Fairy Tales and Flesh Eaters: A Closer Look At Rosamund Hodge’s Crimson Bound

crimson-bound
image source: rosamundhodge.net

 “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

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“The Raven Cycle” Might Be Exactly What YA Lit’s Been Missing

TheRavenCycle

image source: readbreatherelax.com

Go to Chapters, and take a book from the nearest Young Adult bookshelf. Flip to any page that does not involve a dance, a love interest, a clique or a “queen bee”. The more you read, the more you may notice that today’s YA genre is inundated with books by authors who no longer remember what it was like to be a young adult.

Or, if they do, they do a terrible job of writing about it.

In these books, high school is reduced to trope-y cliques. Characters are slaves to the whims of their hormones, and often two-dimensional. Even speculative YA fiction often falls to these clichés.

However, there are a few books that break this teenage drama mould. In Maggie Stiefvater’s 4-part series The Raven Cycle, the high school-aged characters are written with their intended readership in mind. Not only are Stiefvter’s characters dimensional and captivating, but they deal with real issues, garner sympathy from the reader, and meddle in magical realms to boot. And that’s only a small part of what makes The Raven Cycle so incredible.

Blue Sargent, the non-psychic daughter of a clairvoyant mother, has been told for as long as she can remember that her kiss will kill her true love. But being a sensible person, she disbelieves the idea of true love at all and lives by the policy of avoiding all boys. In particular, she ignores the boys who attend Aglionby Academy, a private boys’ school near her home in rural Henrietta, Virginia.

It isn’t until she sees the soon-to-be-dead spirit of a boy named Gansey — and that very same Gansey shows up at her door for a psychic reading — that her world becomes tangled in the odd, magical world of the Raven Boys.

The series deals heavily with themes of identity — found through struggles in class differences, sexual orientation, and realizing how to discover one’s meaning. Gansey, a product of old Virginia money, desperately wants his over-privileged life to be worth something. This something, he believes, will be discovered as soon as he can find Glendower, an ancient Welsh king rumoured to be buried in the mountains of Virginia. Without the psychic abilities of her mother, Blue Sargent is driven to seek out her own future.

Adam Parrish, who accepts help from no one, just wants to find a bigger and better life outside the walls of the trailer home where he is abused by his father. Ronan Lynch, still reeling from the mysterious death of his beloved father, struggles to contain himself within the confines of academic, monolithic Aglionby Academy. United by unlikely bonds of friendship, this group embarks on the quest to find Glendower and, on the way, end up on individual paths toward their own destinies.

This sharp characterization is my favourite thing about the series. Stiefvater excels at writing characters who feel real, whose descriptions stick in the mind for all their uniqueness, whose backstories provide them with clear, urgent motivations, and whose struggles draw in the reader. Each character carries, in equal parts, both a sense of relatability and a touch of extraordinary magic — making them people who objectively could never exist in the real world, but who really feel like they could.

Just like Blue, I fell in love with the raven boys. Years after reading the first novel, I still can’t choose a favourite. More than anything else, I love the way this series portrays friendship as a bond that is sometimes thicker than blood. In finding your identity, you might just find your family.

Stiefvater’s gorgeous prose is another thing that makes this series so good. Just as the sentient trees in the magical forest of Cabeswater speak to our heroes in a language too The_Raven_King_Cover_Officialstrange and beautiful to be understood, Stiefvater’s writing seems, at times, to transcend the boundaries of what is real and what is magic. Her masterful control over language contributes further to the dimension she adds to her characters, and her own quirkiness and sense of humour always shines through.

After the release of book three, Blue Lily, Lily Blue, I waited a year and a half for the fourth and final installment of the series — The Raven King — to be delivered into my hands on April 26th of this year. I’m not quite sure yet if the finale lived up to everything Stiefvater promised it would be, but don’t let that discourage you from reading this series. The Raven Cycle is a jewel among the many thorns of the young adult speculative genre. If Blue Sargent’s clairvoyant mother could see my future, I’m certain she would find me constantly returning to the thrills and chills offered to me by the denizens of this series’ tiny Virginia town.

-Contributed by Julia Bartel

Talking about Success, Love, and Whimsy with Kimberly Karalius

Kimberly Karalius Author Photo
Image source: http://kimkaralius.com

There are several authors and artists who I have long admired from afar but never dreamed of one day actually talking to and knowing a little better. Kimberly Karalius is one of those people, an author whom I’ve admired greatly from the first story of hers that I read.

It began in what feels like ages ago, 2011, when I joined an online writing community called Figment, where people post what they write and can read each other’s writing, post comments, and often develop some lovely friendships. I don’t remember exactly how I came upon Kimberly’s profile, but I will always remember the fascination I felt after I finished reading “The Princess and Her Shadow,” a short story that encouraged my own entrance into the world of whimsical writing.

