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Silver Birch, Blood Moon
edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Avon Books, 384 pages

Tom Canty
Silver Birch, Blood Moon
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.

ISFDB Bibliography

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.

Terri Windling Website
ISFDB Bibliography

SF Site Review: Fairy Tale Anthologies
SF Site Review: Black Swan, White Raven
SF Site Review: The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Eleventh Annual Collection
SF Site Review: The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Tenth Annual Collection
Fairy Tales
More Fairy Tales (Plus E-texts)
Stil More Fairy Tales (Plus E-texts)
Fairy Tale Art

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Margo MacDonald and Katharine Mills

Silver Birch, Blood Moon is the 5th in a series of fairy tales which have been retold for adults, edited by Datlow and Windling. The series began with Snow White, Blood Red several years ago and has been contributed to by authors both well-known and obscure. The final book in the series, titled Black Heart, Ivory Bones, has been turned in and will appear in 2000.

SF Site reviewers Margo MacDonald and Katharine Mills have come together to discuss the content of this book to see how it holds up against the rest of the series.

Margo: The first thing I've got to say about this book, and I just can't hold back, is how disappointed I am that it was not released in hardcover but went straight into trade paperback. I bought the first 4 books in hardcover and it really bothers me that I won't be able to complete my collection with the 5th book in the same format!

Katharine: Not that I generally can afford hardcovers (except used ones) but the trade paperback format is, in my opinion, a completely silly idea. Why, all ye publishers? It costs nearly as much as a hardcover, wrecks like a paperback, and doesn't even fit nicely in your totebag.

Margo: Okay, so now that we've got that pet peeve out of our systems, I have to say that overall I liked this particular collection of short stories. I did think, though, that one of the 3 takes on the "Frog Prince" story would have been enough. Maybe it's just because I never really liked that fairy tale, but I felt overwhelmed by frogs. Of the 3, however, I liked "The Frog Chauffeur" by Garry Kilworth the best. It was amusing and bittersweet and definitely a fresh look at this old idea. I could have done without "Kiss, Kiss" by Tanith Lee and "Toad" by Patricia A. McKillip.

Katharine: I'll second that. Particularly since "Kiss Kiss" is so much inferior to Lee's earlier variation on the tale, "The Princess and Her Future," found in her brilliant collection Red as Blood. And I really am tired of reading about what insensitive bastards men are. As for "Toad," I'm particularly disappointed since McKillip is usually one of my very favourite writers, but this piece reads more like notes for a tale than the tale itself.

And the flood of creeping beasts doesn't end with Frog Prince themes either. There's "Skin So Green and Fine," in which Wendy Wheeler gives "Beauty and the Beast" a Voudon twist, with a snake-priest of Djamballah-Wedo as the Beast. This one, like "Kiss Kiss," features another wearisomely innocent heroine, whose growing-up process includes learning to like wearing tight clothes and high heels. This Latina lady, however, unlike Lee's heroine, grows to love her role as good wife. It's an interesting reflection of cultures, but not one I find sympathetic. I was much more favourably impressed with the blunt-spoken lady of "Toad-Rich," Michael Cadnum's slyly funny variant on "The Fairy Gifts".

Margo: Quite right and a very different take on the tale than Nalo Hopkinson's "Precious" which takes the story of the sisters who are blessed/cursed with uttering jewels and toads every time they open their mouths and moves it into a modern setting. In Hopkinson's hands the story becomes a disturbing look at spousal abuse.

Another somewhat disturbing tale in this collection is "Ivory Bones" by Susan Wade. This is the story of "Thumbelina" told in a "My Last Duchess" vein where the narrator is speaking to an unknown listener and the idea of horror slowly creeps in as it dawns upon the reader just what the narrator has done to his 'beloved'.

Katharine: Oh, right, thank you: "My Last Duchess." I couldn't think what it was this story reminded me of. My education is wasted on me. "Ivory Bones" was one of my favourites, sensuously creepy.

