Tales within Tales

A review of Malinda Lo’s Ash (Little Brown, 2009)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Ash (2009)

 

Malinda Lo’s Ash is a narrative of change where everything is in flux: people, life/death, and the environment. Lo creates a chimerical narrative where nothing is certain.

 

Ash is living her own fairy tale at a time of conflict. The wealthy in her society have started adhering to a new religion espoused by philosophers who resist the old green witch religion that embraced fairy tales as part of its belief system. Ash’s own parents were on opposite sides of the debate – her father an adherent to the religion of the philosophers, and her mother believing in the green witch and sharing tales of fairy abductions with her daughter. Ash is shaped by the beliefs of her mother, and finds herself caught in a fairy bargain that could lead her into the fairy realm. This change in religion brings up the classic subject of the Cinderella tale – class change. The class changes of this narrative aren’t just about a girl transcending her perceived class, but about class ideologies themselves changing as religion and class become intertwined and fairy tales become an aspect of the lower class that are disparaged.

 

Yet, the fairies themselves, the subject of fairy tales, still adhere to their aristocratic ideas and Ash ends up coming into contact with the fairies, experiencing their ideas of ownership and their exercises of power. She is given the opportunity to become a fairy princess, though that bargain comes with uncertainty about the fairy world.

 

Like most Cinderella stories, time plays an important factor in Ash, but it is even more exaggerated in this tale because there is an intrusion of fairy time, and the idea that time in fairy runs differently than human time.

 

This is not a tale of ballroom dresses and the marriage of princes. In this tale, Ash wishes for a hunting outfit, a way to change her world by dressing as a Huntress and running with human hunters. She is not someone who relies on her potential lover to free her from the bonds her family has placed on her. Instead, she makes her own way in the world by forging alliances with others and ensuring that she has her own wishes met.

 

Ash is a tale of the transformative power of love, but also the transformation of the understanding of love. Love for many people in the tale means ownership, but Ash discovers that love is expansive, and contains multiple meanings. She discovers that love, for her, means doing anything in her power to bring happiness to the Huntress, the woman she loves. This is not the fairy tale love of ownership and obligation, but instead a love born from mutual respect.

 

Ash is a queer Cinderella tale, and one that questions and challenges the traditional narrative.

You can discover more about Malinda Lo at https://www.malindalo.com/

Animal Instinct

A review of Marissa Meyer’s Scarlet (Square Fish, 2013).

By Derek Newman-Stille

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Scarlet is a Red Riding Hood tale with a twist. Scarlet continues Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles that began with Cinder. Like Cinder, Scarlet is a tale of family secrets and the danger of family secrets. Like Cinder, Scarlet has been raised with family secrets and has now become uncertain of her own history and the relationships she created with her family. Scarlet discovered that her grandmother was kidnapped and she realizes that in order to save the woman who raised her, she needs to find out more about her family and herself.

 

Like many Red Riding Hood re-envisionings, Meyer reimagines the wolf as a werewolf, but this is a werewolf with a twist, a soldier of an invading army from the moon. Meyer envisions a battle of instincts with the wolf in the man fighting the man in the wolf. This wolf is torn between two sets of instincts, uncertain what parts of him are real and which parts are genetically manufactured.

 

Cinder’s discovery that she is a Lunar princess continues through this novel as she struggles with this knowledge about herself and debates which part of her behaviour is biological and which part is learned. She wants to find out if she is the product of her Lunar biology or if she is a product of her human upbringing. All that mediates between her two identities is her cyborg programming, which keeps her Lunar powers in check, preventing her from using the biological power the Lunars have to control the minds of others.

 

This is an intertwined tale of Cinderella and Red Riding Hood, but it is also a twined tale of body and identity formation.

 

To discover more about Marissa Meyer, visit her website at http://www.marissameyer.com/

Enchantments

EnchantmentsA review of Marissa Meyer’s Cinder (Square Fish, 2012)

By Derek Newman-Stille


As a person with disabilities and someone who loves fairy tales, I was excited to see Marissa Meyer’s exploration of the Cinderella through the lens of prostheses. For some time, I had thought that the Cinderella narrative’s focus on the foot made it an exciting possibility for examining ideas of mobility. Meyer’s Cinder has more than a leg prosthesis though – she is a cyborg in this futuristic fairy tale. Cinder lives in a world where cyborgs have been treated as second class citizens, their lives shaped by scientific and medical experimentation. In addition to being the product of medical intervention, their bodies are re-visited by science when they are experimented on to try to find a cure for a disease that has been spreading across Earth.

