Poison by Sarah Pinborough

April 15, 2013

Time to kick off what I’m tentatively calling “Sarah Pinborough Appreciation Week” here at The Eloquent Page. I can think of no better way to begin than with a guest review so without any further nonsense, let me hand you over to my better half @MadNad

It’s Snow White, but not as you know her…

Take a wicked queen, a handsome prince, a beautiful princess, and a poisoned apple…

… and now read the true story of Snow White, told the way it always should have been…

Like a lot of adults, I don’t usually read fairy tales. However, due to the popularity of shows like Grimm and Once Upon A Time, fairy tales are now once again in vogue and are being read not only by children.

In the first of what is a trilogy of adult fairy tales, Sarah Pinborough has written a version of Snow White that has enough elements in it to appear familiar to those of you who read this as a child, but is retold in a way that will open your eyes to questions that your younger self never knew it had.

The story is set in a timeless fantasy world of multiple kingdoms that we expect to see in a fairy tale. The king goes to war, leaving behind his beautiful young queen alone with her step-daughter. The queen decides the key to making her new life bearable is to get rid of the beloved Snow White.

For me, the most interesting aspect of this story was the queen. Pinborough successfully gives this often flat character some much needed dimension, and her motivation to destroy Snow White is more profound than pure vanity. The queen does not hate Snow White, not initially anyway. Snow White represents the freedom that the queen never had growing up in a strict court environment, before being forced to marry a man twice her age. Jealousy and resentment blossom in the queen’s heart.

The queen’s nemesis is not the Snow White you’ve seen before. Put aside the twee images of a pretty maid frolicking with rabbits, fauns and bluebirds. Instead, you have a raw earthy heroine, who prefers breeches to dresses, rides like a man and likes nothing more than drinking and singing bawdy tavern songs with dwarfs.

I actually found myself empathising with the queen far more than with Snow White. Her evolution from an insecure new wife to a cold and malevolent antagonist is completely plausible. The story elegantly tracks the transformation of the queen, even illustrating moments of potential redemption, but ultimately reveals the path leading to her eventual corruption

There is a danger when writing something set in a faux medieval fantasy world that the speech could appear formal or overly archaic. It is a demonstration of Pinborough’s superlative control of the English language that she comes right up to the line, but does not cross it.

This re-telling is definitely adult in nature. There are a few swear words scattered about but, speaking as someone who has followed Ms Pinborough on twitter and Facebook for some time now, not as many as you would expect. There are some sex scenes, and while they are not quite PG13 ‘cut away to billowing curtains’, the portrayal is by no means overly explicit. I guess if I was pushed to find a criticism with the book, a more explicit description of the sex scenes is the only thing I would ask for, but that is just because I’m an old perv. It does not detract from my enjoyment of the book in the slightest.

Not wanting to give anything away, I would also add that the ending caught me completely by surprise. It didn’t feel like the end of the book. Pinborough has very deftly woven in elements of other fairy tales, so I can’t help wondering if this is not the last we will see of Snow White.

It’s a short novel (just over 40’000 words), and I whizzed through it in two readings. I was delighted to find beautiful little illustrations from the cover artist, Les Edwards, scattered between the chapters. Poison proves that fairy tales are no longer just for children. This is an intelligent, dark and enthralling read. I am absolutely left wanting more, so it is fortuitous that there are two further re-tellings due from Pinborough and Gollancz called Charm and Beauty.

Poison is published by Gollancz and is available from April 18th 2013.

 Thanks for that @MadNad. I’ll be back later in the week for something a bit more horrific!

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