"Silver Birch, Blood Moon," ed. Datlow and Windling

Pros: Engaging, dark, unusual, intense, moody
Cons: Anthologies will always have one or two stories you don’t like as much
Rating: 5 out of 5

First posted 11/20/2003

I don’t often enjoy anthology introductions; most of them are dry and boring. The introduction to “Silver Birch, Blood Moon,” however, makes it very clear what sort of book you’ve wandered into:

The older [fairy] tales were unflinching in their portrayal of frank sexuality, brutal violence and complex family dynamics; they were often morally ambiguous, and relished bloody retribution to a degree that is disturbing to our modern sensibilities…. It has been a great loss to our mythic, cultural and literary heritage that we’ve allowed such tales, passed on for centuries, to be turned into sweet, simplistic pap.

Editors Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling have some strong opinions on fairy tales, which has spurred them to create this series of anthologies devoted to stories by modern authors that hearken back to an older tradition of story-telling. Some of the tales are set in the modern world; others take place in a murky past. Some of them change only a few crucial details of a tale (or lend a new insight into old details), while other stories have been altered almost beyond recognition.

I very much enjoyed another book in this series, Black Swan, White Raven, but “Silver Birch, Blood Moon” outshines it. The emotions are more consistently intense, the quality of the stories more consistently high. The stories mesh together well, rather than feeling like they were simply thrown together in a basket. These tales tell some truly tender and truly horrific versions of everything from the Frog Prince to Sleeping Beauty.

The list of authors is suitably impressive, and includes many of my favorites–Nancy Kress (author of “The White Pipes”), Neil Gaiman of “Sandman” fame, Patricia McKillip (Ombria in Shadow), Tanith Lee, Anne Bishop (the “Black Jewels” trilogy)–21 stories (and poems) in all. And all of them seem to be in top form, or close to it. There’s a brief bio on each author that often lends a little insight into why she chose that particular fairy tale to rewrite, and I found many of these to be fascinating.

I’ll mention a couple of the stories, just to give you a feel for the range:

Wendy Wheeler’s Skin so Green and Fine is a version of Beauty and the Beast set in Santa Domingo. We find young Bonita on the day she is to be married to the wealthy Monsieur Aspic, the Snake Man, who has given her family enough money to pay off their debts. Bonita is determined to be a dutiful wife even though her husband’s voodoo religion terrifies her. But she finds his sugarcane plantation empty of servants when she arrives, and he claims that his house is tended by Les Invisibles.

Pat York’s You Wandered Off Like a Foolish Child to Break Your Heart and Mine answers the question of what happened to all of those princes who didn’t make it through the briar hedge to reach Sleeping Beauty.

Russell William Asplund’s The Dybbuk in the Bottle is a tale of a foolish farmer with dreams of being a miracle-worker, a wily dybbuk who takes advantage of him, and a rabbi who steps in to help.

There are tales from all sorts of traditions, not just the European ones that seem most popular. There are happy endings, tragic endings, ambiguous endings, and horrifying endings. If there is any flaw in this book, it is that one or two stories had endings ambiguous enough to be confusing. And of course, any anthology is bound to have a story or two that doesn’t appeal to you as much as the others. Despite that this is one of my favorite anthologies to date, and its exploration of fairy-tales is nothing short of beautiful.

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