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Black Swan, White Raven
edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Avon Books, 366 pages

Black Swan, White Raven
Ellen Datlow
Ellen Datlow was the fiction editor of OMNI from 1981 until it folded earlier this year. She now works as the fiction editor of SCIFI.COM. Her well-deserved reputation as an editor for both this series and for the Fairy Tale Anthologies series (both with Terri Windling) has garnered her numerous awards.

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Terri Windling
Terri Windling is a five-time World Fantasy Award winner, a consulting fantasy editor at Tor, the author of The Wood Wife (winner of the Mythopoeic Award) and other fiction, and writes a popular folklore column for Realms of Fantasy magazine.

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A review by Georges T. Dodds

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I must say that I approached this book with some preconceptions of what a fairy tale should be -- what sort of a fairy tale anthology doesn't have a single tale beginning with "once upon a time?" Having read or been read the fairy tales of the Grimm brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault, the Comtesse d'Aulnoy, and Andrew Lang's coloured fairy books, I was expecting exactly what the editors of this collection were trying to avoid and recast in a modern context. As the editors point out in their introduction, much Victorian fairy tale material was sanitized in terms of both sexuality and violence from earlier sources designed for an adult readership. Many tales of the French contes des fees writers like Perrault and d'Aulnoy, were thinly veiled commentaries on members of the French court, intended for adults.

The first somewhat unexceptional tale, "The Flounder's Kiss" by Michael Cadnum, is a retelling of Grimm's "The Fisherman and His Wife," except that this time the nagging avaricious wife gets wished away by her husband. In "The Black Fairy's Curse" by Karen Joy Fowler, Sleeping Beauty is dreaming about giving herself to her lover, when at the most inopportune moment some prince goes and wakes her with a kiss: bummer! In Michael Blumlein's "Snow in Dirt," Joe Average discovers Sleeping Beauty while digging in his back yard. Awakened by a kiss, she blossoms into a top model, self-destructs as she ages, and finally falls asleep again when given a new rejuvenation drug. In the following tale, "Riding the Red" by Nalo Hopkinson, the wolf is a metaphor for sex-hungry men and red for a young woman's coming of age in this cautionary tale. "No Bigger Than My Thumb," by Esther Friesner, is a tale of a witch's revenge on the haughty lord who cannot father a legitimate child, but managed to sire a child with her. She magically implants the free-living thumb-sized foetus of her child into the lord where it can grow to maturity inside him, ouch! This is followed by Joyce Carol Oates' "In the Insomniac Night." This tale of a woman on the brink of insanity after her divorce didn't seem to me to tie in very well with any fairy tale I knew or with the general theme of the other stories. At this point, about a quarter of the way through the book, I began to lose interest, to some extent due to the strongly feminist slant of many of the stories. Brand me a typical testosterone-driven sexist pig, but stories of women's menses and oppression leave me cold. Steve Rasnic Tem's poem "The Little Match Girl," though not in this theme, didn't do much to raise my hopes.

"The Trial of Hansel and Gretel" by Garry Kilworth was the turning point in the collection for me. Hansel and Gretel are put on trial for burning to death a poor seemingly innocent old lady and stealing all her money. There follows a retelling of "Rapunzel" by Anne Bishop, in which the young flaxen haired girl is humiliated and confined by the evil witch Gothel, but moves beyond this to learn from her mistakes and become a strong, humble, and good woman. Despite its seemingly feminist overtones, this story captures the spirit of the fairy tale as do those that follow, however unusual they appear.

My favourite story of the lot is part Dashiell Hammett's The Dain Curse (1929), part H.C. Andersen's "The Tinder Box". Complete with a magic Zippo lighter that summons a trio of increasingly large canine-genies, and with the usual sexy-but-evil dames and uncaring, brutish men, "Sparks" by Gregory Frost is a perfect recasting of the fairy tales in modern times. "The Dog Rose" by Sten Westgard tells of a gardener's efforts to penetrate the forest of thorns surrounding Sleeping Beauty's castle, except that he isn't there for the princess but for his grandfather's long lost love. "The Reverend's Wife," by Midori Snyder, is the most overtly sexual and humourous of the tales. Based on a Sudanese tale, it tells of two women tricking the other's man into sexually gratifying their desires. Besides being a great sendup of the ever-so-righteous, it is a refreshing change from the usual macho male does the dumb blonde cliché, and an excellent tale of tit for tat (pun intended). "The Orphan the Moth and the Magic" by Harvey Jacobs is a tale of a poor young man who, though tempted in many ways, remains honest. Mistaken for a cat in a feline-free kingdom, he gets to snuggle up (and more) with the beautiful princess. "Three Dwarves and 2000 Maniacs," by Don Webb, is an interesting but bizarre combination of several fairy tales, including Snow White -- something like Jim Thompson's The Alcoholics on acid. The more sedate "True Thomas," by Bruce Glassco, tells the story of True Thomas, who is granted the boon/curse of foresight and of always speaking the truth after his long association with the queen of the fairies. Pat Murphy's "The True Story," tells the real story of paedophilia behind Snow White's leaving home. In rehabilitating the evil queen, it does what Dr. David H. Keller did for the devil in The Devil and the Doctor (1940).

"Lost and Abandoned," by John Crowley, tells of a male English teacher's difficulty in dealing with his separation from his children, and his solving this dilemma through retelling the Hansel and Gretel story. Though it has thematic similarities with Joyce Carol Oates' "In the Insomniac Night," it seems to better meld fairy tales with our current cultural context of divorce and separation. The poem "The Breadcrumb Tale," by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, tells of Hansel and Gretel's evolution out of childhood into a deeper understanding of the good things in the big bad world. "On Lickerish Hill," by Susanna Clarke, tells the intriguing story of a young girl raised among intellectuals in Elizabethan England and married on false pretenses to Sir John Sowreston. Along with a group of bumbling male "scientists," she summons a fairy to her rescue, but instead gets a Rumplestiltskin-like character. "Steadfast," by Nancy Kress, is the story of a real-life Napoleonic soldier's fixation on a beautiful ballerina, but here the soldier who has remained steadfast and true is ignored, rejected and killed by her -- a noir version of the Hans Christian Andersen tale. In the last tale, "Godmother Death" by Jane Yolen, a young boy is taken from his parents by Lady Death in exchange for services not done. He becomes a doctor and his knowledge of Lady Death's ways allows him to deceive her and save a princess whom he hopes to marry. Unfortunately for him, Lady Death has other plans.

Black Swan, White Raven is well presented, with an introduction that clearly presents the scope of the book. It includes good succinct summaries of who each author is, and an excellent list of other recommended readings. The tales within are done in a number of different styles. As Margo MacDonald points out in her review of this series of fairy tale anthologies, some may remain for a long time in one's mind, while others may grate on one's sensibilities of what fairy tales are about. While the first quarter of the book was generally not to my personal tastes, I thoroughly enjoyed and would recommend the remainder. Even those stories I did not particularly appreciate were well written, and would certainly find an enthusiastic audience elsewhere.

Copyright © 1998 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.


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