Patricia C. Wrede,
Snow White & Rose Red
(Tor, 1989)

Those unfamiliar with the fairy tale on which Patricia Wrede's Snow White & Rose Red is based will be relieved to discover that: 1) no prior knowledge of the tale, which is at any rate quoted in the preludes to each chapter, is necessary to enjoy the book; and 2) they have not been missing out, as Wrede's interpretation succeeds so well that the original is made to seem more a flimsy knock-off of hers than the other way around.

High praise indeed for a retelling.

The German fairy tale of "Snow White & Rose Red" is a rather skeletal, illogical affair wherein two sisters rescue an enchanted bear prince from a malevolent dwarf and are rewarded for their altruism with conventional happy endings with the bear prince and his convenient and hitherto unmentioned brother who finally turns up in the closing lines of the story.

It doesn't sound like much to work with, but in transporting the story to a 16th-century Elizabethan England filled with alchemy, balladry, brutal bear and witch hunts and, of course, magic, Wrede works a little alchemy of her own. The elements of the setting lend themselves perfectly to creating a world in which those nagging questions of the original story -- how the spell works, why it was cast and why the bear prince's convenient brother does nothing about it -- can finally be satisfactorily answered.

Wrede inventively casts two historical astrologers, John Dee and Edward Kelly, as the villains who not-quite-knowingly entrap the Queen of Faerie's half-mortal son in their spell. She makes the bear prince's brother a full protagonist rather than a footnote, caught between conflicting ties to Faerie and mortal realms, and desperately trying to find a solution to his brother's dilemma in either world; the titular heroines, Blanche and Rosamund, gain a more active, magical role in bringing about their own happy endings. This fairy tale has never been so colorful, or made so much sense.

Apart from a bit of stiffness in the Elizabethan dialogue, everything works so well in Wrede's retelling that it is easy to ignore the fact that the characters, while engaging, are not especially memorable. Though Wrede avoids labeling any person as purely good or evil, and everyone acts out of logical (though not necessarily morally defensible) motives, few characters stand out as fully rounded creations. Rosamund, for example, is wholly indistinguishable from any number of other spunky, 16-year-old fantasy heroines. But this is no more than a minor quibble in an eminently readable story; Snow White & Rose Red is a charming, elegant novel and one of the best fairy tale adaptations out there.

by Jennifer Mo
12 November 2005

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