Review: Fairy Tale · Review: Fantasy · Review: Historical Fiction · Review: Romance · Review: Teen Fiction

Book Review: Beheld by Alex Flinn

I’m not sure if I’m growing into Alex Flinn with age, or if her books are developing into works that are more to my taste with time. Either way, I enjoyed this. It’s my second favorite of her books, after Bewitched (but I also adored that book, so it would be hard to top).

Beheld is, in essence, four novellas, tied together by the (tenuous) thread of the involvement of Kendra the witch, who is the same Kendra that we meet in all these fairy tale retellings.

Little Red Riding Hood

The Salem Witch Trials. A girl encounters a talking wolf in the woods.

This story felt…well, incomplete, to me. I went through the book expecting this story to come back to conclude, somehow, but it never really did.

Then in the afterword, I read that many of the characters were real life figures from the Salem Witch Trials, and in that light, the story made more sense. In that light, it is intriguing…though I do still wish there had been more. It felt like the story just stopped because Kendra fled town, but surely there was more that happened to Ann?

I think that this story was simply trying to do too much. It was trying to adapt Little Red Riding Hood in the context of the Salem Witch Trials, while doing justice to many real-life figures, and also setting up Kendra’s romance with her sweetheart James that will be the thread to connect the subsequent three stories.

I don’t have enough background knowledge on the Salem Witch Trials to speak on that, but for the parts of Little Red Riding Hood and Kendra’s romance, I found it fell rather short of my expectations, only doing the bare minimum. Kendra and James don’t seem to be in any real danger: their magic can free them if they so choose (and in any case we the readers know that they both survive this because the opening pages tell us so), so their bond forged in fire felt rather stale. As the beginning of a romance it may have worked, but as the beginning of a romance where these two characters spend the next 300 years searching for each other and pining after one another…not so much.

As for the elements of Little Red Riding Hood, well, there is a girl, and there is a wolf. There is an argument to be made that the wolf leads Ann down the path to sending numerous innocent women to burn, thereby forever robbing her of her innocence. But that’s about it, as even thematic similarities go. Still, I think this would have worked, if there had been a more evident ending.

Rumpelstiltskin

Bavaria in the early 1800s. A miller’s daughter falls for a prince.

This was easily my favorite of the adaptations. Never has an adaptation so perfectly played out the way I’d wished it would. Furthermore, this took those elements and worked the story into a happy ending while still following some of the trajectories of the original story.

In essence, this begins as your average love story. Cornelia the miller’s daughter meets Karl in a book shop, and seeing him express interest in books, she falls for him. But when she winds up pregnant and Karl will not marry her, she is devastated. She learns that Karl is the king’s son and is persuaded (by Kendra) to confront him. Kendra tells her to tell the king that she can spin straw into gold, but Cornelia doesn’t want to resort to such a flagrant lie. Yet when it is clear that there will be no sympathy for her, the lie slips from her anyway.

Rumpelstiltskin has known Cornelia, though she has never noticed him, and loves her. Cornelia, as the prince keeps asking for more gold, begins to realize that most likely Karl never loved her as he claimed. So on the third night, she and Rumpelstiltskin leave together, get married and raise her child as their own. Rumpelstiltskin will hear no talk of the child not being his own.

All of this works exceedingly well. I very much enjoyed it.

East of the Sun and West of the Moon

World War II. A man is cursed, and must marry to break it; so he goes home and marries his sweetheart.

This is an interesting take on the fairy tale. The premise that the two protagonists knew each other beforehand is an intriguing one, and one I can honestly say I haven’t seen before, in the context of this fairy tale.

East of the Sun and West of the Moon is one of my favorite fairy tales. I love the nuances, the journey, the development of the protagonist. I especially love the way that the fairy tale handles the morally ambiguous theme of Blind Trust, which comes into play when the girl, though happy spending her days with the white bear and her nights with a stranger in her bed, is tempted to look upon the stranger and thereby fails the test she didn’t know she was taking.

So I have to confess that I felt that as an adaptation, I felt that this element was handled especially poorly. Because the two main characters do know each other beforehand, because they already loved one another and presumably had some understanding and trust between them, the girl’s desire to see her husband takes on a shallower meaning. It puts a lot more emphasis on the girl’s mistake than on the ambiguity of trusting a stranger one has never seen or spoken to.

The Ugly Duckling (?)

This was the most developed, most compelling story. In fact, I got the sense that this was the story that the author truly wanted to tell. Once I reached the end of the book, the other three stories seemed miles away, because this one had been so heavy. It’s also not so much an adaptation of any fairy tale I know off the top of my head, though it does seem like this should be a fairy tale that exists. They call it the Ugly Duckling, but that’s not quite right. This is the not-especially-good-looking person gets a magical makeover and becomes popular overnight, losing sight of true friendship story. This storyline is a modern staple, and I can think of any number of books and Disney channel shows that have used essentially this exact same plot.

But the cliched storyline doesn’t take over, because the characters Chris and Amanda as well as their families are very well-developed, and this story takes place over a period of about ten years. The magic and Kendra’s involvement don’t come in until the very end, and by that point, I was already invested in the characters enough that the well-trodden storyline didn’t bother me. And to cap it off, Flinn manages to portray Chris’s confusion in a way that felt quite subtle compared to what I had come to accept as the norm. When the romance between Amanda and Chris eventually takes off, there are a couple of false starts and a fair amount of awkwardness that I very much enjoyed.

This is also where Kendra gets her happy ending, at last, and it did finally make me smile. I have to say, it really did feel like Kendra’s story was inserted as a thread to connect these four stories into one novel as an afterthought. There is a part of me that wishes that this had simply been marketed as the novella/novelette collection that it so clearly was. But if they had to be strung together, this wasn’t a bad way to do it. I’m over a decade beyond the age of the target demographic, and a romance has to be better developed to captivate me. Still, looking back at myself fifteen years ago, I think that this might have been a more compelling connective tissue than it is to me today.

So, overall, I liked this. I look forward to Flinn’s next work.

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