Beautiful, kind and demure. Exactly what he’d always wanted. A perfect princess.
Only nothing is quite as it seems in Sarah Pinborough’s retelling of the classic fairy tale of Snow White and the seven dwarves.
I’ll start this with a short excursion into the surrounding circumstances of my reading of Poison. A couple of weeks ago I got me the dvd of The Hobbit so I could finally see the film. Feeling like spending money hand over fist I decided to watch Snow White and the Huntsman as well. While not expecting cinematic treats from the latter, I still had fun wondering whether or not Kirsten Stewart might be able to fully open her eyes if she managed to close her mouth, if she had some kind of impediment that kept her jaws from working properly, hen went on to wonder how exactly the jaw muscles might be connected to other facial muscles in general. I also tried to figure out how desperate and staved for retributive action the populace in SWatH must have been to be roused by this truly uninspired speech of Snow White and if they might also have followed a sleepy chicken to war if it happened to walk in the general direction. This is, of course, all totally beside the point, so let’s suffice it to say that while I was thrilled to have won a copy of Poison through the “Gollancz Geeks Initiative,” I was also rather weary of what I might encounter in this adaptation of the fairy tale.
But fear not. It’s a pretty, pretty book from the outside, it’s good lovely illustrations and quite enchanting chapter headings and won me over easily.
Poison contains all the elements of the classic Snow White fairy tale but a lot of unexpected twists and turns, too. Pinborough thoroughly plays with the reader’s perceptions and expectations and she is deliciously cruel in doing so. I was surprised to rediscover my romantic streak and to hope for a happy ending (view spoiler). Even though Poison looks like the classic tale on the surface, quite a bit of the story is told from the queen’s, Snow White’s “evil” stepmother, point of view. It becomes apparent that her actions are motivated by something other than pure evilness. She, is jealous of Snow White, that much is true. But she isn’t jealous so much of Snow’s beauty but of her freedom and her carefree attitude. Her jealousy is grounded in fear. Snow White is as free as Lilith, the queen, is restricted by the iron cast of her social role (former and current), her parentage, background and upbringing – and the overpowering and overshadowing image of the former queen, Snow White’s mother. There’s this dichotomy between Snow White and Lilith, between earth and air, dark and light. Neither is given preference, neither is pictured as the more desirable asset. In the end, it’s the queen’s inaction, her willingness to hand over the reigns and let someone else handle the situation, to let someone “help” her, that seals Snow White’s fate. And even then, Snow White’s ultimate end is designed by the one who promised salvation.
Another one of Pinborough’s artistic devices is her play on the (un)importance of names. Only very few real names are ever revealed. We learn that Snow White is the nick name given to the princess by Lilith. The dwarves names are all nick names, many of them gained by way of gruesome episodes lived through in the mines they work. When a very minor character is mentioned by name and reappears later in the story, I was secretly hoping for a decisive turn of event (cf. romantic streak). I should have realised by then, that Sarah Pinborough is not one to spare her readers the heartache.
Pinborough drops a lot of hints as to various characters’ back-stories. There are glimpses at much more complex psychological and emotional developments, but the author never reveals more than a snippet and then shows the readers the proverbial middle finger, leaving them hungry for more. The readers assume more than they can actually know all the time – what else is there to do?
Some of the male figures are portrayed as being quite pathetic recreants, which makes their winning the upper hand through deceit and perfidious acts even more chilling. In the tradition of dark retellings, (almost) no one is happy in the end, though – at least, no one the reader would have been rooting for.
I was quite happy to learn that more of the characters’ backgrounds will be revealed in the other two novels in the trilogy, Charm and Beauty.