I’ve mentioned several times that I don’t love short stories. I usually don’t gravitate towards them in stand alone or collection form. The one exception is fairy tales. They are, by their nature, short stories. And they are typically sold in collection form. And this brings us to Black Apples – a collection of 18 modern fairy tales. Many of these stories borrow from historic tropes or pull classic stories into modern settings. I received this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. And honestly, I’m pretty down with this book – and it’s pretty, pretty cover! This book will most likely find its way into some stocking this Christmas.
These aren’t your Disney fairytales. These are much more in line with the original tradition of fairy tales. Dark and Grimm (see what I did there – yup). There are no pretty princesses being saved by dashing princes. There are no singing crabs or rabbits with waistcoats. Original fairy tales were often folklore and cautionary tales for citizens within certain communities. While there were many similar stories, they morphed with specific values and culture of a given community. Fairy tales were not necessarily meant for children – especially not in the way we think of children now. This book – probably not for your kids. Unless you’re awesome. There’s research out there about how children who are read the original Grimm’s tales develop better rational decision making skills. How credible are these studies? I don’t know, but I can see the logic. You raise a kid to only believe that someone else will always pop up to save them and that everything has a happy ending, it’s probably going to take them longer to realize that that’s not how this whole real world thing works. Teach them early that sometimes things take a turn for the dark and twisty and they might be able to apply these ideas to situations they find themselves in. However, you may also want to cushion these stories with – cutting out the heart of someone who is prettier than you is probably not your best problem solving path. Anyway, I’m finding myself falling down the rabbit hole of not relevant.
When I started Black Apples, I was hooked by the writing in the first story – Snow Child – from the very first page, but I wasn’t sure I was down with the content. It’s a retelling of Snow White where the stepmother hates her beautiful stepdaughter because the daughter sleeps with the mother’s new husband. My uh oh radar when off. It’s extremely well written, but if all the stories were going to be like this one, the book was going to feel like it was trying too hard. However, the second story was a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Sisters – if you’ve read previous entries, you know this is my favourite fairy tale. And this one read much more like a classic fairy tale. A father desperate for a son. A dozen daughters. A gender swap to trick their father. And then another. A betrayal by the tricksters. It’s everything I look for in one of these stories.
As much as I liked Twelve Sisters, Twelve Sisters, Ten, it was not my favourite story in this collection. It was good; there were just others that stuck with me more. The best story was Sickly Sweet by Ephiny Gale. At first, it’s nearly impossible to recognize the inspiration for this story. It starts with a daughter whose father cuts off her hands and leaves her in the forest as payment to the devil. After struggling to survive, the girl finds a pair of silver hands in the remains of a burnt down house. The hands fit perfectly to her wrists. Have you figured out where this one is going yet? No? That’s okay. You probably have your suspicions based on the title. So, these idle hands she finds turn out to be exactly what you expect. They like to bake and bake and bake, but they also like to steal and punish. And what do these hands do – they build a house of sweets and gingerbread. And then two children, who have been abandoned by their parents, show up desperate and hungry. And here we are. In this version of the tale, fattening up the boy to eat is the sister’s idea. It’s the only way to keep the hands calm. And when she eventually shoves the witch into the oven, it’s to end her suffering. It’s not a new idea – the witch as a good person – but I really like the way Gale handles it.
The next story that stuck with me was Scar by Elin Olausson. The story of a young girl growing up with a collection of older brothers. The pride and joy of her mother. After all these boys, she finally has a daughter. But Stella watches her brothers grow and fall in love and get married. She watches her ladies in waiting surrounding her. She finds her closest friend, Aurelia. She hears the stories of the realm where she will rule once she is of age. She hears and sees everything, but she never really feels any of it. She feels wrong. She doesn’t look like her brothers when they’re all naked. Even when her nurse explains to her that boys and girls look different, Stella still doesn’t feel right. She doesn’t feel attracted to any of the men of the court. But she is starting to feel attracted to Aurelia. It isn’t until she and Aurelia act on their feelings that she figures out why she’s never felt right. She’s her mother’s perfect girl, who was born a boy.
Also high on my list is Coyote and the Girl in the Red Dress by Rose Williamson. Through the girl we get a vague Red Riding Hood allusion. And through Coyote, we get a little piece of the trickster for which the character is named. For both characters, the city is encroaching on their nature. For the coyote, this is happening in a real, specific way. Coyote used to talk to man, used to be looked up to by man, used to provide guidance. But now, as cities spread further and further into nature, coyote has become a nuisance. He is something to be looked down on and shunned. For the girl, the expectations of men and their access to mind altering drugs are encroaching on the way she can live and act. What should be a simple attitude turns into a need to restrain in order not to provoke. One night when Coyote is looking for a meal and the girl meets a boy she can’t handle, their paths finally cross. Coyote is finally able to speak to man again and the girl connects with something she didn’t know existed. It’s just a damn good story.
There are lots of great stories in the book – Deus Ex Machina, Bluebeard’s Child, The Shadow and the Snake, and several others. I have to admit that there are two I ended up skipping Every Heart is Cold Dark Matter and Enkesonnen. They weren’t bad stories. They just weren’t my style.
Overall, I think the collection is pretty strong. There are people I know will love it. There are people I know who won’t. But for those who like a slight twist on the classics, this might be right up your alley. Worth the read.