by Sarah Pinborough
A beautiful, sexy, contemporary retelling of the classic Snow White fairy tale, illustrated by Les Edwards.
Poison is a beautifully illustrated retelling of the Snow White story which takes all the elements of the classic fairytale that we love (the handsome prince, the jealous queen, the beautiful girl and, of course, the poisoning) and puts a modern spin on the characters, their motives and their desires. It's fun, contemporary, sexy, and perfect for fans of Once Upon a Time, Grimm, Snow White and the Huntsman, and more. (Synopsis from Goodreads)
Fairytale retellings seem to be forming into a little sub-genre of their own at the moment. This is something that I’m very pleased about, as I’ve always adored fairy stories, from the Disnified to the more disturbing, from the faithful adaptations to the clever re-workings, and those adapted to fit a modern or sci-fi setting. No version of a fairytale can really be wrong, as they are more fluid than that; they tell us about ourselves and how we view the world, and so it makes sense that they will change and evolve. Maybe the bad guys are starting to look increasingly sympathetic; maybe the prince doesn’t seem quite so charming anymore.
Poison is a retelling of the Snow White tale, set in a familiar fairytale world with magic and separate kingdoms, and at first glance largely faithful to the original tale. However, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that this is absolutely not the story of Snow White as we’ve seen it before. Ideas of purity, good and evil, and happily-ever-after are not as simple as they seem. The dwarves are not an isolated group of merry mine-workers, but an exploited underclass toiling in the royal mines. The Queen is not the cardboard wicked villain, and Snow White herself is much more than simply ‘the fairest in the land’. This telling is earthier, sexier, and more real than any version of Snow White I’ve come across before.
This isn’t to say that Poison lacks a fairytale feel. Far from it. Sarah Pinborough manages to combine the grittier aspects, real character motivation and sexy scenes with the more magical aspects, without ever losing that indefinable story-like quality of a fairytale. This feels like a more complete version of the Snow White story, rather than a different take on it such as something like Snow White and the Huntsman. Sarah Pinborough has not actually changed major elements of the story, but simply invited the reader to interpret the same events differently, through fleshing out characters and providing slightly different points of view. This is very clever, as, rather than feeling like a re-write, it opens up the original fairytale to interesting questions and observations, presenting it in a form that is more meaningful and truthful to the modern reader.
The Evil Queen is probably the most developed character in the story. She is no longer a mother-in-law simply envious of Snow White’s beauty, but a person battling with complicated emotions. She resents Snow White because she is allowed freedom and independence beyond anything the Queen could ever expect. The Queen has had to fight for all her power, whereas Snow White is given hers openly. Snow White is also fleshed out as a character, no longer simply the chaste, pure princess, but a warm, easy-going, brave and slightly naive girl who doesn’t fit neatly into the fairytale princess-mould. She is much more likeable than other Snow Whites, and easy to route for. There is, of course, a prince, who is written wonderfully and provides a few more surprises towards the end of the tale. The ending itself is clever and disturbing, and spot on for the themes of the book.
There are also elements of several other fairy stories woven into the plot, giving the book a sense of being connected to, and a tribute to, fairytales as a whole. This, for me, was the greatest strength of the story. I had never considered before that amongst the most famous fairytales we actually have two sleeping beauties, nor how well very separate seeming fairytales can be slotted into the same world, as if they are all feeding off each other. It is obvious that Poison is actually the middle part of a much larger story, which is extremely compelling. Who is the prince really, and the huntsman, does the crone have another role to play, and how is this all connected?
Unfortunately, this is also the main weakness of the novel. This is a very short book, and though the tale within it is fleshed out, it still only offers glimpses and hints of various characters and sub-plots. The Evil Queen and Snow White are wonderful characters, as is the prince, but the dwarves are still largely a mystery, and the huntsman still a stranger. The ending, while very clever and perfectly suited to the story, leaves events hanging, and it is clear that many of these things will be wrapped up in the later books. This is fine, but it didn’t feel like there was quite enough in this one book for me; it didn’t feel like a full story, and perhaps it would have worked better if all three parts had simply been combined as one.
However, it is a beautiful book, with a gorgeous cover, and illustrations throughout that capture the mood perfectly, which really enhances the fairytale feel. This is definitely a series meant for collecting, and when they are all out I might find that separating the different parts does work better both aesthetically and thematically. Just be warned; if you read this one, you will certainly need all three!
Poison is a rich, sexy, compelling and real re-telling of the Snow White story, packaged in a gorgeous book with wonderful illustrations. I’m looking forward to seeing where the author takes the interweaving tales in the next two books.
Thank you to Gollancz Geeks for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.