Review: Letters To Zell

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Review: Letters To Zell

My wedding is going to be awesome. In two short weeks, I’ll walk down the aisle with a man I don’t love, flanked by friends who aren’t speaking to me, and, afterward, I’ll celebrate by killing my stepmother.

I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to come…

The main characters of Camille Griep’s first novel Letters to Zell would probably hear the phrase “fairytale romance” and just laugh and laugh. Cinderella’s husband doesn’t understand her, Snow White is engaged to a good friend for purely political reasons, and Sleeping Beauty married a complete jerk who’s sleeping with everyone in the realm except her. And all of that was before Rapunzel decided to chuck everything and move to Oz to raise unicorns.

Who knew that happily-ever-after would be so damn difficult to find?

Can you imagine the world being so small that it fits into one pathetic mirror?

I’ll address the most obvious issue first: yes, a story featuring fairytale characters who can interact with the modern-day “real” world is a very similar concept to the Fables comic book series. But that’s really where the similarity ends. The relationship to the Human world is a little more complicated here; the people of Grimmland owe their existence to Human imagination, and major parts of their lives were dictated by how the Humans wrote their stories. In fact, some of the characters are still in the process of finishing their stories, and deviating in any way could cause…problems. The last time someone tried to tear up a story it resulted in some minor weather problems, like the sky bleeding into the ground. So obviously happiness is less important than sticking to the script.

Here’s the main cast:

Cinderella (Cecilia, or CeCi. Don’t  use the fairytale nickname): Has aspirations to be a chef (to be good at something in her life), but she feels like she has to quash this for the sake of her kingdom, her husband, even her two maimed step-sisters. Her husband loves her dearly, and repeatedly tells her he’ll get her everything her heart desires. It’s just that he hasn’t taken the time to learn what those desires are.

Snow White (Bianca to you): She’s a bitch. She’s got a lot of very good reasons for being a bitch; having her father marry someone who repeatedly tried to kill her will do that. She wants love and adventure and freedom, and she tends to lash out because she’s trapped in a story that’s going to make her a wife and queen instead of…well…anything else. She also has the most quotable lines in the whole book; girl can drink like a fish and swear like a sailor.

Sleeping Beauty (Briar Rose, or Rory to her friends): Sleepy most of the time, so no surprise that shes the dreamer and romantic of the bunch. A mysterious occurrence meant the end of her story had to change, so she didn’t get to marry the love of her life, but someone cast to fill the role. But it’s okay. She’s dealing. She’s working on her marriage. One day she and the person she married will want to spend time in the same room with each other, and it’s all going to be FINE. If only her friends would try harder to have a positive attitude.

The format of the book is letters written by CeCi, Bianca, and Rory to the eponymous Zell. They all start out utterly furious at her for leaving Grimmland without even a goodbye, even if that ends up being the catalyst for all the other changes in their lives. We never get to see any of Zell’s letters, but we see from her friends’ responses to things she’s written that her life in Oz…isn’t exactly going well.

Having the story told by three different characters means three different writing styles and three completely different viewpoints. The reader gets to see a lot of what isn’t mentioned in the original fairytales, like how various people justify their actions (badly), and the characters’ reasons for forgiving them anyway. There was one surprisingly poignant scene where I actually found myself feeling sorry for an evil stepmother.

To be fair though, no one is ever actually evil in this book, just misguided or selfish or weak, which leads to a lot of fallout. Think about how badly things went for Cinderella’s stepsisters, keeping in mind that that it was their own mother who was pushing them to get married to a prince. In fact it seems like just about every fairytale character drew the short straw when it came to parents.

Your father was so eager to regain your mother’s approval that he traded you for a bunch of goddamned lettuce.

This is, let’s come right out and say it, a very girly book. It’s gossipy and tearful, everyone spends a lot of time fighting with each other or not speaking, and there’s always some reason for people to tell white lies or dodge the truth or try to spare people’s feelings or do anything other than actually talk about what’s bothering them. And the rest of the time there are shopping trips in the Human world and making wedding plans. Plus, there are unicorns. Who actually do sparkle.

Letters to ZellThat said, the book is also a ton of fun. The author takes every opportunity to bring in bit-players from other fairytales, playing around with tropes and mixing the modern age with fables (there’s a reference at one point to sending something via “Fed-Ox”. Har.) The writing is crisp and snarky, with some sections that made me laugh out loud (like a description of Rory drinking too much champagne and getting hiccups), and some incredibly satisfying scenes where someone gets taken down a notch (there may not be any “evil” characters, but there are certainly ones that desperately deserve to get put in their place, and Bianca can deliver a truly brutal verbal smackdown when she wants to).

I do love a re-told fairytale, and Camille Griep certainly delivered on this one. The message of “write your own story” may have been a tad heavy-handed in places, but it’s still one of those books where I found myself running late for an appointment and saying “Okay, I should probably stop reading now. Maybe just a few more pages…” And there’s definitely something charming about fantasy characters who look at everyday things in our world – electricity, cooking classes, music stores and wine bars – and see something magical.