Robyn Reviews: Poisoned

‘Poisoned’ is marketed as a dark, feminist retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The darker aspects are exceptional, creating a beautifully atmospheric story – but, to me, it doesn’t feel overtly feminist. This is definitely a clever and fun adaptation, but it doesn’t blow me away.

In ‘Poisoned’, the princess – Sophie – has an evil stepmother, the queen. The queen favours a reign of fear, believing that this is the only way she will retain control of her Queendom. Sophie is too kind-hearted to follow in her stepmother’s footsteps. When the queen’s magic mirror tells her that her stepdaughter will bring about her fall, the queen takes immediate action, sending a huntsman to steal her daughter’s heart. This follows the Grimm’s fairytale – but whilst in that version, the huntsman feels remorse and instead steals an animal’s heart, in this version the huntsman is too scared of the queen to defy her wishes. Sophie’s heart is stolen – but with the help of seven mysterious men (and their friendly spider chef), she survives, her heart replaced with a clockwork. Now all that remains is for Sophie to reclaim her title – assuming she can survive her stepmother’s increasingly desperate assassination attempts.

Sophie is an exceptionally naïve, sheltered character – accurate for her station but at times irritating to read about. In almost every situation she’s completely helpless, relying on others to rescue her or point out her terrible decision making. I’m unclear how old she’s meant to be, but her demeanour is exceptionally childlike. For a supposed feminist retelling, Sophie spends most of the book being rescued by others – and whilst I’m definitely in the ‘complicated female characters not strong female characters’ camp, it would be nice to see her make a single good decision. Based on this book, Sophie will make a lovely but terrible queen.

The queen is definitely the most interesting character. Aged twelve, she survived a horrible accident at the palace thanks to a magic mirror – and the mysterious man who spoke through it – and ever since she has relied on the mirror to rule. She’s a horrible person – to her daughter, her staff, her citizens – all because of fear. I’m unclear whether or not the reader is meant to be sympathetic to her, but she’s not a character that deserves it – yes, she went through some terrible things, and clearly had to fight much harder as a female ruler, but nothing excuses the sheer horror of her actions. The queen gets occasional scenes throughout the book, and I wish these were longer so her story could be more understood.

The – all male – supporting characters fit nicely into their allotted stereotypes (evil prince, loveable rogue, entirely unsuitable love interest), but play their roles well. The seven men of the Hollow are all absolute sweethearts and, like the queen, deserve more page time. I also love Weber, the spider chef – his presence is never explained but the mere idea is brilliant.

The setting is absolutely standard for a fairytale but very nicely depicted, with the menace of the Darkwood clear. I like that the basics of questing across a queendom – finding food, shelter, washing – aren’t glossed over, and Sophie’s struggles with all these things are highlighted. It’s nice to see a book acknowledge that these basics exist and are very difficult when trekking through a wood.

Overall, this is an enjoyable YA fairytale retelling, but not a standout edition to the genre.

Thanks to NetGalley and Hot Key Books YA for providing me with an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Hot Key Books
Paperback: 20th October 2020

Book Review: The Blue Salt Road

The Blue Salt Road, by Joanne M. Harris (illustrated by Bonnie Helen Hawkins), is a modern folk tale from a master storyteller. It takes the legend of the selkies – seals that can temporarily shed their skins to become people – and weaves a dark tale of passion, loss and revenge.

On an island in the cold north sea, where for weeks in winter the sun barely rises, a community of hunters live with their families. Successful among them is John McCraiceann who wields the harpoon that enables boatmen to kill sea creatures – including dolphins, seals and the lucrative whales. John has a daughter, Flora, who seeks a husband more exciting than those available locally. Her grandmother has shared the secret of how she may capture a lover from the sea.

A young man of the Grey Seal clan has ignored his mother’s stark warnings and visits the island. Intrigued by the people there he sheds his skin and explores while they shelter in their houses after dark. When Flora approaches the coastline and makes her call he answers. He is happy with what she offers, unaware of her plans for him.

Too late the young man realises what Flora has done. Her cunning forces him to attempt to assimilate. To survive he must eat, drink and work as the island people do. He cannot fathom why this feels so wrong.

John convinces the skipper of the boat he works on to accept his strange, new apprentice – both men are happier out at sea than on land. The hunters look to nature for their livelihood and do not regard the sea creatures as sentient. The selkie can no longer understand their songs but is aware that what he is required to do by his new peers is horrific.

Flora tamps down any guilt she feels, convincing herself that her actions were necessary. Her grandmother looks on from a distance, aware that she is responsible. Banished by her daughter there seems little she can do.

Although simply told there are many details that increase the tension. The tale is disturbing and recognisable in its depiction of humans with their casual and accepted violence. The reader is conscious of the peril the selkie finds himself in. Those who would help can only do so at great risk to themselves.

With such a story the denouement is key. It is dealt with deftly, although not all practical questions are answered. The author balances well the need to maintain inherent aspects of the various characters. Despite its dark heart the story is beautifully written and enhanced by exquisite illustrations.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Gollancz.

