Book Review - 'The Goose Girl' by Shannon Hale

Now that I’ve decided to write fairy-tale retellings, I thought it would be interesting to see how established authors have tackled the different tales. This means that I’m quite late to the party with my reviews.

In reviewing these books, I know I’m not the target audience, something I always bear in mind when I’m reading the stories.

Of the retellings I’ve come across, Shannon Hale’s ‘The Goose Girl’ seems to be the only one about the Grimm fairy tale of the same name, and is the first book in her series, ‘The Books of Bayern’. As far as I can tell, the other two books in the series are her own original stories and not retellings.

'The Goose Girl' book cover

Princess Anidori spends the first years of her life listening to her aunt’s enthralling stories. Little does she realise how valuable her aunt’s strange knowledge will be when she grows older. At the age of sixteen Ani is told she must leave her homeland to marry someone she has never met. But fate has much worse in store for her in this original and magical tale of a girl who must understand her own incredible talent before she can overcome those who wish her harm. A story of betrayal, jealousy and romance.

The fairy tale was never one of my favourites, but I remember it well, namely because of the princess’ horse, Falada. I always wished Falada’s fate had been different, and I found the princess a wimpy wet blanket. So, I was intrigued as to what Ms Hale’s version would be like.

Her princess, who is the Crown Princess of Kildenree, has a mouthful of a name – Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee! Thankfully, her aunt shortens it to Ani. We’re introduced to Ani from birth, and, despite the slow start which features a lot of telling, I found the first chapter interesting only because of the aunt, who is the queen’s sister.

I wish the aunt had featured more as her story is one I’d love to read. She knew stories “of fantastic and faraway things: a land where mares pawed gold nuggets from the earth and chewed them in order to breathe out music; a baker who baked birds from dough and sent them out the window in search of a treasured pot of apricot preserves; a mother who loved her baby so fiercely, she put him in a tight locket around her neck so that he might never grow up…

The aunt teaches Ani things that are rarely spoken of in their land, and I like Hale’s imagination with this:
Some people are born with the first word of a language resting on their tongue, though it may take some time before they can taste it. There are three kinds, three gifts. Did you know your mother has the first? The gift of people-speaking. Many rulers do… And people listen to them, believe them, and love them…
The second is the gift of animal-speaking. I’ve met a few who are able to learn animal languages, but like me, those people feel more comfortable near the mountains, among the trees and places where animals are not in cages. It’s not always a pleasant life… Others are suspicious of those who can speak with wild things… now, so few remember.
The third is lost and rare. I’ve never known one with the gift of nature-speaking… I don’t know the tongue of fire or wind or tree…

When it comes to describing these gifts in action, Hale does so effortlessly and in a believable manner.

Even though she’s heir to the throne, Ani grows up timid and unsure of herself. Thanks to her aunt, she’s developed abilities that are no longer acceptable and she’s seen as ‘different’; also, having an overbearing mother doesn’t help her confidence.

Despite being the heir, instead of inheriting her mother’s throne, Ani is packed off to marry the son of the neighbouring king of Bayern to maintain peace between the kingdoms. When she leaves, that’s when the story comes close to the Grimm tale. Hale expands the journey, weaving in necessary details about Ani’s guard and lady-in-waiting, which makes what follows more believable, in my opinion.

How Ani ends up becoming the ‘goose girl’ in the kingdom of Bayern where they do not know what the Kildenree princess looks like is, I feel, well told. There is definite character development as Ani gradually turns from a shy mouse of a girl to someone stronger, who learns she doesn’t need to depend on others because she’s in charge of her own fate.

As for Falada, yes, Hale develops him into so much more and that, sadly, makes what happens to him even more heart-wrenching.

I like Hale’s descriptive style of writing:
… when the trees burned the fire of late summer into their leaves and the ground mist was a ghost of the river, long and wet and cold…
The moon cleared a scrap of sky, and the moonlight turned the outside of her windowpane into a silver mirror.
The bare trees stood against the whiteness like rigid ink strokes reaching upward to the dimmed, gray paper sky.

Having said all that, I wouldn’t give the book more than 3 stars out of 5. Although I enjoyed the story enough to keep reading to the end, I feel it was a wasted opportunity – it could have been so much better. There was too much telling, not enough showing. Not enough chance to get properly invested in the characters; not even Ani. Once she got to Bayern, we were introduced to many more characters, but they all seemed interchangeable with nothing to really set them apart.

As for Ani’s love interest, I didn’t think much of him. In the second part of the book, he writes her a tasteless letter to end their romance because he has to. I was left questioning their so-called love, which, in my opinion, hadn’t really taken off only because, again, there was too much telling and not enough showing.

I liked Hale’s depiction of Ani’s lady-in-waiting, Selia, and the slow unfolding of her plan. Although it wasn’t difficult to work out Selia’s motivation, the way it was laid out was well written. But as we get to the denouement, Selia descends into a petulant wannabe villain who seems to fade away as her plan unravels.

Despite Ani’s character development, at the end, when I was so ready for her to stand up before the Bayern king and his court and convincingly argue her case, she inexplicably falls apart; it’s as if we’d double-backed to the start of the book when she didn’t have the gumption to stand up to her mother. Why the king decided to give her the benefit of the doubt was beyond me as she came across as little more than a whiny child having a tantrum because no one would believe her.

And then there was the ending. I found it a touch too chocolate-box cutesy, completely at odds with earlier scenes, which were more gritty and bloody, and scenes which hinted at rape.

This book could have been so much more with Hale’s wonderful imagination and descriptive writing. I wish she’d chosen to show more and tell less; it’s almost as if the story was written in the style of fairy tales of old, which were heavy on the telling. That worked back then because it was the accepted style. Now, we’re used to being taken inside characters’ minds, to find out what makes them tick. We want to feel what they’re feeling, understand the decisions they make, what attracts them to others, why they fall in love. It’s not enough to be told; that’s too dry and leaves you with nothing to anchor yourself to.

Still, there was enough in ‘The Goose Girl’ to keep me going to the end, even though I struggled to get through the last pages. I doubt I’ll read the whole story again; if I do pick up the book, it’ll only be for certain descriptions, and the scenes with the aunt and Falada. And, personal choice here, I’m not planning on reading the others in the series.