Margo: But to dig ourselves out of the depths of the dark and disturbing for a while, I must say that one of my favourite stories in this collection is "The Dybbuk in the Bottle" by Russell William Asplund. Asplund takes the genie in a bottle idea and gives it a twist by changing the genie into a dybbuk (a demon out of Jewish folklore) who is found by a wistful and unsuccessful farmer. The attempts of the farmer and dybbuk to outwit each other were lotsa fun and the whole style of the tale refreshingly entertaining.

Katharine: It's very much in the humorous tradition of Jewish folklore, and the denouement is an hilarious example of just deserts. One of my favourites was "The Vanishing Virgin." This is based on an obscure Andersen tale called "The Flea and the Professor" and is a very silly story of an inept and selfish conjuror, and his 'lovely assistant' Ms Molly who finds that a magical desk once belonging to Houdini holds much more than illusion in its carved oaken depths. But really, any story featuring "a decrepit rabbit called Pooper who had to be dragged by brute force from the ratty high hat that had become its only home," wins points from me.

Margo: No doubt about it, the last two stories we've mentioned are the most humourous of the lot. Though perhaps we could add Neil Gaiman's poem "Locks" (about reading "Goldilocks" to his daughter) to the humour category for making me giggle. It's a sweet confession of the vulnerability of fatherhood, which comes a little unexpectedly from Gaiman. There is one other poem in the collection, "Carabosse" by Delia Sherman, but I'm afraid it was quite forgettable. Without looking now, Kat, quick, tell us what it was about...

Katharine: Got me -- I confess that usually when reading these collections I skim over the poetry, although I did read the Gaiman piece, just for the sake of my admiration for "The Sandman."

Margo: The satirical humour award would have to go to Nancy Kress for her wittily clever take on "The Emperor's New Clothes," "Clad in Gossamer." There's just something darkly funny about the image of a man walking his brother's bride-to-be down the aisle, while he's completely naked -- with a huge erect penis. Or maybe it's just me. (Hope I didn't give away the ending there.)

Not so successful was "Arabian Phoenix" by India Edghill. I thought the characters were great, but this hopeful alternative ending of Scheherazade's story fell somewhat flat. A true fantasy, but a little too improbable to my somewhat cynical outlook.

Katharine: You know, I liked "Arabian Phoenix." Edghill's rationale for the disappearance of the brides certainly makes more sense than the king's motivation in the original story. However, I must agree that the sugar-coated Harlequin promise of an ultra-happy ending for the story's heroine made me wince a little. I'd give another 'mixed blessings' prize to Karawynn Long's "The Shell Box," which is mostly based on old tales of the Selkie Wife. Long has a beautiful writing voice, and this story of different kinds of love and of the magic of the sea has a hypnotic beauty about it -- but I'd say it's about twice as long as it needs to be. Plus, it features yet another abusive rotter of a man. (Is it all those evil stepmothers, do you suppose?)

Maybe that's why I liked Anne Bishop's "The Wild Heart" so much. In this, the first of the Sleeping Beauty transmogrifications in the book, the sleeping princess is not rescued by a prince, nor is she a mere unconscious victim. Here, there's a ring of truth, plus a happiness that, for once, comes out of the heroine's own heart. Bishop has captured the authentic fairy tale tone, that matter-of-fact, seemingly arbitrary, clarity.

Margo: The flip-side of the Sleeping Beauty story is told by Pat York in "You Wandered Off Like A Foolish Child To Break Your Heart and Mine" (whew!-- the title's almost longer than the story!). Based on the suggestion that the men who failed to save the sleeping girl ended up dying slow, painful deaths on the thorns growing around the castle, this story takes a bitter look at what became of the would-be heroes and their families. It's heart-rending, poignant -- and brutal.

Another tale told from the flip-side is "The Sea Hag" by Melissa Lee Shaw. Here the story of "The Little Mermaid" is narrated by the sea-witch (the one who gives the mermaid a potion which allows her to sprout legs). The author claims that her version of the story is written to counteract the female stereotypes perpetuated by Walt Disney. Guess she still buys in to the Disney ideology that "every story must have a happy ending" though. But that's okay, she tells it well so I'm willing to go for the kinder, gentler, hard-done-by sea-witch idea. But again, there's that "men are evil bastards" theme we keep noticing. Do you think these authors may be using fairy tale writing in lieu of psychotherapy? Or possibly they think their readers will? I think you could be on to something there, Kat, with the idea that evil-bastard-men are replacing the evil-step-mothers...

Katharine: Or maybe one breeds the other. If you want a story without a happy ending, how about Caitlin R. Kiernan's "Glass Coffin?" In this dark, post-industrial "Snow White," the dwarves are crippled street kids, and the princess herself is Salmagundi, a tragic, broke heiress. No evil stepmother here, only Salmagundi's own impulse to self-destruction, and a true love who comes too late to ever kiss her awake. This is one haunting, terrible, terrific story, with a hard and lonely bite.

And then there is Patricia Briggs' "The Price." This is "Rumpelstiltskin," and yes, once again, it features an evil bastard. (He's the prince, too -- funny how that happens.) Despite that, Briggs takes a thought-provoking look at several ideas: that magic must be paid for, no matter what one's motives; different shapes of love; different standards of value. There is a good queen who is loyal to a bad son, and an unexpected true love. The happy ending is a little bit of a cop-out, but still, a worthy effort on the whole.

Margo: There is a bit of the "Rumpelstiltskin" theme running through "Marsh-Magic" by Robin McKinley. The story features a kingdom where peace is maintained by a bargain struck between the king and a tribe of magical people dwelling in the marshes. The bargain means that as each successive king comes of age, the king's advisor chooses him a bride from amongst the marsh-dwellers. Generations go by and the bargain begins to seem like a bad one for the marsh people, so one of the chosen women decides to exact a subtle form of revenge on the king and his advisor. The story is really quite good, if a little long. There's a kind of darkness underneath the formal fairy tale style that leaves a ticklish feeling of discomfort, which remains even after the story has ended.

Katharine: Now I thought "Marsh Magic" was a LOT too long, with far, far too much exposition. McKinley gives us much more imaginary history, in my opinion, than one needs to make sense of the story. A little pruning would help this one a good deal; I had almost forgotten the point by the time I reached the end.

Margo: Speaking of endings, there is only one other story in this collection which we haven't yet mentioned. Looks like we've saved the strangest 'till last, cause there is no denying that "The Willful Child, the Black Dog, and the Beanstalk" by Melanie Tem is, well, a little odd. Tem has woven several fairy tale elements together and combined them with the understanding her career as a social worker has given her. The result is a striking tale which reads like one of those epic dreams you have where you're never really sure it isn't really happening, even after you wake up. I hope that makes sense -- do you know what I mean, Kat?

Katharine: It does, and I know exactly what you mean. It's full of arbitrary strange events, presented as commonplace, with a sense of barely-expressed horror.

Margo: Yes, exactly. A wonderfully haunting tale.

Katharine: So that's all, folks. It's a good collection, as in fact the whole lot have been. I wouldn't say it was my favourite of the series; I think that honour still goes to Black Thorn, White Rose. The stories in this one seem a little more uneven to me, and it's funny that some of my least favourite ones are by established authors. And, incidentally, let me say how nice it is to see so many fresh names in this collection; Windling and Datlow's support of up-and-coming authors has always been exemplary in the field.

Margo: I'd have to agree that it is not the strongest collection in the series, but there is more than enough good stuff in it to make it a worthwhile read. Now, if only it had been released in hardcover...

Copyright © 1999 by Margo MacDonald and Katharine Mills

Margo has always been drawn toward fantasy and, at the age of 5, decided to fill her life with it by pursuing a career as a professional actress. Aside from theatre (and her husband), Margo's passion has been for books. Her interests are diverse and eclectic, but the bulk fall within the realm of speculative fiction. She tells us that her backlog has reached 200 books and she's ready to win the lottery and retire.

Katharine Mills learned to read when she was three, and has never looked back. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she is legally blind without her spectacles.

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