Book Review: The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote


The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote, by Dan Micklethwaite, is a poignant yet always humourous adventure featuring a wine guzzling twenty-two year old whose life revolves around the stories she reads in books. Her top floor flat has been taken over by her literature, with bookshelves obscuring windows and a shower curtain protecting the titles she keeps in her bathroom. She has little furniture and a ragbag of clothes, but her many bookshelves overflow and her bedroom is carpeted with novels of uniform size. She rescues books from charity shops and orders them on line. Her stories have kept her together as the life she dreams of has repeatedly slipped from her grasp.

At the beginning of the tale we learn that Donna is currently single. Her previous boyfriend, Kirk, disliked her fixating on books, preferring that she concentrate on pleasing him. We learn that Donna’s father, an English teacher, encouraged her to read voraciously to avoid growing up ‘a thickie’. His scathing language was never confined to his pupils. Donna’s childhood was played out to the soundtrack of her parents’ arguments, although their eventual divorce helped her financially.

One morning Donna rashly decides to leave the sanctuary of her small and stuffy flat. She will don the armour of a knight and go questing. She discovers that Huddersfield may not be ready for such bravado. The setbacks she encounters force her to consider a different role, perhaps that of a princess.

Storybook princesses will inevitably seek their prince. Donna’s experience of these beings has not been favourable. She resents that her lovers regard every situation as revolving around them. She has no wish to be any boy’s toy.

Donna’s prince, even if he does talk a bit southern at times, brings her wine and companionship, but it is her books that continue to provide the adventures she seeks. She lives life through her imagination, fueled by stories lightly flavoured by experience. She begins to question their happy ever after.

Written in short sentences and chapters, the author is piercing in the observations he makes about his characters and setting. He captures the mundane as Donna sees it, turning empty shops into caves and bookshelves into forests. His heroine is a too thin, ginger haired, northerner with a proclivity, if not the talent, for cosplay. She and her many foibles are brought to life with a sharp wit and a sympathetic wisdom. She is a fabulous creation, volatile and vulnerable but determined to forge her own path with as clear a head as excessive wine consumption will allow.

“Nobody has ever accused Donna Crick-Oakley of being adventurous. A slut, yes. A thickie. A dreamer. A quiet one. A fat bitch (before she lost weight). A skinny bitch (after). A nutter. A swot. A stick-in-the-mud. An accident waiting to happen. A cry-baby. A silly cow. A giant waste of time. All of the above, but never adventurous. The fact was, when given a choice between real life and books, Donna Crick-Oakley chose books every time. […] She chose books because they never left her lonely the way Kirk had had left her lonely. Because company was often nothing of the kind, whereas a good book always was.”

Much of the story reads like a modern day fairy story, paying homage to the traditional form, not Disneyfied. There are awkward conversations, drunken messages posted on social media, and the disdane of city dwellers to battle. Throughout the text perceptive insights are fired like arrows, mocking yet poignant and very funny.

A tale lightly written with a depth that will linger, it is clever whilst avoiding any conceit. More than that though, this book offers entertainment. It was an absolute pleasure to read.

Book Review: The Snow Child


The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey, is a story of grief and survival. It tells the tale of Mabel and Jack who have moved to Alaska to make a fresh start. Set in the 1920s when Alaska was a frontier on the edges of civilisation this new life has turned out to be bleak and harsh. Mabel and Jack are no longer young and they are struggling to cope.

Their only child was stillborn many years ago, a continuing source of grief which they do not discuss. Jack feels guilty that he has not provided Mabel with the life that he feels she deserves. Mabel believes that she has let Jack down in not providing the family they planned.

One evening, after the first snowfall of winter, they build a snowman which they form into the shape of a little girl. The next day the snowman has melted and they spot a little girl wearing the scarf and mittens that they had placed on their creation. Is she real or imagined? Did their snowman come to life as in a well loved tale that Mabel remembers her father reading to her as a child?

The writing in this book is flawless, atmospheric and in places surreal. As the little girl flits in and out of their lives they cope with the realities of taming the wilderness around them that they may eke out a living. They also try in vain to tame the little girl, but for whose benefit?

The relationship between the couple and with the neighbouring family they befriend, who believe that they are imagining the child, is beautifully done. By developing the plot from differing points of view the reader comes to understand why each character acts as they do, frustrating as that sometimes seems.

This story brought to mind a traditional fairy tale. Aspects are explained but many mysteries remain. Woven throughout is the question of what is real. The evocative setting is perfect.

The denouement was fitting but personally I found it disappointing. I would have liked more reason even if questions still hung in the air. Having explained so much as the story progressed this ending, in my opinion, fell short.

Nevertheless the dream like qualities of the book made for enjoyable reading. The questions asked were challenging. Do we love to fulfil a need in ourselves or to benefit the loved one? Do we discourage children from being what they want for their benefit or because we can only be comfortable with them if they act in a certain way? The mixture of realism and surrealism worked well.

A beautifully written tale set in a harsh yet fantastical setting, this is the perfect book to read curled up by a fire on a cold, dark winter’s night.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.