Raced through The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher(aka Ursula Vernon) in about 2 days because:
a) it’s a fairytale re-telling (of the English Folktale, Mr. Fox) and I devour those like hedgehogs devour slugs and raisins
b) it’s got a Coraline-esque, twisted creepiness about it that is exactly what I feel like reading on a rainy October eve
and c) it has a very pragmatic, pulls-herself-up-by-her-own-boostraps kind of heroine that reminds me of Sophie from Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle whose voice is full of quip, humor and a frank genuineness I’m so on board with!
The Seventh Bride is about a 15-year-old girl, Rhea, of average looks who is an ordinary miller’s daughter that spends her days butting heads with a mean-spirited swan and plucking out gremlins threatening to jam the millworks. She has little patience to harbor notions about romance and even fewer about marriage. It’s not practical for a peasant girl of her low standing to dwell on high falutin’ never-going-to-happen-to-her sort of heart-dashing romances from the storybooks. In her own words:
“Marriage was like death. You knew it’d happen eventually, but it wasn’t something to dwell on.”
“She hadn’t expected to love her husband. That sort of thing almost never happened outside of ballads anyway, so that wasn’t what bothered her. She’d been raised with the understanding that you married well and you were polite to each other, and if you were lucky, you became relatively good friends, because after all, you were both stuck in this together. That was all she’d ever hoped for.”
and, this amusing one,
“Marriage was so far from her thoughts that it was like some far-off foreign country, possibly with elephants.
(I bookmarked heaps more passages that were so wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, self-aware, and trope-turning in their awesomeness!)
When a great noble, Lord Crevan, decides he wants to marry her, sensible Rhea sees right through his smooth veneer of upperclass charm and only has great suspicions about him and loads of unanswered questions about his motives for choosing her in particular for his bride. She has little to say in the matter, however—her whole family has little say—for if she doesn’t marry the Lord, he will cause misery to her and her family. Even her parents can’t comfort her.
“But why me? Why not someone older or better or, or…prettier?”
At this point, Rhea’s mother should have said, “You’re as pretty as anyone,” or some variation on that theme. It was part of the job of mothers to assure their offspring that they were beautiful and worthy and that it wasn’t surprising that anyone would want them.
Instead, her mother said, “I don’t know.”
And that was the most alarming thing of all.
Lord Crevan is far from Prince Charming. Though he may look all clean and proper, Rhea can smell something distinctly wrong about him and she won’t be tricked by his false flattery and disingenuous attentions. While her friends and parents rack their minds for different ways to sell the situation to her as a positive one (pretending that she will soon be a great lady, that Lord Crevan must own a hunting lodge in the middle of the woods otherwise why would he ask her to enter the woods on her own?, that everything will be fine and proper when everything was anything but), Rhea knows something is not right.
“It won’t work,” she said to herself later, having a good sulk down at the unplowed end of the field. “Pretending it’s normal won’t actually change anything.”
She isn’t content passively pretending that all is fine. She cries but acknowledges crying won’t help her situation. So, instead, she stands all the straighter, opens her eyes all the wider, and ask all the more questions, determined to figure things out and set the world to rights again.
Armed only with a brave little miming hedgehog in her pocket and her own courage, she reaches the gates of Lord Crevan’s mansion. Here we are greeted by the deliciously skin-prickling “Be bold…be bold..but not too bold…or your heart’s blood shall run cold” from a bunch of bird golems with stone eyes, in fact. And so, the adventure begins.
The story amused me from beginning to end. It has elements of the starry-eyed surreal magical world of fantasy from our favorite fairytales but everything is given a darker edge when the harsh realities of medieval hierarchy and a woman’s place during that time bleed into the story. Rhea herself knows that if a lord ever asks her to marry him, there is no romance involved—she just has to do it because peasants don’t disobey their superiors. And it is very blatant how much the wealthy and powerful are willing to take advantage of their lessers and turn a blind eye to the price of their own comforts, as is evident in how unquestioning they all are as to the origins of Lord Crevan’s “gifts”.
Lord Crevan sets Rhea on a series of tricksome tasks in which he fully expects to frighten her into failing and succumbing to his will just as the other wives seem to have. Rhea knows better than to out-rightly rebel against her sorcerous fiance, so she keeps her cards in her sleeve until the right moment, as any good heroine should. It’s perhaps tempting to write a scrappy protagonist hero that rushes into danger, guns a’blazin’—that’s an exciting story, isn’t it?—but if they weren’t characters of fiction, they’d be more likely to be riddled with bullets than save anyone. I like that Rhea bides her time and knows how to use her quiet observations and even her soft skills to her own advantage. Interestingly, Maria, one of Lord Creven’s wives, tells her:
“Courage, child. But not too much. He plans to break you, and it’ll go easier for you if you bend.”
