I’ve had the hardest time putting my thoughts about this Rumplestiltskin retelling into some kind of order – there’s a lot to love, but also some very strange aspects…
Book: Gilded by Marissa Meyer
Publication date: 2nd November 2021
Ownership: Proof copy provided free of charge by Faber & Faber. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Violence, murder and death, including of children and major characters; gore/body horror (also sometimes involving children); grieving a parent; strange depiction of pregnancy, and discussion of selling babies.
All magic comes at a price, but love was never part of the bargain . . .
The look he was giving her. Serilda had never been looked at like that before . . . The intensity.
The heat. The raw astonishment. He was going to kiss her.
Cursed by the god of lies, a miller’s daughter has developed a talent for storytelling – but are all of her tales as false as they appear?
When one of Serilda’s stories draws the attention of the devastating Erlking, she finds herself swept away into a world of enchantment, where ghouls prowl the earth, and ravens track her every move. The king locks Serilda in a castle dungeon and orders her to spin straw into gold, or be killed for lying. In despair, Serilda unwittingly summons a mysterious young man to her aid. And he agrees to help her, for a price. But love wasn’t meant to be part of the bargain.
I had the strangest time reading this book. The first three quarters, I adored, and it was well on its way to being a 5 star book for me, but then the last quarter took a turn into the weird, and I ended up giving it quite a hefty side-eye. Discussing my issues with the end will mean that this may not be the most spoiler-free review ever, but I’ll mark clearly when I’m about to go into spoiler territory – the next couple of paragraphs are safe, I promise!
Marissa Meyer’s writing is always so good. It’s easy to read, and unobtrusive, so you just sweep through it, but it always does a great job of making sure that you can picture every scene. I’ve previously enjoyed several of her books, and I always feel like her writing has a light hand, so that what you remember is the plot, not the actual reading experience, if you see what I mean. The story rollicks along at a pleasant speed, treading the line perfectly between the quieter fairy tale feel and a proper adventure. I absolutely loved the dark, Grimm-esque setting. There’s little glamour in Serilda’s village life, even before the violence and gore start, and you can feel the trees of the Aschen Forest looming behind even the most domestic scene. Even castles and kings aren’t glossy Disney types, but dark, dangerous things. Magic is scary in this world, but it’s also not far away; I thought the way that folklore was interwoven with daily life was wonderful, a mix of religion and superstition that rang very true to real life history, while having that added punch of actual magic lurking in case of a misstep. Tying up the Rumplestiltskin story with the myths of the Erlking and the Wild Hunt is clever, and makes the magic and folklore feel very rich and layered – the Erlking in particular is a very creepy villain, and I loved the menace he brought to every scene he appeared in!
Serilda is a likeably flawed heroine (at least to begin with – more in the spoiler section) and one that YA readers will find comfortingly familiar, while still having enough pizazz of her own to keep us engaged. The whole section leading up to her needing to spin straw into gold unfolds so cleverly, with dozens of little twists on the original tale, and you get a great sense of Serilda’s personality and how she shapes her own story. There is of course some romance, this being a YA fairy tale retelling, and I found it pretty sweet and enjoyable, though I wish we’d got to know Gild, the Rumplestiltskin character, a little better, as he’s a bit of a mystery apart from being kind, handsome and magic, which could describe a lot of YA heroes. The side characters were real bonuses, full of life even when they only appeared for a little bit, and they were built into the world as if they really belonged there – overall, this is a very solid world that feels well-constructed.
Okay, onto the negatives, and from here on down, things get a tiny bit spoilery…
I haven’t been able to find any details, but this has to be a series starter rather than a standalone, because it ends extremely abruptly without tying up any of the plot. This is a long book, and while it didn’t feel long in the actual reading, it seems a little unreasonable to me to get through an entire 500 page novel and have absolutely nothing resolved. Like, nothing. Not even one little subplot is given the tiniest bit of resolution. It’s not even that it ends on a cliffhanger, particularly, it’s just like a chapter break, which felt so strange to me. I was left feeling very unsatisfied – especially since this is a book about the power of telling stories and giving them their proper endings. If anyone has any information about a sequel, please tell me and put me out of my misery!
And from here on down, they get very spoilery…
Obviously, one of the core elements of the original Rumplestiltskin story is the bargain the miller’s daughter makes to give Rumplestiltskin her first born child. I’ve seen it where she offers it; I’ve seen it where he demands it; I’ve seen all sorts of variations on how the transaction comes about. Gilded uses one of my favourite twists on the trope, sidestepping the bargain with a mutual first born child, which I liked seeing, but the way it played out felt so incredibly weird for a YA book, I can’t not mention it. I’m not at all averse to YA characters being sexually active, and I didn’t actually mind Serilda getting pregnant, as that’s a key part of the original story. But her feelings about it were just strange to me, and I felt they were really lacking nuance in two places: firstly, that she’s seventeen – and in the middle of a dangerous quest – and doesn’t freak out about discovering the pregnancy at all, just seems to mentally shrug and accept it; and secondly, that she seems to be totally detached from the reality of giving up her baby either to the Erlking or to Gild. Of course I didn’t expect her to be totally bonded with the baby at a few weeks pregnant, but she just seemed far too blasé about the whole situation for someone whose character had been built to be so specifically focused on protecting the village children. She spends the whole book agonising over these other childrens’ fates, and then just shrugs about her own child’s future – it just felt really off to me. I know that I’ve said in my reviews before that having a child of my own has changed the way I read babies and mothers in fiction, but this isn’t even a case of the pregnancy or the bargain bothering me in that way; it was more that it seemed to undermine Serilda’s existing character.
I’m really not sure how to rate this – as I say, for a good while it was going to get five cats, but that last section of the book really threw me. I think a lot of my feelings are going to depend on if we get a sequel, and how that sequel tackles what’s been set up here – but as it is, it feels incomplete and unsatisfying for such an incredibly promising… well, most of the book. Let’s say three and a half cats for now… to be revisited.