I really enjoyed The School for Good and Evil, Soman Chainani’s middle grade series that takes on fairy tale tropes, so I was looking forward to his collection of reinvented fairy tales – and this certainly is a gorgeous book!
Book: Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales by Soman Chainani
Publication date: 21st September 2021
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Harper Collins. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Traditional fairy tale grimness, including violence, death and murder, child abuse, forced marriage, and so on; racism and colourism. Nothing is graphically described.
You think you know these stories, don’t you?
You are wrong.
You don’t know them at all.
Twelve tales, twelve dangerous tales of mystery, magic, and rebellious hearts. Each twists like a spindle to reveal truths full of warning and triumph, truths that capture hearts long kept tame and set them free, truths that explore life . . . and death.
A prince has a surprising awakening . . .
A beauty fights like a beast . . .
A boy refuses to become prey . . .
A path to happiness is lost. . . . then found again.
New York Times bestselling author Soman Chainani respins old stories into fresh fairy tales for a new era and creates a world like no other. These stories know you. They understand you. They reflect you. They are tales for our times. So read on, if you dare.
I’ve been obsessed with fairy tales for as long as I can remember, and though I adore the stories in their more traditional formats, I’m always interested in new retellings too. I tend to scoff at the idea that anything truly “new” can be done to fairy tales, as we’ve been reworking and subverting these stories for centuries, but while you can guess the general tone of these reworkings from the blurb’s insistence that they’re ‘fresh’ ‘tales for our times’, I thought there were some beautiful stories and very clever twists in this collection. Add to that a diverse range of settings and characters, and some great writing, and I had a great time.
Chainani’s style here is very lyrical, almost literary, but it manages to capture the kind of detached, pared back nature of a fairy tale while still feeling modern, and adding just enough ornament to create striking imagery. I’m not generally a fan of speech without speech marks, but somehow it works in this collection; fairy tales need to be actively told, and I suppose incorporating the speech into the narration like that adds to the sense that there’s all one teller, and this is what they’re saying. The narrative voice is strong through all the stories, and will most likely be make-or-break for a lot of readers. I read this book in one sitting, but it would be ideal to dip into one story at a time if you find the style heavy-going.
A lot of the stories tackle motherhood, a key part of so many fairy tales, and I was surprised what a nerve these touched for me. ‘Rumplestiltskin’ is a fairly straightforward retelling and doesn’t add much detail, but though the style is stark, it cuts through to the heart of the young queen’s love and fears for her baby in a very effectve way. ‘Peter Pan’ was an interesting read after falling in love with Wendy, Darling (review of that here); the two stories are quite different, but share a general feel, with a callous, unhuman Peter and a grown-up Wendy juggling her role as “mother” with her very real motherhood. I loved the decision to insert a much-needed loving mother in the witch’s role into ‘Hansel and Gretel’, which I’d not seen done before; a mother’s baking is such a strong image for childhood nostalgia, so that impressed me, and I loved the descriptions of the Indian sweets, which were incredibly vivid.
As with most short story collections, there were a couple of the stories I didn’t love as much as the others, and some that stood out as gems. I’ve never been hugely interested in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ (or many of the similar ‘plucky Jack’ tales) so I didn’t connect to this retelling as much as some of the others, and I thought that the changes made to ‘Bluebeard’ (having him adopt many sons rather than take many wives) rather neutered the terrible darkness of the story, which made its bloodiness jarring. ‘The Little Mermaid’ was probably the most disappointing of all to me: a conversation between the mermaid and the sea witch that I think was aiming for feminist but came off rather sermonising, stretching the ‘don’t sacrifice yourself for some dude you don’t know’ point further than I could maintain interest in. On the other hand, the three stories of motherhood I noted above will stick with me, as will the simple and elegant point of ‘Rapunzel’ and the very dark take on ‘Beauty and the Beast’. There are definitely more stories in here that I loved than those I didn’t!
For the most part I really enjoyed the illustrations by Julia Iredale, as they lend a really dark vibe to the book, but I found one or two of the animals a little stiff. The coloured title pages for each story are stunning, though – they each incorporates elements from the fairy tale – and there’s a real liveliness to the facial expressions on the human characters, so on the whole I was really impressed by the way the art augments the text. They’re a great match for each other in their mix of traditional and surprisingly modern feel.
Almost like a halfway point between Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, this would be ideal for YA readers, advanced MG readers, or adults like me who love subverted fairy tales told in an accessible style. These stories won’t all be shockingly new to those well-read in the genre, but as I said at the start of this review, when we’ve been telling them for hundreds of years, how could they be? Instead, what they offer is enjoyable twists stylishly told, bound in a beautiful book – perfect for fairy tale lovers. Five out of five cats.