Cinder explores ideas of the stigma that come with disabilities, the social need to conform to an able-bodied norm, and the process of passing as able-bodied. Cinder is a woman who seeks belonging in a world where cyborgs are consistently reminder of their outsider status. The only belonging she is able to achieve early on is to be considered the belonging of other people – property. Like many people with disabilities, Cinder lives in a perpetual state of poverty, her livelihood based on the need to always be the best in her field in order to be able to attract customers. Being part machine, she is attracted to mechanical work and becomes a highly-sought-after expert in the area of machine repair. 

Cinder’s stigma is treated as contagious as she fears that being around her nation’s prince will mean that he will be viewed as somehow diminished by associating with a cyborg. Her stepmother similarly mirrors this concern about Cinder’s stigma when she worries what others will think of her for having a cyborg daughter. This stigma is made literal when Cinder fears that she may be spreading the disease that has been ravaging her planet. Her stigma is associated with her guilt and the belief of her society that anyone “abnormal” should sacrifice themselves for the “normal” population. 

Cinder discovers that the medical is political as political decisions are shaped by the need to keep the population safe and free of illness. Immunology and immigration intertwine in this tale of contagion and security.

Despite the identities she has created for herself, Cinder lives in a state of perpetual uncertainty about her identity. All of her memories from the first 11 years of her life have been erased and her uncertainty about her selfhood is further increased by her uncertain social situation in a society that generally ostracizes people like her. Her questions about identity are deepened by her awareness that people have begun using fake ID chips to disguise their identity, and no one around her is what s/he seems. 
In addition to the mechanical story, there is, of course, an element of enchantment to Meyer’s fairy tale. In this future society, the moon has been settled and it has allowed an offshoot of the human population to develop the ability to control the minds of others, to portray a glamour of beauty that is powerful enough to control others. The enchantment of this tale is tale is one of deception and control, allowing a powerful Lunar queen to rule her people by using her glamour to take away power from others. There are hints of a Snow White tale in this use of glamour since the Lunar Queen can’t bear to see mirrors since a mirror will rob her of her glamour by showing her the reality of her appearance. Reality and lies mix and mingle in Cinder’s experience since she, like a mirror, has an ability to reflect the truth and she is able to see an orange light when people lie. 

With an android fairy godmother, a prosthetic slipper, and a pumpkin of a car for a carriage, Meyer imagines a fairy tale that combines fantasy and science fiction, projecting tales onto the future instead of making them Once Upon A Time.
To discover more about Marissa Meyer, visit http://www.marissameyer.com

To discover more about Cinder, visit http://www.thelunarchronicles.com/books/ 

Dangerous Traditions

Dangerous TraditionsA review of Mercedes Lackey’s The Fairy Godmother (Luna, 2004).

By Derek Newman-Stille


Fairy tales have their own system of internal logic, a certain path that follows ideas of destiny and heroism. In Mercedes Lackey’s “The Fairy Godmother“, this internal logic is called The Tradition and it serves as a guiding force for the world of the five hundred kingdoms. Characters are propelled by The Tradition to make decisions, change their lives, and be brought down the path to destiny. 

Elena ends up being caught up in The Tradition, propelled toward a Cinderella tale that is incapable of ending in a happy ending because her Prince Charming is far too young. However, the accumulated magic around Elena, the force that should empower her happy ending is still swirling around her, trying to compel a narrative that she is unable to live. She is eventually visited by her Fairy Godmother, who explains The Tradition to her and offers to either take the magic away from her so that she can live a normal life or make Elena into a fairy godmother, a being who consistently modifies The Tradition so that people can live happy, safe lives without too much fairy tale tragedy. 

Lackey explores the potential of fairy tales as a shaping narrative, a governing force in a universe. She examines the question of what occurs when a fairy tale goes awry, when it cannot end in a happy ending. Lackey explores the issues with a dual morality system, where one can only either be good or evil and any that have moral ambiguities end up caught between systems, pulled constantly back and forth between destinies. She examines the areas of fringe in a system that doesn’t allow for ambiguities, the uncertainties that are generally erased from the simple ideologies governing fairy tales. Lackey’s “The Fairy Godmother” invites readers to question fairy tales and complicate them, exploring those fringe areas and areas of uncertainty around the narratives we construct to better understand ourselves.

The role of the fairy godmother in this tale is to mitigate some of the tragedy visited on those who don’t fit the fairy tale mould, those who exist outside of the easy systems of understanding provided by our narratives. Through the role of the fairy godmother, Lackey brings attention to the issues that arise from the narratives we create to understand ourselves, and the people who end up suffering when they live lives that don’t fit society’s mould Lackey points out that we are all fairy tale creatures constantly being pushed in certain directions by our society’s traditions and constantly needing a fairy godmother to help shift those narratives to allow inclusion of those who traditions ignore or erase.

To find out more about Mercedes Lackey, visit http://www.mercedeslackey.com
To find out more about the Five Hundred Kingdoms’ tales, visit Luna’s website at http://www.LUNA-Books.com