Sunday, October 7, 2012

White As Snow A Dark Sensual Retelling of Snow White by Tanith Lee

In the kingdom of Belgra Demitu, where the slowly dying old pagan ways are still revered even though lip-service is paid to Christianity, the aging Queen Arpazia, possesses a rare and costly glass mirror from the East with a silver lid that covers it like an eye. Beautiful, with snow white skin, blood red lips, and ebony hair, Arpazia, is an emotionally detached woman who seems to live most of her life in a trance. She married the warlord who raped her and fathered her only child, her daughter, Candacis, known as Coira. The servants regard the cold and distant queen as “the witch-queen,” who ignores and neglects her daughter and often goes out at night to join the pagan revels and be with her lover, the handsome huntsman, Klymeno.

When Arpazia becomes pregnant, and refuses to endure the horrors of childbirth again, the pagans give her abortion herbs in exchange for her daughter, Coira, taking her place in the rituals in the woods.

Furious at being spurned by her lover and the people of the woods, jealous of her beautiful eighteen-year-old daughter taking her place, when a troupe of dwarves come to the palace to entertain with their enactment of the seven deadly sins, Queen Arpazia arranges to have Cirpoz, the dwarves’ keeper, to take Coira away. She gives him her mirror as payments and says he can do whatever he wants to with Coira, she doesn’t care, and Cirpoz agrees, never realizing that the girl he is kidnapping is King Draco’s daughter.

On the road, the dwaves kill Cirpoz before he can kill Coira, but insist she stay with them, they are going to work in the mines below ground, and need a person of normal height to act as their owner/manager.

In the underground city of Elusion, ruled by the sadistic and narcissistic Prince Hadz, where it is always night and the sun never shines, Coira keeps house for the dwarves while they work in the mines. She also finds passion with the dwarf known as Stormy, who plays Anger, though his real name is Hephaestion. She also catches the eye of Prince Hadz when she recommends a herbal remedy for his terrible migraines.

When Queen Arpazia learns that she is about to be brought to trial as a witch, she takes to the road, wandering aimlessly, taking shelter where she can find it and work as a fruit picker and seller. When she descends into the underground city to sell fruit, she is reunited with Coira and gives her an apple that puts her into a death like sleep (the bees that pollinated it have taken nectar from the opium poppies).  When Prince Hadz finds out what has happened, he orders Arpazia arrested for murder and has Coira entombed in a coffin of glass in a gown decorated with the shards of the now broken magic mirror and keeps her in his palace where he can look at her because she is almost as beautiful as he is and enjoy her sexually (thankfully this is not actually described). When she awakens from her death-like slumber, he renames her his Persapeh and makes her his queen and Arpazia is hanged wearing shoes of red-hot iron. But the pregnant Coira faints and proves herself weak and unworthy of Hadz and he gives her to the dwarf Hephaestion as “punishment” to humiliate her, which is exactly what they both wanted, so it all ends happily like fairy tales are supposed to.

This was an interesting take on Snow White, interweaving it with the myth of Demeter and Persephone, there is nothing sweet or sentimental about it like the Disney version, it is definitely dark and gritty, but there is an aloofness about the characters, like a wall of glass that is always between them and the reader, that makes it hard to really feel for them. And despite the use of the word “sensual” in the title, it isn’t really. There are a few scenes of a sexual nature in it, but they aren’t explicit.

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