A Curse Dark as Gold
Winner of the William C. Morris YA Debut Award
Shortlisted for the 2008 Cybils Award in Fantasy and Science Fiction
Elizabeth C. Bunce, 2008
Reviewed by Navah Wolfe
When Charlotte Miller’s father dies, her world feels flipped on its head, but she knows what she has to do: what she always has. The Stirwaters Mill has been in her family for generations, and it has always been at the center of the town of Shearing. All of the townsfolk work in and around the Mill — it provides livelihood for all of them.
And so Charlotte knows that she must pick up where her father left off, and with the help of her sister Rosie, run the Mill and keep the town afloat.
But one spate of bad luck after another foul all of Charlotte’s plans and labors, until she must face the terrible possibility of failure. And that’s when the mysterious Jack Spinner shows up, with the power to spin straw into gold, and the ability to rescue Charlotte and Shearing from despair.
Accepting his help is tantalizing and impossible to refuse. But is it worth the cost? Charlotte is sure that she will sacrifice anything to keep her family and friends afloat, but when she learns the true price of Jack Spinner’s aid, Charlotte will have to fight to protect her town, her home and her family.
Where do I begin with what I loved about this book? I loved everything. I loved the way that marriage is presented as imperfect, as flawed, as not the happy ending, but instead as merely the middle of someone’s story. I loved the strong female characters, Charlotte and Rosie both, and I loved their flaws. I loved the very creepy ghost story.
This book is gut-wrenching. There were a few spots that were so awful I needed to literally close the book and stop reading for a little while, because it was too much for me. I was so pained for the characters that it hurt to read — I turned the pages with great gasping breaths.
There’s an immediacy to A Curse Dark as Gold that pulls the reader in. You’re there with Charlotte as she strains to hold Stirwaters together. You feel every bit of her struggle — every ounce of the weighty doom pressing down on her and all the people she cares about if she fails. You have more than a front row seat on this one — you actually feel like you have a stake in her success or failure. It’s what makes this book so difficult to read at times — the kind of investment in the life of the protagonist that makes everything else going on around you pale in importance to Charlotte and Stirwaters.
The best fairy tale retellings take the bones of an old story and make them feel new. They don’t force the shape of the old tale onto the new one — they let it flow, let it take form gently, so that if you didn’t realize you were reading a retelling, you might not even pick up on it until you get to the climax.
This is one of those books. Yes, A Curse Dark as Gold is a retelling of Rumplestiltskin, and it’s good fun to anticipate and piece together how the fairy tale will fit into the story. But for much of the book, you simply forget there’s an older story going on here, because Charlotte’s very personal story matters so very much. And when the pieces of the fairy tale come together, they fit in such a satisfying way that you become convinced that this is actually the origin of the tale — this is the real story. This is where the legend came from.
My one real critique of the book is that it does start slowly. The first fifty pages or so are not quite as compelling as the rest of the narrative, and it takes a bit of a leap of faith on behalf of the reader to stick with it until it eventually does pick up. But this story is worth it. Once you get into it is sucks you in and steals your will to do anything but find out what happens, how the story evolves and how the characters grow. It’s utterly compelling.
It’s a lovely story that shares some similarities with Sharon Shinn’s Truth Teller’s Tale series — vivid descriptions of country life, and a plot that is small in stature. It’s not the fate of the world on the line, just the fate of one family and one small town, but the danger and terror and overwhelming price of failure is heavy nonetheless.
One of my favorite things about Elizabeth C. Bunce’s storytelling is her vivid sense of place. She peppers Stirwaters with enough detail to make this feel like a meticulously researched piece of historical fiction, but not so much that it overwhelms the story and drags the narrative down. The physical environs, along with the socioeconomic structure of the town feel real — in one minor scene, Charlotte has to fire one of her employees because of his own misbehavior, and she worries about the fact that if she doesn’t keep him in her employ, his family will starve because there is nowhere else for them to work.
The nuts and bolts of running a mill that supports a village are also fascinating. Much of the plot rises and falls on the success or failure of the Stirwaters Mill — and alongside the increasingly creepy ghost story and Charlotte’s own personal struggles, it is fascinating to see how the rise of the Industrial Revolution is threatening Stirwaters’s way of life.
Bunce deftly weaves together many different threads to make this fairy tale retelling compelling from multiple angles — personal, socioeconomical, historical, and of course, mythic. She spins a dark, gorgeous retelling of Rumplestiltskin that takes the bones of an old fairy tale and gives them fresh new life against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution. A flawed heroine, a genuinely creepy ghost story and a stunningly beautiful use of language are woven together in the fabric of this book, and will make A Curse Dark as Gold linger in your mind long after you’ve turned the last page.