Thursday 9 May 2013
#CBR5 Book 48. "Snow White and Rose Red" by Patricia C. Wrede
Rating: 4 stars
Another fairy tale retelling, this one is set in Elizabethan England, in a town not too far from London, where the Widow Arden lives with her two pretty daughters, Blanche and Rosamund. Mrs. Arden is a wise woman, who has taught her daughters some of her healing arts. Sometimes the girls have to cross the invisible border to the realm of Faerie to collect more unusual herbs and plants. John Dee, famous occultist and astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, also lives in town. The book is set in the 1580s, when Dee was working with Edward Kelley and experimenting with alchemy and investigations into the paranormal.
As well as the widow and her daughters, and John Dee and Edward Kelley, the major players are the Queen of Faerie's two half-mortal sons. Hugh, the eldest, is quite content to stay put with his mother and her subjects, having pretty much forsaken his human side. His younger brother John, who was actually baptised as a baby, is much more restless, and feels compelled to return to the mortal realm, but returns home around Halloween and May Day. Some of the fairies at the court are displeased by the close connection between the Faerie and human world, and are hatching a plot to get rid of John. They manage to manipulate a spell Dee and Kelley are casting, but something goes wrong, and Hugh is hit instead. Soon he is turning into a giant bear, and his mother has no choice but to expel him from Faerie. John promises not to rest until he has restored his brother.
It doesn't take long before the stories of Arden daughters and the Faerie princes join up. Hugh the bear arrives on the widow's doorstep, and as he's still able to think, if not to speak, he's able to nod or shake his head to all the women's questions. They resolve to help him, and after an attempt at a healing spell, he at least gets the power of speech back. Now the young women and John need to figure out how to heal Hugh completely, which is tricky when part of Hugh's essence is trapped in a crystal in John Dee's heavily warded house.
As a Medieval historian, with a particular interest in Tudor history, it was especially fun to see Wrede's take on this story. I must admit, the story of Snow White and Rose Red is not one I know all that well. Helpfully, each new chapter starts with a little excerpt from the original fairy tale, letting the reader see exactly how the story has been altered and adapted. With it being a fairy tale, none of the characters are especially complex. The widow Arden is wise, sensible and a bit suspicious of her daughters getting involved in Faerie dealings. The girls are pretty and virtuous. Blanche is the calm and diplomatic one, Rosamund is the headstrong and feisty one. It's obvious from the start which brother will end up with which sister, but it's still fun to see the story develop much more gradually than in a fairy tale.
Including John Dee and Edward Kelley into the story and the complications that ensue from their botched spell casting, give a creative explanation as to why Dee packed up his family and suddenly left for Poland in 1583. This is yet another book that had been on my shelf for years and years, languishing unread. I'm glad my various reading challenges finally gave me the push to read it.