Friday, April 03, 2009

Snow, by Tracy Lynn

Yet another entry in the burgeoning category of retold fairy tales. This one is aimed at young adult readers, which in reality means about 12 years old: appropriate for the mother-daughter reading group I read it for.

Jessica (Jessica? Are we sure this isn't a book about the 1990s?) is the only child of a Welsh duke, whose mother died in child-birth. The duke's sorrow at losing his wife, only to get a daughter means that Jessica is all but raised by the servants and taught to cook and clean, free to run with the other children on the estate. This lasts until Jessica is about 11, when her father remarries, a coldly beautiful woman who conducts experiments that are part science, part magic. She takes Jessica under her wing, and teaches her the proper behavior of a lady.

On her 14th birthday, the new duchess arranges for a party--not quite a debut, but an introduction of the growing girl to Welsh society. Jessica slips away before the party to see the new puppies born in the barn, and on the way back is accosted and assaulted by a visiting count. Jessica knees the count, which causes the duchess so much embarrassment that Jessica is imprisoned in her room and forced to do chores. Kept indoors, her skin turns pale and her hair turns black, and she gains the nickname "Snow."

The duchess has a violinist, a young Scot named Alan, who is forced to hold the duchess's large mirror and answer all her questions truthfully. He is bound to keep her secrets by a gold chain around his neck, but manages to warn Snow to flee when the duchess's quest for a child leads her to try to regain her youth by eating Snow's heart. Snow flees to London, and Alan follows soon after.

Here is where there is any sort of time frame established for the story. In London the presence of gas lighting, trains, bustles, etc., make clear the time is Victorian. Snow is soon taken in by the Lonely Ones, a group of half-human, half-animals for whom she cooks and cleans. There is a perfunctory discussion of the morality of them stealing, and a brief trip to show Snow the extremes of wealth and poverty in the city.

After a year, the Duchess decides she needs to find Snow, and travels to London and puts about a story that she went mad, but has been successfully treated and is now working on behalf of the poor. Snow buys this story, falls into the Duchess's trap, and is used as a test subject for the Duchess's electric device which is supposed to stop the aging process. She falls into a paralysis as a result, though she is apparently not dead. The Lonely Ones take her home and put her in a china case while they try to find a way to reverse the process.

They find Alan, and with him seek out The Clock-Work Man, a half-machine man who lives in the sewers of London, and has a vague science/magical knowledge that he uses to build a machine to revive Snow. As they are about to leave, a duke and his servant Henry find the Clock-Work Man's home, and so Alan and Raven are "forced" to bring them back to Snow.

The new machine works, and the first thing Snow sees as she wakes is the handsome face of the duke. However, she remembers nothing about her life and is frightened by the Lonely Ones. The duke offers to take her home to Wales, and to protect her from the duchess.

Back in Wales, she still remembers nothing. Her parents throw a masquerade ball, and the Lonely Ones arrive with a potion to restore her memory. Before they give it to her, she remembers, due to the love she has for Raven which breaks the spell. The duchess realizes Snow remembers her treachery, but before she can do any more, the memory spell rebounds onto her, and she becomes old and confused.

In the end, Alan makes clear he loves Snow like a sister, the duke (who was expected to propose to Snow at the ball) accepts her rejection with relief, freeing him to go on more adventures. Snow takes the Lonely Ones and Alan off to explore Europe. The End.

Not a bad book, but rather weak. The book is not really best read as a retelling of Snow White, since the attempts to draw the necessary parallels are rather clumsy. The tale itself is less Victorian or fairy tale, and more steam-punk, especially the faux "experiments" of the duchess and the Clock-Work Man. The fairy tale elements seem more a marketing decision than a literary one.

Jessica/Snow is rather a boring character, the Lonely Ones only slightly interesting but under developed. The most interesting and powerful character is the duchess, but because this is a "fairy tale," the potential for her being a complicated and compelling creature is ignored, and she is flattened into a two-dimensional "evil stepmother."

Lots of potential in the setting, but mostly unrealized. There are some noticeable editing inconsistencies--the duchess's eyes go from dark blue to hazel within a couple of chapters. Snow's hair starts out black, but inexplicably is described as "chestnut hair was growing back black," without any indication it had been cut off either.

The contest between the Clock-Work Man and the pseudo-scientific duchess could have been of great interest--the developing role of science and the morals of experimentation. The duchess's desire for a child could have been developed--why did she want one? For her own sake, for the sake of her husband, because he was looking to find a younger woman to marry for the sake of an heir? (The duchess's name is Anne--Boleyn?) The duchess makes two separate speeches about the limits on women and their perceived worth only as pretty young girls or mothers, nothing else. I wish this had been developed more convincingly--it wasn't exactly untrue of the Victorian era, but put in the mouth of this mad woman was thus diminished.

It is a week book like this that makes me appreciate even more the achievement of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. There was much to hate in those books, but Mrs. Coulter was truly a scary woman, and the limits on what Lyra could aspire to was set forth compellingly.

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