forget, Gupta is a pretty entertaining character. I’d love to read his treatises on the discourses of molluscs some day.

Cinderella: An Absurd Fairytale


cinderellaOnce upon a time, there was a beautiful little girl called Ella. Her father died when she was very young, leaving her in the care of his second wife and two step daughters. Jealous of her beauty and general wonderfulness, the stepmother and her daughters forced Ella into becoming their maid, and generally set about trying to repress her spirit.

It’s actually a horrible story, come to think of it.

Ella is forced to slave away for people who she, and her father, had trusted to take care of her, and there seems little happiness in sight. And then things magically look up when the fairy godmother arrives and grants her one wish: to go to the ball and escape the misery for a time.

The important thing that many people miss out in in the Cinderella story is what exactly she wished for. There’s been a meme doing the rounds for a while, that pointed it out. Cinderella didn’t ask for a Prince, or for love; she asked for a night of fun. A night where
she could forget the drudgery of her life for a time, pretend to be someone else and dance away her sorrows like any other privileged young woman in the kingdom. She never asked to be rescued from her situation; that sort of came along later.

30532-00-dsn__disney_princess-cinderella_prince_charming_stroll_in_the_moonlight_1600px

I actually think Cinderella is a very gender neutral story. The core is pretty simple: someone who leads a boring, seemingly meaningless life is suddenly sparked into a realm of wonder by some sort of amazing event, and then everything that they have been through acquires significance and importance. We tell ourselves that Cinderella was rewarded with love and riches because she was ‘good’ and ‘kind’. There has to be some causal connection between what she did before/how she lived and what came next for her. The fairy godmother didn’t visit the wicked step sisters after all.

Cinderella is the ultimate ‘absurd’ hero, along the lines of Camus’s Sisyphus. Camus defined his hero thus: ‘..the whole being is exerted toward the accomplishing of nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.’ Cinderella’s drudgery was undertaken as some kind of absurd punishment, handed down to her by someone who, by all rights, should have risen higher than to take out latent frustration and insecurity on a helpless child. The stepmother is the ‘god’ of Cinderella’s absurd universe, dictating her endless servitude and demanding unflinching love and obedience in return. Being the hapless human she is, Cinderella delivers.

Cinderella does the chores allotted to her because she cannot do anything else. There is no place for rebellion in Sisyphus’s world. His knowledge of this, and his ability to continue on in spite of it is what makes him a hero; similarly, for Cinderella, she perseveres simply because she must. She has no choice. The way her life is lived is unchangeable by her own agency; the attitude she brings to it is what makes her heroic.

glass slipper
She’s so got this.

The beauty of a fairytale is that things can change, and often do, for no real rhyme or reason. Cinderella’s escape from her absurd existence is simply a fluke. The fairy godmother appears literally out of thin air and rescues her, provides her the night of fun she desires. That brief escape from her rock leads to bigger and better things, but how long before those become their own version of the dreary existence she just left behind? Camus makes it clear that this constant repetition of a meaningless task, the endless labouring towards a hazy and undefined goal, is what defines modern existence. Power comes from recognising this and continuing regardless. it comes from watching as the boulder rolls down the mountain and then following it down the path, to start afresh. ‘..the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols,’ Camus notes. In the recognition of his state, he owns his fate and diminishes the power of the gods.

Cinderella’s ‘escape’ from drudgery is the joy inherent in a fairytale, a pretty fabrication told to children. The reason the story ends where it does is because to follow it onwards would be unbearable. We would see her happiness dissolve, her marriage become routine and rote, another boulder to be rolled up a hill. We might see her giving joy and life to it, as becomes her character, but it wouldn’t do the job of conveying the fabricated moral half so well, that ‘kindness’ will get you places.

One must imagine Cinderella is kind.