I read The Raven and the Reindeer by T. Kingfisher (known as Ursula Vernon to her friends, and ursulav to those of us who follow her on deviantart) back in February and I loved it to pieces, but I didn’t write the review right away. Fast forward six months and I thought if I want to do a good review, I ought to read it again.
No kidding, it’s even better the second time around. And the first time it was amazing.
Kingfisher’s retelling another fairy tale, following the trend she started with Toad Words, The Seventh Bride, and Bryony and Roses (which you should also read.) This time she’s telling the story of the Snow Queen, and it doesn’t resemble Disney’s Frozen at all. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Frozen, but there’s more death and sacrifice in this one, and less singing.)
Gerta, a Scandinavian girl, watches as her sweetheart Kay is kidnapped by the Snow Queen. Well, maybe sweetheart is too strong a word. She loves him and knows in her heart he loves her back. Or maybe likes her. Is fond of her? Okay, in her more honest moments she admits that he barely notices her, but still. He’s been stolen and she’s going to rescue him.
Gerta is hardly the heroic type. She’s short and a little round, and is certain she’s about as plain and uncourageous as anybody you’d ever meet. So that makes it actually more impressive that she heads out to the far North to find Kay anyway.
Along the way she meets a talking raven. Well, apparently all ravens talk, but not all humans actually understand them, and it takes magic for that to happen. Or, if you’re Gerta, you have to be the kind of person that magic sticks to sometimes. Which doesn’t surprise Gerta much: as far as she’s concerned anything magical that happens to her would have to a complete accident. Which, while we’re on the subject, is how she meets Janna, a bandit girl who heals pigeons and horses and has killed at least one person that Gerta knows about.
That’s the kind of accidental thing that happens to Gerta quite a lot.
Janna’s the opposite of Gerta: confident, pragmatic, and not likely to get squeamish about little things like killing someone if she thought it was justified.
Somebody was bound to do it and it just happened to be me. Men like Taggen are born for killing. Come on!
The whole story is one lovely bit of magic, adventure, and sarcasm after another. And in among the witches, cannibals, flying otters, and dreaming plants there’s always these perfect little phrases that crop up in conversation, like when Janna explains why healing people is easier than healing horses:
Horses are made of legs, the way that birds are made of wings, and when something goes wrong with them they’re so hard to fix.
Or when the otters are explaining why they love learning new languages:
Words are like fish and you catch them and you get to keep the forever.
Oh the otters. They were my favorite.
I thought the emotions of the story hit me even harder the second time around. I knew what was going to happen while they tried to escape from the bandits, but I was still biting my nails the whole time. And there’s a wonderful bit near the end of the book where a reindeer helps Gerta, in a way I wasn’t expecting but really should have, and I get a little choked up just thinking about it.
And Gerta is never perfect, never a Mary Sue, but we love her anyway, even when we wish she’d get a backbone. It’s fun to watch her change with the story, not just how she thinks of herself, but she also gets to look at her…well not prejudices, but her idea of how love actually works, what is and isn’t possible.
Plus there’s magic and a truly evil villain and talking animals and helpful plants and lots and lots of snow. And it doesn’t have the kind of happy ending that you’d expect, but it was perfect anyway. I’d say more but on the off chance you haven’t read it yet, I’d want you to be surprised.