Cameron Dokey,
(Simon Pulse 2006)

The Once Upon a Time series is a beautifully designed and occasionally competently written assortment of fairy tales retold for teenage girls with a taste for romance. Being neither, I suspect I read them only for the fading hope that one will eventually live up to its exterior and offer a really compelling and original retelling.

Unfortunately,Golden, while a mildly enjoyable reworking of "Rapunzel," shares the same flaws present to varying degrees in the others: rushed pacing, superficial relationships and settings, and an underdeveloped and logically challenged treatment of its fairy-tale premise.

That said, Cameron Dokey's entries in the series (The Storyteller's Daughter, Beauty Sleep and Sunlight & Shadow) are easily the most likable and well written of the lot, with a certain sprightly wit and charm.

Golden begins with a startling and ironic twist: the girl Rapunzel, our narrator and the familiar adoptee of the sorceress next door, has been completely bald since birth. Her baldness horrified her beautiful mother into giving her to the sorceress; in the subsequent 16 years, Rapunzel has been living quietly with Melisande, tending their cows and garden and small house outside the village. Not to worry; if you're wondering what happened to the tower, the girl with the long blonde hair and the prince, the tale begins to seem a little more familiar halfway through when Melisande reveals that she has a beautiful, long-haired daughter named Rue, cursed by a wizard to remain forever in a tower unless someone -- someone like Rapunzel -- can free her. And how else but through the power of love for an almost-sister? The only problem is that the two girls, each jealous of the claims the other has on Melisande, don't actually like each other.

Although Dokey has some interesting, if undeveloped, thoughts on the nature of different varieties of love -- parental, romantic and sisterly -- the way in which love can be expected to conquer all in Golden will probably produce a cringe in anyone older or more cynical than the target audience. But even eager romantics may notice that the practical workings and motivations of the curse (and its remedy) not only involve a wizard ex-machina, but also make remarkably little logical sense beyond the fact that they get the right people into the right places to resume retelling "Rapunzel."

At under 200 pages, Golden zips along with an unseemly haste that does nothing to conceal the clumsiness of its setup and further shortchanges its characters and their relationships. Central characters like Rue and the necessary prince are introduced so late that there is no time for the reader to feel anything but indifference toward them.

Fortunately, Rapunzel herself, like Dokey's other teenage heroines, is a sunny, intelligent, pleasantly self-aware narrator with no tendencies toward self pity or excessive angst. Despite occasional anachronisms in her language ("OK" has no place whatsoever in a quasi-medieval setting) her engaging voice is easily the best part of the book, and the most compelling reason to read on -- though there is of course that unanswered question of how Rapunzel went down into folklore as the girl with outrageously long hair, not the girl with none at all. A few other fun semi-surprises await the reader at the end, and despite a quantity of nonsensical muddle in the middle, Rapunzel's ending, at least, is satisfyingly down to earth.

Golden is a pleasant enough way to kill an hour, though it offers no brilliant reflections on "Rapunzel" and is easily surpassed by other books even in the things it does modestly well. Zel, Donna Jo Napoli's reworking of the same tale, is far more psychologically sophisticated and intense; Monica Furlong's Wise Child creates a much fuller picture of life long ago with a wise woman; Robin McKinley's Beauty, while deviating less from its fairy-tale basis, has an emotional resonance that nothing in the Once Upon a Time series comes close to matching. This one serves as an easy, likable introduction to the world of retold fairy tales and young adult fantasy, but the difference is unmistakable: titles like Zel and Beauty are gold; Golden is merely gilded.

by Jennifer Mo
2 September 2006

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