Snow White and Rose Red
by Patricia C. Wrede, Tor, 1989
Reviewed by Laurie Thayer
Terri Windling’s Fairy Tale series first appeared in 1987. Originally published by Ace, the series was later taken up by Tor. The series consists of eight fantasy novels aimed at adults, each based on a traditional fairy tale. Snow White and Rose Red is the fourth volume in the series.
In the original tale, Snow White and Rose Red are sisters who live with their mother. One winter night, a bear knocks on the door of their cottage. Admitted by the mother, the bear — which can talk — settles on the hearth to get warm. As the winter progresses, the bear becomes a regular guest at the cottage, but when spring arrives leaves in order to protect his treasure from dwarfs.
The sisters also have several encounters with an ill-tempered dwarf. In each encounter, they rescue him from his own bad judgement, for which he gives no thanks, only abuse. Finally, he is attacked and killed by the bear, who, no one will be surprised to learn, is a prince under a spell.
In this novel, the sisters are Blanche and Rosamund Arden who live with their widowed mother on the outskirts of the English village of Mortlak. The Widow makes her living as a wisewoman, compounding potions and medicines for her neighbors from the herbs her daughters gather in the woods. The most efficacious herbs, however, come not from the mortal English woods, but from the forests of Faerie: the border of that land comes close to Mortlak, and Blanche and Rosamund are used to harvesting there.
There are also two brothers, sons of a mortal man and the Queen of Faerie. John, the elder, was raised in the mortal world by his father, and his wanderings between the two worlds keep the ways between open. Hugh, the younger, was raised in Faerie and prefers to stay with his mother at court.
There are those at court, however, who believe that neither brother should be allowed in Faerie at all because of the taint of their mortal blood. When the chance comes to work harm against them with the unwitting help of mortal sorcerers — Doctor John Dee, the Queen’s astologer, and his assistant Edward Kelley (sharing the role of the dwarf) — it is seized.
As a result of the sorcerers’ spell, both brothers are exiled from Faerie and it is up to the Widow Arden and her daughters to free the afflicted brother from the spell and help them return home.
I have to confess that this has been one of my favorite novels from the moment I read it some eighteen years ago. From the gorgeous cover art by Thomas Canty to the fairy tale happily ever after, everything about this jewel of a novel is lovely.
Wrede chose as her setting Elizabethan England in 1582 and 1583, enabling her to use actual people John Dee and Edward Kelley as characters and mix historical events with fictional ones. This also gave her the tone of her dialogue and one of the book’s most charming facets. The Elizabethan language is tempered for modern readers — this isn’t Shakespeare, so don’t worry — but gives the book just the right flavor and makes it far more believable than any more modern mode of speech could.
Each chapter begins with a paragraph or two from the original tale as an indicator of where we are in the story and what’s coming next. It is no easy thing to take a barebones story — little more than an outline, really — and turn it into a 271 page novel, but Wrede has succeeded admirably.
The book is, sadly, out of print, but I can certainly recommend scouring used bookstores and snatching up a copy should you come across one.