This is the second book I’ve read by Shannon Hale, the first being ‘The Goose Girl’.
‘When a beautiful Lady refuses to marry the Lord her father has chosen, her father is furious. So furious he locks her up in a tower with her maid.
But the maid realises there is something deeply sinister behind her Lady’s fear of the Lord, something which means they could be in more danger beyond the walls of the tower than imprisoned within them…’
This is a fairy tale retelling, based on Grimm’s ‘Maid Maleen’; one, I admit, I’d not heard of. I’ve since read it and like it.
What drew me to this book was the setting – it seems to have been inspired by Mongolia. I really enjoyed Hale’s worldbuilding. The names of the cities have a poetic charm – Carthen’s Prayer; Pride of Nibus; Goda’s Second Gift; Thoughts of Under; Titor’s Garden; Song for Evela; Beloved of Ris; and Vera’s Blessing. Turns out they’re named after the deities.
Carthen is the goddess of strength; Nibus, the god of order; Goda is the goddess of sleep; Under, the god of tricks; Titor is the god of animals; Evela, the goddess of sunlight; Ris, the god of roads and towns; and Vera is the goddess of farms and food. And over all of them is the Eternal Blue Sky.
The main character, Dashti, was born and brought up on the steppes; her people are known as muckers, ‘the folk that live on the grassy steppes… herding folk… the steppes… are too hard for farming, rocky and windy and rough. Muckers do work when work is sent out from the city folk, and the rest of the time they travel with the seasons, herding sheep, horses, reindeer, yaks.’ Like her mother before her, she also knows the healing songs.
Despite the hardship of life on the steppes, Dashti has good memories:
‘Living every day under the Eternal Blue Sky, surrounded by animals, milking in the mornings, making cheese and yogurt, washing and cooking and cleaning, and then running free through the grass like antelope.’
Hale’s writing is evocative, I’ll give her that.
The story begins at the moment when Dasthi and her lady, Saren, are about to be locked in the tower by Saren’s father because she refuses to marry Lord Khasar. It is very unfortunate timing for Dashti who has only just begun to serve Saren, but she elects to be with her lady.
Hale has written the story in the form of diary entries, all from Dasthi’s point of view. And, in my opinion, it works.
Being privy to Dashti’s feelings and thoughts, we get an understanding of why she behaves as she does. Her fear of the gods is a very real thing; it dictates all that she does. She knows that displeasing them means she’ll be forbidden to ascend to the Ancestors’ Realm.
‘It’s a sin most gruesome to play at being what you’re not…’
When she believes she’s sinned:
‘Immediately I knelt facing north and prayed, ‘Ancestors, forgive me, Dasthi, a mucker, for lying in words and deeds.’’
And now, I’m going to list a few quibbles. On the back cover, it states, ‘This is no ordinary fairytale. The hero isn’t charming, the heroine is a brat. And you certainly won’t guess the ending.’ Further down, it says, ‘A spellbinding story of love, fear, courage, and one true heroine.’ I found that a tad misleading.
The hero actually is charming. And if the heroine is Dashti, then she’s isn’t a brat. However, if it’s referring to Lady Saren, I’m sorry, but she’s not a brat either. It didn’t take me long to realise that Saren must have suffered a severe trauma. Also, she suffers from very low self-esteem. In her own words, as the third child, her only purpose is to be married; she sees herself as worth nothing. And yet, she shows admirable courage on more than one occasion.
Dashti makes her way to the city when she’s about 14 or 15, I think, and in the space of one year learns to read and write fluently, if her diary entries are anything to go by. I’m no expert, maybe it is possible. I’ll leave it at that.
That bit about ‘you certainly won’t guess the ending’… Unfortunately, about a quarter of the way through the book, I’d guessed what the villain was about. Before the halfway point, I knew how it was going to end; to be honest, I minded that. I know, I know – I’m not the target audience. But still…
Another thing that irritated me – despite the number of experienced people present, Dashti is the only one who works out the villain’s secret and how to trick him. Of course, it turns out that she is the only one able to do it.
When I read fairy tales and fantasy, I look forward to suspending my disbelief and being drawn in. However, certain things just can’t be explained away. For example, having an eighteen-year-old young woman disrobe in front of an army, but the ‘men all looked away, at the ground, at the clouds. Though hard warriors, I think they couldn’t help being embarrassed for the poor naked girl.’ Why? Because, according to their custom, ‘to be naked outside is utter submission, and to be unclothed before anyone besides family is humiliation.’ I’m supposed to believe that not one of those ‘hard warriors’ so much as stole a glance or even leered?
The scenes leading up to the ending, for me, felt flat. As for the ending itself, I found it uninteresting and too obvious.
Personally, I wish Hale had spent more time with Saren. The explanation of her trauma was too quick to do it justice.
Reading all that, you’re probably wondering why I’ve given it 3.5*. It’s because I love the setting and Hale’s descriptions.
I like the way she describes the healing songs:
‘What the words say doesn’t matter. The sound of the words and the sound of the tune together speak a language that the body can understand… The body wants to be whole, and when you sing the right sounds, you’re reminding it how to heal itself.’
… the steppes:
‘stretches of grass growing as tall as my knees, low, rounded hills, stripes of streams carrying away the mountains’ snow, and the occasional knotty tree, wind-whipped and bending… the wind never sleeps out here.’
I borrowed this from the library; I’m glad I read it but, like ‘The Goose Girl’, doubt I’ll read it again. I’d say read it once, for the wonderfully different setting. Then again, you might be one of the many who truly enjoy the whole story.