Fairy tales are a double edged sword. I think all of us have been inclined toward reboots not because we’re Hollywood dupes or whatever the alarmist discourse is now, but because the familiar is comforting—and after these past few years, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting comfort. But it puts authors in a bind, because as much as we want comfort, we need novelty. Authors then have to innovate within much narrower confines, pushing the bounds of a narrative without breaking them. Fortunately, and as usual, Marissa Meyer is a genius at doing just that.
I really never knew what was going to happen next in Gilded, her 12th novel and her return to fairy tales after some time away. That’s no small feat given that the source material is already established. We know the beats: a young woman, under pain of death, must spin straw into gold for a king. To accomplish this, she trades her most precious possessions to Rumpelstiltskin, who is actually able to produce golden thread. The woman then marries the king and defeats Rumpelstiltskin by learning his name.
Meyer starts with the very reasonable premise that this king must be an absolute piece of garbage to make this unreasonable threat. And thus, instead of a mortal man, we have the Alder King, immortal leader of the Wild Hunt. He rides across the land seeking prey of all kinds, whether mythic beasts—or human children. His cruelty is on full display, and he only becomes more fearsome the more we learn of him.
To balance him out, heroine Serilda is stubbornly optimistic and full of moxie. She’s been cursed–or blessed–by the god of stories to always have a fantastic tale at the ready, but this makes her a bit of a girl-who-cried-wolf to her town, who rarely put stock in anything she said. I loved her ability to be cheeky even when in mortal peril and her ability to tell stories under the strangest circumstances. She’s not perpetually sunny—her life has been marked by loss too much for that—but she’s hopeful. It’s a very nice trait to see persist across the book, not least because it keeps Gilded from becoming full grimdark.
Yes, Gilded was much, much grimmer than I expected while still somehow—I really don’t know how—maintaining that trademark Meyer optimism. There’s a surprising amount of child murder, for one, and some of it is graphic. There’s plenty of adult murder, too, which is also graphic. Torn-out hearts, a zombie chewing on its own flesh…the list goes on, but I’ll spare you more detail. It’s not gratuitous exactly, more that Meyer really embraced the darkness of the original Grimm’s fairy tales.
Maybe it’s the setting that kept the book from going full horror. Serilda’s life, and village and town life in general, held as much dismay as joy. People were reasonably superstitious and self-serving, but could also be generous and thoughtful. It’s very realistic to see the full range of human experience rather than just the negative, and I liked the secondary characters well enough. I think there could have been less detail about how much Serilda likes working with children (the answer is so much), but by and large the world is rich and compelling.
Ultimately, though, I think it was the romance that really buoyed Gilded. Its sweetness and sultriness was sheer perfection, paced magnificently and written even better. I was particularly glad that a moment of misunderstanding was resolved very nearly within the same moment it was introduced, a huge relief to me, personally, who hates that trope. Instead there was fun flirting and, more importantly, a solid foundation of mutual insight and trust. If you want me to believe in happily ever after you have to give me relationships (romantic or otherwise) that really seem like they’ll go the distance, and Meyer nailed it.
The ending surprised me, too, but not in a good way. It kept getting drawn out and drawn out, and then the not-really-a-cliffhanger arrived with me still hoping in vain for a resolution of some kind. It felt like 500 pages was enough to tell this story to completion, only Meyer (or her publisher) was dragging her feet.
Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong. It will be nice to see all the loose ends tied up, and maybe there really is another book’s worth of material in that. But it feels much more like there could have been some cuts made, some points condensed, and the whole book made into…well, a book. Just one. Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely going to pick up book two. How could I not? I do love these characters, and I do love this story. Meyer isn’t being cruel or conniving here. I suspect instead that her level of fame has prevented editors from really pushing this to be as tight as it could be. It just doesn’t help that it came out around the same time as Little Thieves, another Germanic fairy tale retelling that did manage to cram everything into a single action-packed drama-dense volume. They could have really complemented and been in conversation with each other, but instead I’m going to have to wait to fully judge Gilded on the merits of its forthcoming conclusion.