REVIEW: Poison – Sarah Pinborough

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Author: Sarah Pinborough (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Titan Books / Gollancz

Genre: YA, fantasy, fairy tale retellings

Buy Now: ebook | paperback | hardcover

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, a handsome prince rescues a beautiful princess from the machinations of her wicked stepmother, sweeps her onto his white horse and rides off into the sunset.

Well, not quite.

Snow White as the innocent victim? Prince Charming as the dashing hero? Love at first sight? Happily ever after? In Sarah Pinborough’s wicked retelling of the classic tale, nothing is quite as you remember it…

I got this book out of the library in preparation for an interview which sadly didn’t happen, but decided to make the best of it as it was only 200 pages and I had just finished the marathon of The Priory of the Orange Tree, which was four times as long. I may have mentioned previously that I am a sucker for fairy tale retellings, but that also means my standards are set pretty high and I am difficult to please. I know Sarah Pinborough as a writer of adult horror/thrillers, so I was surprised to see she had dabbled in YA fantasy, and thought this would be an easy win. Sarah herself is an utter delight to spend time with, and it’s astounding such dark themes can come from such a thoroughly lovely woman.

To be quite honest, I came out at the end of the book feeling dissatisfied, and I think part of that was the length constraints meant that there wasn’t sufficient exploration of the character motivations. The Wicked Queen, Lilith, is the narrator for a large portion of the book, and she continually talks about how fear is a better trait than love for ruling a country. This seems quite short-sighted, especially given her backstory, where she was hefted off in marriage to the first bidder from her own kingdom after her mother was found to be a witch. (Her great great grandmother turns out to be the witch from Hansel and Gretel) She is beautiful, and only four years older than her new stepdaughter Snow White, and struggles to handle the way the public adore her whilst they are cautiously polite to the Queen. There is some real promise of character development in the discussions of how she was trained rigorously to be the perfect princess, and her jealousy of Snow White’s freedom, but also how that has made her socially inept because she has never learned to be herself. This leads to a really jarring disconnect between her traditional Wicked Queen narrative of being unable to stand her stepdaughter and wanting to rule as a tyrant, and the flashes of someone who is trying her best but the meaning is constantly being lost in translation. I find the latter far more appealing, and unfortunately it is barely explored, and ends up lost in the noise of the rest of the book.

Snow White herself is a tomboy, riding around in men’s clothes on powerful horses and going drinking with the dwarves in mining taverns. She is described as wild and free and buxom, dark haired, pale and voluptuous, whilst Lilith is cool, blonde and slender. She is only ever seen from someone else’s narrative, but the word ‘earthy’ is used a lot. It seems like where Lilith is characteristic of oppression and suppression of emotions, Snow White is a character purely of pleasure and emotion. This juxtaposition could have been interesting, but again – it’s barely developed.

I will admit I also have major beef with any fairy tale retelling which goes to the Disney adaptation rather than an earlier telling for its inspiration (which is why I will never not ever be able to watch Once Upon a Time). Whilst the dwarves in this aren’t named Sleepy, Doc, Grumpy and Bashful, we instead get Grouchy, Feisty, Stumpy and Dreamy. I found those hard to swallow, and would rather they’d had normal names instead of signposting traits which define their entire character. This is a personal preference, and may be less of a problem for other people.

To be fair, nearly all the characters were nameless – with the exception of the Wicked Queen Lilith, everyone else was their job and/or personality. The Prince, the Huntsman, the Crone. Snow White. I can understand why this was done, stylistically, but at the same time it didn’t help the feeling that whilst the narrative was supposed to be trying to add more to characters, and instead was still propped up by the tropes. It didn’t really deliver on the promise of subverting things. For example, the Prince turns up in the forest, and becomes obsessed with Snow White, who has been dressed up like a princess by Dreamy, who then proceeds to tell stories of her which are totally different from her personality. When Snow White wakes up, she is confused and has no idea who this guy is, or why he has decided they’re in love and going to get married (it’s also clear that the Prince has no idea what love is), but for some inexplicable reason she agrees to go through with it.

Needless to say, it ends badly.

There was a fair amount of sex too, which felt unnecessary – partly because no-one seemed to be having a particularly good time, and it felt… sleazy and uncomfortable. With that sort of thing, I feel my preference is fade to black, because if the characters aren’t having a good time doing it, I’m not generally having a good time reading it – again, that is definitely my personal preference though, and your mileage may vary on that point.

I found the ending dissatisfying. It doesn’t end well, and the ending is the sort of darkly twisted ending I would love to have seen explored further in a longer book, but in this it feels off-hand. It doesn’t bring any resolution. There are three books in this trilogy, and I’m not entirely clear where this sits in the timeline, but it’s clear that the works are almost parallel rather than continuations. I think this may be the final one, as references in this are made to Charm (the retelling of Cinderella) and Beauty (the retelling of Sleeping Beauty). If that’s the case, I would have wished for a more final ending, something that put a clear full stop at the end.

There were bits I thought were excellent examples of dark re-imaginings of fairy tales – the crossover with Aladdin for example was just the perfect level of creepy, and I really enjoyed Lilith’s horror as things get out of hand and every time she tries to make something better it gets worse. The former is only a short piece, which is sad; and the latter, as I mentioned earlier, is not ever explored in as much depth as I would have liked. And equally the ending was dark in the perfect way, but I just wished it felt more like a resolution, and a little less abrupt.

I’m on the fence as to whether I will read the others. There are bits of this story which will remain with me in the best way, but I think perhaps the length just wasn’t enough for Pinborough to really stretch her legs and dig into the bits she does best. She’s clearly an excellent writer, the prose and narrative are excellent, and I think it might be a case of it just not hitting all the notes I hoped for.

Briefly:

  • A dark reimagining of Snow White, but it doesn’t go as far as I would like in some places, and I balked a little at the couple of homages to Disney slipped in.
  • There are some bits which are delightfully dark, however, and they made my skin crawl in the perfect way – it was just a shame that didn’t hold the whole way through. The Disney homages rather broke the tone a little in that instance.
  • One of a trilogy which ties loosely together, I think perhaps reading the other two might add further depth to the story, although it’s unclear where in the timeline this story fits. Perhaps adding the other two would give a more complete vision for the tale – combined, their length would be 600 pages, which is plenty of time in which to explore a full world.

Rating: 3/5 – I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it. There are some brilliant moments that have really stuck with me, and I did love the tone, so perhaps reading the others would give me a better idea of how it fills out the world.

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: Poison – Sarah Pinborough

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