Black Thorn, White Rose: A modern book of adult fairytales
Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (Eds)
ISBN: 978 08095 5775 2
I found this a most challenging collection to review. This is in part my own fault, as I find short stories difficult to review for my own reasons. Certainly the fault did not lie with the quality of the pieces contained in the pages, for there are some fine stories here. Almost all are well crafted, drawing the reader into the retelling of the old tales. No, quality of writing was not the problem. The difficulty I faced was more in the age of the collection. Fourteen years is a long time, and these stories first saw print in 1994. So much has changed in the world since then: the ways we perceive good and evil not the least, but also the things that have the power to shock us, to scare us, and to permit us to suspend our disbelief. Hence, there were stories in this anthology that felt old, dated, tired. It is possible to envisage them as fresh and groundbreaking when first published, but the intervening years, and many similar collections (including a number produced by the same editors, some of which I will review soon), have left this anthology feeling a little stale.
As I said though, there are some fine stories; stories that have particularly held their power through the years. The first piece in the collection “Words Like Pale Stones” by Nancy Kress is one such. A nasty take on “Rumplestiltskin”, always one of the more frightening fairy tales (for my mind at least), Kress takes the story and turns it sideways, giving us a tale that looks more closely at the human nature and motivations underpinning the traditional tale.
Patricia Wrede’s interpretation of the “Sleeping Beauty” story is also memorable. “Stronger Than Time” considers the practical problems facing the prince of the story, and what might happen if he disregarded the requirements of the enchantment. I never met a piece of Wrede’s writing that I didn’t like and this is a poignant, bittersweet tale that demonstrates her familiar style beautifully.
Perhaps my favourite story in this collection is Midori Snyder’s piece “Tattercoats”. Elegantly written, beautifully paced and charmingly told, Snyder brings us a delightful tale of a woman regaining her husband’s love, and learning a little about herself along the journey.
I feel that the lighter stories in the collection did not appeal to me as much as the more mature retellings that examined the darker side of the tale, and thus of humanity. The anthology is purportedly for adults and yet a number of the stories seem to be aimed more at the Young Adult reader. Some examples are Isabel Cole’s “The Brown Bear of Norway”, and Susan Wade’s “The Black Swan”. That’s not to say they are not enjoyable to the adult reader, but I found them to be interesting additions.
In all, Black Thorn, White Rose
achieves what it sets out to do; the stories within are well shaped examples of the genre, some captivating and charming, others delighting in the darkness reminiscent of the original incarnations of the tales retold. And yes, I read the book as fairy tales should be read; curled up in bed.