Now, several years later, Kimberly has since published a couple of books, and I finally worked up the nerve to talk to my role model, giving me a chance to find out the answers to some burning questions I’ve had all these years.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Love Fortunes and Other Disasters
Image Source: http://kimkaralius.com

How and when did you come to consider writing as a possible career?

Around high school. Before then, I was obsessed with cartoons and dreamed of turning my stories into comics and TV shows. I joined the high school newspaper as an editorial cartoonist but ended up falling in love with the written word. The more I wrote, the more I realized that this was the medium that worked best for me (though I still doodle and sketch, of course!) I discovered that I enjoyed writing novels more than anything and knew it was what I wanted to do.

What would you say is the most difficult part of being a writer?

The double-edged sword of telling people I’m a writer. On one hand, it’s so fun to reveal what feels like a delicious secret and get to talk about books and writing and all that good stuff. On the other hand, it can sometimes get awkward when I meet non-readers, especially people that visibly cringe when they hear “teen fiction” or “fantasy.” (Yes, that happens!)

This is a cruel question, but if you had to choose a favourite character, setting, and detail from any story you’ve written, what would they be?

My favourite character so far is Stig Hemming from Pocket Forest; he’s like a deer, easily frightened and doe-eyed. I don’t blame Harriet at all for trying to figure him out. My favourite setting is the Student Housing Complex in Love Fortunes and Other Disasters. Seeing Fallon, as well as the other students attending high school, make her own home away from home there was exciting to create on the page. My favourite detail is the way the canal cruise booth looks in Love Fortunes and Other Disasters. Nico’s family owns the most popular canal cruise business in Grimbaud, but he’s usually on ticket-selling duty at the booth: it’s a striped booth with a statue of a mermaid squeezing a heart in each hand. No one in his family remembers why the statue is there or what it symbolizes, so it becomes a point of speculation for many of the townspeople.

Another cruel one—what are three books you cannot go without or would consider to be the biggest influences on you?

The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake—I’m counting this as one book since my copy has all three books bound together. Peake is a huge influence on my writing and I can’t imagine going anywhere without creepy-wonderful Steerpike, fanciful Fuchsia, or fluttering Doctor Prunesqualler. Peake’s characters are strange and his writing is lush, like a painter swirling layers of meaning and mood on each page.

Echo by Francesca Lia Block—by far my favourite Block book.  I’ve been reading Block since I discovered her in junior high; she was my first introduction to magical realism, a subgenre that I love dearly and love to write in. The characters and imagery are fantastic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reread this book.

The Complete Fairy Tales by George MacDonald—I love fairy tales, but my favourite fairy tale author is George MacDonald. The Princess and the Goblin is beyond amazing, but I chose this collection because I love his smaller fairy tales as much as the longer ones. And there are so many good ones collected in this Penguin edition like The Light Princess—it always makes my heart race!

Love Charms and Other Catastrophes
Image source: http://kimkaralius.com

Do you constantly have a desire to write or do you find that some days you’re forcing yourself?

It varies from day to day. Sometimes I’ll wake up itching to turn on my laptop and start typing. Other days, I have to sit myself down and hope words appear on the document. Totally normal. Writers don’t write in a void; that means that life can be a big distraction. My mind might be cluttered with thoughts of paying bills, upcoming events, or what my dog is likely doing while I’m at work (sleeping, I bet). But ideas come from life, even the mundane tasks, so it’s important to pay attention—and then, on hard days, find time to write in the spaces between.

Have you ever had to deal with hurtful negative criticism?

Absolutely. It just comes with the territory. When Love Fortunes and Other Disasters hit bookstores in May 2015, I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the reviews. When I read negative reviews, some were harder to swallow than others. I’m happy to say that it gets easier as time passes and the thrill of having your debut book published softens. It’s impossible to make every reader happy; they bring themselves into each book they read, and that’s a great thing. Hearing from readers who connected and enjoyed my stories means even more now than it ever did.

What influenced your writing style to create such whimsical and intricate stories?

Fairy tales and cartoons. When I was little, I knew what kinds of stories I loved and devoured as many of them as I could. I loved reading or watching my favourite fairy tales being retold over and over. My favourite cartoons were the weird ones, like Courage the Cowardly Dog and Aaahh!!! Real Monsters. I also watched a lot of anime and read a ton of manga, big influences on how much fun it is for me to blend magic with reality.

Have you ever scrapped a story idea? If so, have any parts of it been “recycled,” or are they perhaps still waiting for their time in the spotlight?