In other words, if Rhea wants to play Lord Crevan’s game on her terms, she must let him think he’s broken her or else he’ll push her to breaking point before she’s ready.
Rhea faces the various tasks before her with great heart, refusing to compromise who she is in order to ‘win’ at Lord Crevan’s games—in fact, her integrity and inner strength are rarely even issues brought up for discussion—so firmly do the other wives, Maria and Sylvie, believe in the compassion in Rhea’s heart (there is strong solidarity among the womenfolk in the story). It is almost twisted the way Lord Crevan seeks again and again to force Rhea into providing him with some sort of sick proof that women are weak-willed and would turn on their own kind to save their own skins. But, again and again, his plans are thwarted because Rhea sees through it all to the women who were victimized and not to be blamed for their situation (even though there are times she really resents them). In the end, it is the solidarity of the women that finally bring down the sadistic lord.
T. Kingfisher or Ursula Vernon is not only a writer but also has a knack for illustrating. Look at this cute hedgehog:
This one’s pretty fantastic, too:
She is actually most famously known for her webcomics, I believe. She also illustrated the cover of the e-book version:
Definitely captures the creepiness of the story.
She began writing this gem in 2006 and since then has gone on to write various other fairytale re-tellings (such as Bryony and Roses which is based on Beauty and the Beast but involves clockwork bees and gardeners) which I am now very curious to read, indeed! She’s also won a bunch of things like the Hugo, Sequoyah, Mythopoeic, and Nebula awards (and I will now be curiously routing through google to figure out for which works). Apparently, The Seventh Bride was originally released last November as a self-published e-book but since then has been adopted by 47North. For those who have already read the novel last year, there are apparently an additional 8,000-words worth of extra scenes written in this year’s version so it might be worth it for a re-read! The new version is available November 24th (I got mine from Netgalley).
Overall, definitely recommend The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher or Ursula Vernon to those who enjoy fairytale re-tellings. This one is equal parts charmingly no-nonsense, equal parts thrillingly haunting in its delivery of the creepy Mr. Fox fairytale.
I give it 4.5 angry butterflies in the throes of stamping their eyelash-sized feet.
“I am certain she will be worth it,” Crevan said, and held out a hand.
Automatically, she held hers out to shake. He caught it instead, with a quick gesture that reminded her of the swan lunging for her lunch, and slide something cold onto her finger. Then he looked down at the silver ring—an engagement ring, it’s an engagement ring—and smiled.
Before she could react, he brought her hand to his lips and kissed the back of it.
Rhea watched this with the expression of someone who had just been handed a dead flounder.
She had read about hand kissing. She knew it happened. It had always struck her as sort of romantic, and yes, she’d had a few daydreams about meeting a man who would kiss her hand, and it would be like a lightning bolt through both of them, and then he’d tell her that he was really a prince wandering the land in search of the maiden of his heart, and, now, that he’d found her, he would sweep her off her feet and take her back to his castle, and she would never have to help dig an outhouse again.
Rhea’s imagination tended to get a little fuzzy after the bit where they got back to the castle, but the bit about the outhouses was very clear.
But this…this was nothing like those daydreams.
It wasn’t that he slobbered or anything, but it was rather desperately embarrassing. It was wrong. Lords did not ride up on giant roan horses and kiss the hands of millers’ daughters. Well, sometimes they did, but only ravishingly beautiful millers’ daughters, like the ones in the stories, who were brave and true and fair. Rhea figured she was one for three on that list, since she mostly didn’t lie unless it was really important. Probably no one truly brave would be terrified of swans.
She wanted to pull her hand away, but she didn’t. Even if lords didn’t do things like this, millers’ daughters definitely didn’t snub lords.
It didn’t feel romantic. It felt like that moment in a conversation when someone has just said the wrong thing and everyone is standing around trying to figure out how to gloss over it and get past it. She felt embarrassed for everyone involved—for the lord, for herself, and for her father, who was, after all, watching the whole scene.
And then a spark jumped from his fingers to hers, or something that felt like a spark. She twitched and stared stupidly down at her hand. When she looked up again, Crevan was smiling.
It was a smug smile. Rhea didn’t like it at all.