“I don’t recall hearing that any of the damned were content.”
“They’re content to stay in their sins.”
Young adult fiction is one genre that falls prey to the nonstop conveyor belt of the publishing industry—an industry which has arguably grown more focused on churning out books that sell rather than selecting books with “quality” writing.
It has also been heavily dominated by phases of popular subject matter which come and go over the years—we’ve luckily been more or less freed from the vampires and werewolves of ten years ago. Fairy tale retellings, on the other hand, seem to be the latest “in”.
Most tend to play it safe with the more traditional, hence very over-written, stories of Snow White, Cinderella, and Rapunzel. Some, like A Whole New World by Liz Braswell, read more like fanfiction. And some, like the forthcoming Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, have realized that perhaps Western fairy tales are too familiar and boring to today’s readers, and have (finally) decided to expand further into new territory. Vassa, in particular, looks toward Russia and the folktale of Vassilissa the Beautiful for inspiration.
But we’re not here today to talk about Liz Braswell, or even Sarah Porter.
Instead, let’s take a glimpse of Rosamund Hodge.
Despite Hodge’s books being amongst the aforementioned fairy tale retellings, Hodge brings a much darker spin to them. She takes only the most basic and familiar pieces of the original folklore to form the spinal chord of her novels. The remaining bones are artificially grown yet organically attached, taking inspiration and ideas from various other sources, more specifically French culture and Greek and pagan mythology.
Hodge’s debut novel Cruel Beauty, published in 2014, is a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.” The novel received relatively high praise and established her as a writer who, although may be playing it a bit safe with subject matter, is nonetheless trying to bring something new to the table. Her latest novel, Crimson Bound, strove to continue this streak of success. As ratings have demonstrated however, that didn’t necessarily end up being the case.
Although it has a similar style to its predecessor, Crimson Bound is a standalone that also includes French names and aspects of the culture, as well as some demon-like creatures, but beyond that it is much darker and hungrier. It’s a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood”, but the only things it really takes from the story are the “don’t talk to strangers”/“don’t stray from the path” mantra, as well as a short line in the end with the familiar “the better to ___ you with”.
Rachelle lives and trains with her aunt to become the next woodwife, charged with weaving charms and protecting humans from the Great Forest. The forest is ruled by a terrible creature called the Devourer which frequently unleashes waves of nasty creatures called woodspawns. All changes when one day, while walking through the forest, she encounters a forestborn, a creature that is no longer human, which has killed in order to stay alive and is now a servant of the Devourer.
Despite her aunt’s warnings, Rachelle talks to the forestborn, developing a trust for him and falling pray to his lies. She ends up marked by him and faced with an impossible decision: either kill someone and become a bloodbound, tied to the Great Forest and doomed to become a forestborn herself, or refuse and die in three days. Choosing the former and killing her aunt, she travels to Rocadamour and joins the King’s bloodbounds, assassins responsible not only for ridding the kingdom of woodspawn but also eliminating the king’s enemies.
If the above summary has managed to confuse you then don’t worry, you’re not the only one. The world-building of the book veers from simple to complex and back.
The main problem is with the initial setup itself. It takes several chapters to gain a full grasp of the terms “woodwife”, “woodspawn”, “bloodbound”, and “forestborn”, and even then it is only a couple of them that receive a good amount of attention and explanation. It eventually made me wish more time was spent on explaining just what the Great Forest and the Devourer were, as opposed to presenting both as bad and then stating that it was only the Devourer who was bad, and now that he was eliminated the Great Forest could be the way it once was ages ago.
The characters were the ultimate driving force of the story, particularly the heroine Rachelle. While some retellings portray Red Riding Hood as very badass and fearless, Rachelle spends much of the story either telling herself or other characters about how she’s a monster who deserves to die, and that she cannot ever be forgiven.
For some people, such a self-deprecating character can be off-putting, and in the past I have frequently struggled with female characters who constantly put themselves down for not being pretty enough or strong enough. With Rachelle however, there was something genuine in her words. Perhaps it’s because I could relate to her self-criticisms (though I luckily haven’t encountered any forestborn or curses). She was easy to sympathize with, and for people who see themselves in her, empathy was equally natural.
Just like most YA novels, Crimson Bound didn’t escape the familiar convention of the love triangle. Much to my surprise, this triangle wasn’t equilateral like in most books – in fact, it frequently lost its “triangle-ness” throughout the novel. The two love interests, Erec and Armand, were complex and fully developed, and just as filled with dark thoughts and struggles as Rachelle and the rest of the fictional kingdom. An added bonus was the fact that Armand was the first male love interest I ever encountered in a YA novel who didn’t have hands, making for a much less idealized story. It would be difficult to describe both of them without giving too many spoilers away, and I will leave that for any curious reader to discover for themselves should they choose to pick up the book.
The one issue I had was a small thread Hodge left dangling: the character of Amelie, a girl who Rachelle saved from the woodspawn and an aspiring cosmetician (another somewhat unusual feature in a fantasy novel). Despite clearly repeating how Rachelle loved Amelie as a friend, I couldn’t help but wish that Hodge had actually turned that into a romance instead. The chemistry between them felt right, as opposed to the one between Rachelle and Armand, which took me time to warm up towards. However, this is one small disappointment which I hope novels of the future will address, and that fairy tale retellings of the future won’t shy away from queer relationships.
Another interesting touch to the story is the myth of Tyr and Zisa, a brother and sister who faced the Devourer with two legendary swords. Their story is told in a very Grimm-like fashion, especially in a scene where Zisa goes to a blacksmith and asks him to make swords out of two bones and is told that she must pay twice, and with her body, in order for him to fulfill her request.
Weaknesses aside, the novel gives some hope to the genre being a much more, dare I say, realistic rendition of a fairy tale spin-off, and proves that even retellings can have various degrees of originality to them. It will particularly appeal to readers like myself who remember the fascination of reading the original, uncensored Brothers Grimm fairy tales before bed, and the bloodthirsty, childish delight of loving every dark and twisted moment of them.
-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko