In time for the holidays, Amazon has published a collection of five short stories centered roughly on the theme of fairy tales. The five authors chosen to create it are very different, and they set off in very different directions at once, their works running the gamut from very literal, with Snow White and Cinderella popping up as characters, to very abstract, playing with the concepts of memory and nostalgia that also form a cornerstone of our attachments to fairy tales in general.
These stories are free if you have Prime, but available for purchase for the kindle app if you don’t. Some stand out more than others, and if you’re looking to save time or money sorting through them, Geekly has you covered.
The Prince and the Troll (Rainbow Rowell) – Rowell’s signature understated and compelling romance is on display here, but her worldbuilding unexpected, and has never been stronger. This unusual glimpse at a maybe-fairytale, maybe-apocalyptic land of dangerous rules and deadly consequences makes me ravenous for more, but Rowell cleverly withholds all but the most interesting of details. She creates the kind of world we ourselves live in: a strange one, but with that strangeness entirely unremarked-upon because of its familiarity. In this case, it takes a bridge troll to point it out, a woman who doesn’t participate in the strange society, and who captivates the “prince” both because and in spite of it. Their meet-cute turns into a get-to-know-you-cute, and then they’re both swept away in more ways than one. Worth a download and a purchase.
Hazel and Gray (Nic Stone) – Hansel and Gretel are no longer children or siblings in this retelling, but a recently reunited couple who become lost in the woods. They happen upon the teenage equivalent of a candy house: a house party with free-flowing drinks, hot partygoers, and a dance floor. But all is, of course, not as it seems. The forces that devour young people are updated here too, abusive and sinister, and it will take all their cleverness to make it out. Thought the latter third of the story reads more like a filled-in outline, giving the play-by-play but not much by way of emotions or descriptions, the story is still effective and its ending filled with insight and strength. Worth a download and a purchase.
The Princess Game (Soman Chainani) – Riddled with head-scratching choices on the part of the protagonists, antagonists, and everyone in between, this short story needed to be rethought at its most basic level, and no amount of editing could have helped it. It tries to be 21 Jump Street meets Murder on the Orient Express, but has no justification for either, let alone combining the two. Motivations are shaky at best, attempts to reveal the dark entitlement of young white male privilege is clumsy, and the main character is impossible to root for, given his abuse of his own privilege. A story that wants to be feminist, but is still somehow only ever about mediocre men. Not worth your time.
The Cleaners (Ken Liu) – By far and away the most masterful story of the collection, this subtle, elegant meditation on memory is as clean as its name. Not a word out of place, not a tone out of true, this is a writer working at the apex of skill and imagination, showing us a world that seems perfectly real but also perfectly strange. Memories leave physical psychic traces that people can re-experience, a sense like smell or touch. Gui specializes in removing these traces, giving people what his shop name promises—A Fresh Start. But the depth to which we feel or do not feel our memories and those of others haunts Gui, his client Clara, and Clara’s memory-expert sister Beatrice. This story is perfect. Worth a download and a purchase.
The Wickeds (Gayle Forman) – Though the prose style doesn’t entirely suit the story, trying a little too hard for humor but also cramming in a good many serious issues, the underlying story is solid. Mothers and daughters, and the things they don’t tell each other, gradually come into the spotlight. I thought this was going to be a wry take on fairy tales, a washed-out Wicked. Instead it becomes sharper and darker as the author discards the lighthearted angle and digs into real-world horrors and motives. Though the ending is a bit trite, it has an interesting note of bleakness blended into the hope that makes it more satisfying. Worth a download if you have Prime.