Once upon a time, there was a girl with fair skin, ebony hair, and red, red lips. She was the fairest maiden in the land–or so people believed–fairer even than her stepmother, who took delight in tormenting this young upstart who dared to take attention away from her.
Sound familiar? Yes, Melanie Dickerson‘s book The Fairest Beauty is indeed a retelling of ‘Snow White’. Sophie, the beautiful heroine, has been tormented for most of her life by the Duchess Ermengard, for whom she works as a scullery maid. The duchess claims that she found Sophie on the side of the road, a nameless orphan, and out of the goodness of her heart took her in. Sophie isn’t sure whether to believe this, and several details seem to disprove the lie: The village priest taught her to read before she was banished; the motherly cook hints that she knows Sophie’s history; and the duchess has no kindness whatsoever, so why would she take in an orphaned girl?
Gabe is the impetuous second son of the Hagenheim ducal family. He has always looked up to his brother, the seemingly perfect Valten, and has longed to prove himself to his family. So when a tottering old woman on the verge of death appears on his family’s doorstep and claims to have news of Valten’s long-dead betrothed, Gabe believes that this is the chance he’s been waiting for. After all, if he manages to rescue Sophie, he’ll have done something his brother never did. The only thing is, he never planned on falling in love with the girl. . . .
Set in a realistic world reminiscent of medieval Germany, The Fairest Beauty feels like a real world where you could step through the pages. This is partly because there is no magic whatsoever: Despite rumors of Ermengard’s forays into black magic, everything in the book could happen in real life. The poison in the apple, for instance, is not the product of a dastardly potion with no basis in reality–and while I’m on the subject of the apple, I want to say that the apple scene was *not* what I expected.
One thing I appreciate in fiction novels are details that add an unusual layer to the story. In Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, that best example is the collection of very fine, mouth-wateringly-described feasts. In The Fairest Beauty, it’s the religion. Many of the characters in this book are very religious. It adds an aura of authenticity to the story, because in Germany at the same time period, guess what? They were deeply religious as a society. And in this book, it was well done.
However, all books must have their dull points. The most glaring one, in my opinion, is that the first five pages are the best five pages. Makes sense, considering that the first few pages are the ones that will hook the reader; however, the rest of the book seemed so average by comparison. (I still enjoyed reading it, though.) Also, the book appears to pay homage to its inspiration with the ending. While I won’t spoil it for you (though you can probably guess, since it is Snow White), let’s just say that it could have been better.
So was it worth reading? Yes. It was interesting enough to keep my interest, and I consider it a well-done retelling despite its minor failings. I’m also interested now in Melanie Dickerson’s other books, The Healer’s Apprentice and The Merchant’s Daughter, which I guess can be considered a plus. However, if you have no interest at all in fairy tale retellings–or romance–or evil stepmothers, then this one might not be your cup of tea.
If you liked The Fairest Beauty, might I interest you in one of these as well?
The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
The Amaranth Enchantment by Julie Berry
Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Beauty by Robin McKinley