Talking stags, on the other hand, were nearly always bespelled royalty, and fairies, who could theoretically choose to look like anything, nearly always picked white cats or black horses. Fairies are very beautiful and very vain and they haven’t got the imagination to fill a thimble. And they never learn from their mistakes.
I’ve followed Ursula Vernon over on deviantart for years, mostly for her gorgeous paintings and collages of clockwork creatures, animal saints, hamster warriors, and other beautifully absurd beasties. Almost more than the art, though, I loved the descriptions. She loves to drop the reader smack into the middle of a new world, one she created just to explain why she drew an Iguanodon in a gardener’s hat, or because she liked the name “bramble dragon” and needed a place to put one.
Between deviantart and her blog, I’ve gotten hooked on her writing, and was hoping to someday own a book of her short stories. So you can imaging all the cheering when I ran across “Toad Words, And Other Stories.” (Written under the name T. Kingfisher, since she writes a lovely series of children’s books and likes to keep this slightly more adult work under a different name.)
It’s a book of re-told fairy tales, all in the quirky, matter-of-fact-in-the-face-of-total-nonsense style that I’ve always loved. They’re often dark, sometimes sad, but always endearing, even when they’re disturbing. She’s taken the stories we’ve grown up with and asked why people stuck in a fairy tale would do the things they do. She also assumes we might have only heard one person’s side of the story; who knows what actually happened.
I promise not to spoil anything in this description but, as always, if you’d rather skip the review and just buy the book, I promise I won’t mind. I pulled my own meanings out of each story, but you’ll definitely find your own without any help from me.
“It Has Come To My Attention” is a poem that seems to sum up Ursula’s way of looking at the world: sometimes you can take a fairy tale’s rules for granted, but sometimes you really just want to know how something works.
“Toad Words” asks the question: if you’re cursed with weird things coming out of your mouth when you talk, does vocabulary matter?
“The Wolf and the Woodsman” is a very familiar story, but you’ll be surprised by just about everything in it.
The original story of “Bluebeard’s Wife” is so explicitly horrific, it’s hard to imagine how any writer could make it mean something other than violence and murder. Ursula pulled it off of course. I’ll never read the original story the same way again.
“Loathly” is based off of a fairy tale I’m not familiar with, though it follows the usual “monster demands things of people and eats them when they don’t comply, until one person does it right” storyline. It’s also the only story in the book with a warning label. It’s wonderfully disturbing, with an ending I didn’t expect.
“The Sea Witch Sets the Record Straight” is probably my favorite story in the book, because apparently we’ve all been hearing the wrong version for years, and there was a very good reason that little twit needed to keep her mouth shut.
“Never” is even darker than “Loathly” and stuck with me for a while. There are many ways to never grow up, you know.
“Bait” is a poem that wonders who the monster is really looking for.
“Night” is a story about hope, and the stage, and art for art’s sake, and rats.
“Boar and Apples” is another familiar story, and the longest story in the book, but Ursula only used the framework of the original story. This story is much more detailed than any version you’ve heard before. There’s also a chance that someone got the original story wrong just because they misheard one single word.
She was not quite as white as snow. People that pale look like corpses, and if they insist on walking around, other people tend to put stakes in their hearts and bury them under a very heavy stone.
“Odd Season” seems to be about finding a fairy tale when you’re not looking for one, because they’re probably more common than you think.
It’s not just that her take on fairy tales is so original, her writing is also beautiful. There’s something about her words that are just, I don’t know, well-placed? Every phrase seems to fit together perfectly, all the dialog is clever without working hard at all. It’s very friendly writing, and extremely intelligent.
Up until now Neil Gaiman’s been the only author who consistently writes fairy tales that I love. Now I have to add Ursula to this list. I read them all in one sitting on the plane from Florida to California, then sat and thought about them for a bit, then read them all over again. I hope she publishes another collection, very soon. Maybe a whole book about Iguanodons, or dragons, you never know.
Ursula’s book Toad Words, and Other Stories can be purchased on several sites, found here.