Oh, definitely. I have folders with stories I wrote back in middle school that I still hope to recycle someday, if not pick right back up where I left off! The only story ideas I end up scrapping are ones that I’ve only toyed with it my head. If it makes it on paper, I’ll use some piece of it someday in a story.

How do you usually come up with ideas for a story? What does your creative process usually look like?

My story ideas usually start with little pieces of ideas—a half-eaten sandwich, a shipwreck, a girl with three legs—that I start stitching together. The fun is in the challenge and it also helps that I never say no to any ideas when I’m first starting out with drafting. Once I’ve got my characters and plot, I’ll sometimes make character boards and jot down notes. But I’m a “pantser,” mostly. I only outline a chapter or two ahead as I write the first draft, but I’m trying to outline more with future projects to see what that’s like.

Pocket Forest
Image Source: http://kimkaralius.com

Your first novella, Pocket Forest, is not very well known, but the first print run sold out within hours. What was the experience like? Was it the first book/story you got published?

Technically, yes, Pocket Forest is my first published book. Deathless Press is a small publisher that prints handmade fairy tale chapbooks. Chapbooks are usually under 10,000 words and poetry, though I’m happy to see that prose is starting to make a space for itself in the chapbook world. After I submitted my manuscript and Deathless Press said they wanted to publish the story, I worked with the editor to revise it. Our changes truly made Harriet and Stig’s journey all the better. The best part was the handmade aspect. I still have a few copies of them hidden away in my closet. They’re very tiny, delicate books with a splash of colour on the inside from unique endpapers. Even though the print edition sold out so quickly, the e-book version is still available on Amazon.

What served as inspiration for Love Fortunes and Other Disasters, if anything?

Love Fortunes and Other Disasters began from some silly conversations I had with my friends and fellow English majors in college. We used to lament the fact that girls severely outnumbered boys on campus, so we planned to become glamourous spinsters after graduation (with mansions, butlers, and cats… well, dogs for me. I’m a dog person). I wanted to put that idea into a book, but I knew it would be challenge since I wanted to write young adult fiction. With their whole lives ahead of them, why would teenagers worry about the possibility of spinsterhood or bachelorhood? The answer to that question became Grimbaud, the Town of Love, and Zita’s 100% accurate love fortunes.

Did you ever base your characters on people you know?

Not usually. I’m sure pieces and scraps of people I know end up in my characters, but I don’t do it consciously. I like to create characters from scratch; it helps me explore them. Developing my characters would be a lot harder if I was picturing my next-door neighbour or a high school crush!

The queer relationship with Nico and Martin—was that planned, or did it evolve over the course of writing and editing?

From the second Nico was born in my head, I knew he was gay and that he was in love with a boy who might not be. He made it easy for me; at times, I had to remind myself that this was Fallon’s story, since writing about Nico’s struggles with love was such fun. It was very important to me to make sure that diverse couples were represented in Grimbaud. The town is accepting of all love. Boys liking boys and girls liking girls? Just part of everyday life.

Of course, Grimbaud has its own prejudices and problems, but most of that stems from the townspeople’s fear of being alone. It’s scary for them to imagine not finding love in the Town of Love, and anyone not dating is looked upon with suspicion or outright confusion. When Fallon joins the rebellion, she and her fellow teens are fighting against that fear and way of thinking as they challenge Zita’s love fortunes.

I loved how sweet and heartwarming Fallon and Sebastian’s relationship is. Do you think that kind of genuine, perhaps old-school romance is still popular in fiction or is it disappearing?

Thank you! It’s hard to say if it’s disappearing or not. I think it depends on the type of story authors are writing. For me, the nature of Fallon and Sebastian’s relationship was clear from the start. Being set in a town like Grimbaud fostered that kind of old-school relationship, since it’s a town where sweetness is expected, along with a certain naivety that is both a strength and weakness for the town.

First Kisses and Oher Misfortunes
Image source: http://kimkaralius.com

Do you have any projects planned after you finish telling the story of Fallon and the gang?

Yes, plenty more! I’m currently working on my next project for Swoon Reads. Which, I must say, does not have love charms or tape recorders in it.

Is there something you think people wouldn’t know or expect about you?

As clean and age-appropriate as my stories have been, I’m not-so-secretly a fan of gory horror and suspense, usually mashed together in anthology TV series. It started with watching Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? Now I’m proud to say I’ve watched every episode of Tales from the Darkside and Tales from the Crypt. I haven’t finished Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilight Zone yet, but I’m slowly working through them. I love the twists in these episodes, the shock of not seeing a character death coming or the mysterious ways in which characters get what they wish for—or don’t.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko