Once Upon a Time has wrapped up for another year, but I haven’t properly mentioned some books, including two terrific books of Inuit folktales which I’ll discuss tomorrow. But, first…
Cameron Dokey’s The World Above is part of the series of retellings from Simon Pulse; there are about twenty retellings in all, and they all seem to be packaged behind dazzlingly perfect glossy covers (which I would have absolutely loved as a girl and still find disturbingly mesmerizing). On the cover of this one is Gen, short for Gentian; she narrates The World Above.
“I’m sure you’re familiar with the story. Or at least you think you are. ‘Jack and the Beanstalk.’ That’s what our tale is usually called. But there’s a problem with that title. Actaully, there’s more than one. Whose name do you see there? It doesn’t mention me at all.”
Gen is Jack’s twin sister, born just a few minutes ahead, but with as many differences from her brother as similarities, though of course they share that magical twin bond (so useful in stories).
There are some predictable elements to the story, but of course that’s to be expected; it’s unlikely that readers will pick up these volumes looking for true innovation. (I mean, these are familiar stories, right? That’s at least part of the appeal.)
And there are some variations. For instance, there are echoes of Robin Hood’s and Odysseus’ stories adding to the beanstalk-focussed plot. And ostensibly there is an effort made to include details that the traditional tale has overlooked (including, for instance, the name of their cow, which Gen states is usually left out). So there is a sense of this being “the real deal”, “the scoop”, and that naturally appeals.
Still, it’s easy to imagine the creative brief that the author was handed by the publisher: spunky, but ultimately traditional, heroine has an adventure with a familiar tale as a backdrop. (For me, the predictability of these elements hampered my enjoyment more than the predictability related to the traditional tales.)
The writing is perfunctory, and an effort is made to make the dialogue sound natural for these times — without actually crossing into slang and common usage — so many young readers will fall into this tale effortlessly. It’s also easy to imagine some girls wanting to have the entire series lining their shelves, regularly re-reading in gulps (for the style makes for gulping).
Works like The World Above can certainly contribute to a young reader’s understanding of the ways in which the slant of a tale’s telling can influence the listener’s/reader’s understanding of events. (The publisher suggests ages 12 and up, but it seems better suited for 10 and up, to my mind.)
But without a stronger resonance beyond the page (either to the traditional tales themselves, or in echoing contemporary events which could illuminate the relevance of these old stories for today’s readers), they are unlikely to attract and sustain the attention of more mature readers.
Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Black Ships Before Troy would make an excellent introduction to The Aeneid or a valuable companion to Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles.
The illustrations by Alan Lee are detailed and evocative, ranging from a sea serpent that covers the better part of two pages, to narrow panels of armored men, to domestic scenes of women weaving.
Chapters like “The Women of Troy” and “Warrior Women” add context that Miller’s readers will appreciate. There is a pronunciation key (always helpful) and a list of source reading for the eager (who can resist booklists).
The prose style is somewhat formal but written with younger readers in mind, which takes some of the edge off the formality; it’s comfortable reading for adult readers looking to brush up on the stories of ancient Greece and Troy.
(I had originally requested this to read alongside Madeline Miller’s book, but duedates conspired and I had to read The Song of Achilles without a book as companion. As it turns out, that was a good thing, because I wouldn’t have wanted to know how Patroclus’ story ends. Though, ironically, when I had finished Madeline Miller’s novel, no other version would do. I did enjoy leafing through Sutcliffe’s version, but I only sampled it; I didn’t want to read some other — lacking — version of Patroclus’ story, only Miller’s. Which is the mark of great storytelling, though I am certain that I would have enjoyed Sutcliffe’s tales if I had discovered them first, rather than in the flush of someone else’s tale-spinning. When enough time has passed for me to be able to admit another version, I will return to Black Ships Before Troy.)
Readers finally begin to understand what the War with the Adversary means, both historically and in the present.
Someone has escaped from years of slavery under his rule. But are they as they claim to be?
It gets ugly. And I’m surprised that people don’t complain about Bill Willingham’s willingness to slay his darlings as often as one hears that complaint of G.R.R. Martin’s books: it’s not only the baddies who get killed.
Have you read any of these? Or would you like to?