Review: “Black Swan, White Raven,” ed. Datlow and Windling

Pros: Lovely fairy tales for adults
Cons: As with nearly all anthologies, quality and tone waver
Rating: 4 out of 5

Review e-book provided by Open Road Integrated Media
Expected release date: September 30, 2014


The concept behind Black Swan, White Raven is simple and beautiful: creative re-tellings of fairy tales by modern authors. These are not meant to be children’s stories. Many of them depict sex, violence, and other subjects you wouldn’t want to read to your children – just like the original fairy tales.

Fairy tales have a sort of fundamental appeal. They’re stories of love and loss, revenge and justice, royalty and peasantry, mundanity and magic. Some have a moral; others are told to explain natural events. Many started out as popular folk tales. Most address what happens when ordinary people meet up with the world of the extraordinary.

The fairy tales found in “Black Swan, White Raven” run the creative gamut of modern fairy-tale-telling. Some are old tales re-written in a modern light. Others are traditional fairy tales told from a new and interesting point of view. Still others take the core kernel of story from a fairy tale and make it something… new, and uniquely different. Many of the stories play with popular fairy tales such as Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel, while others play with less-well-known stories. A couple I didn’t recognize – whether because the allusions were particularly subtle, or because it’s been too long since I read the relevant tale, I’m uncertain. As always, with so many wildly different stories by very different authors, you’re almost guaranteed to find at least one or two stories that don’t amaze you. But then, that’s a problem inherent in any anthology.

A Few Story Samples

There are 21 new and different pieces in here, including a couple of poems. Anne Bishop, author of “The Black Jewels Trilogy,” has a story in here, and she didn’t disappoint in the least. I’m not quite as enamored of the poems, somehow – they just didn’t have the emotional or intellectual impact that some of the stories did.

“Snow in Dirt” is a very unusual “Sleeping Beauty” variant by Michael Blumlein, set in a modern/slightly futuristic world of fashion models and anti-aging drugs. For once we get to find out what Sleeping Beauty is like after she wakes up, and what sort of prince it takes to care for her. A very odd story of love, in which I didn’t particularly like most of the characters, yet enjoyed their story anyway.

“Riding the Red” by Nalo Hopkinson is obviously a “Red Riding Hood” tale. It takes the traditional view of RRH as a tale of emerging sexuality, but told in a wonderful voice by the grandmother of the tale, who had her own encounter with the wolf many years ago. “No Bigger than my Thumb” is by the inimitable Esther Friesner, who has written some very odd and humorous books. In this case, however, she tells a very dark tale revolving around a trio of witches – and not-quite-Thumbelina. The ending of this one actually gave me a bit of a shudder.

Joyce Carol Oates contributes “In the Insomniac Night,” one of the most ambiguous and disturbing stories in this volume. It tells of a modern, divorced mother of two, who’s trying to be a responsible mother and live her own life, all at the same time. I’ll let you decide whether there’s really anything supernatural about this story, and who the “bad guy” is. Or maybe, like me, you’ll just be left with your head spinning.

“The Trial of Hansel and Gretel,” by Gary Kilworth, will make you re-think a great deal of that old tale of children captured by a witch. This story, like several of the others, capitalizes on a couple of unexplained details in the old stories in order to suggest that all is not as it seems. And you’ll certainly get a very different view of these two cunning children.

“Rapunzel” is Anne Bishop’s entry into this book. This is the first story that brought tears to my eyes (but not the last). It’s told in three parts. The first is told by Rapunzel’s mother, and will give you a very different view of the beginning of this story. The second is told by the witch, and the third by Rapunzel. Each one is new and different, and full of rich emotion, just like Bishop’s books. This story, like some old fairy tales, is very up-front about its messages and its moralities, but the beautiful, clear fairy-tale tone prevents it from feeling preachy.

“Sparks,” by Gregory Frost, is my other favorite from this book. It’s a modern version of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Tinder Box,” with those oh-so-familiar huge dogs with their saucer-like eyes. This time it involves an ex-soldier-turned-private detective, an old witch-woman, a corrupt politician with a beautiful daughter, and a Zippo lighter. The story is told from the ex-soldier’s point of view, and his observations and voice are what really make the story come alive.


That should give you something of an idea of what you might find in this book. I definitely enjoyed it, and there are certain stories in here (most notably “Sparks” and “Rapunzel”) which I expect to read over and over again. I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys fairy tales – particularly the old ones, not written for children.

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