YA fiction: Ireland’s answer to Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Short reviews of Echo North, The Ivory Key, Gilded, The Bone Spindle, Must Do Better and The Gifts That Bind Us

Caroline O’Donoghue returns to the witchy world of Kilbeg in The Gifts That Bind Us.

Caroline O’Donoghue returns to the witchy world of Kilbeg in The Gifts That Bind Us.

 

Participants in creative writing workshops are sometimes asked to rewrite a classic fairytale. Depending on individual sensibilities, this is either too hard (coming up with “a new take” on a traditional story, to make it “original”, feels like too much pressure) or too easy (because the building blocks are already there and it doesn’t correspond to someone’s sense of creating something from scratch). But it’s a worthwhile exercise, partly because it’s a reminder that the shape of stories is something humanity figured out long ago (no need to reinvent the wheel to create something worthwhile), and partly because it can bring about gorgeous new work.

Joanna Ruth Meyer’s Echo North (Pushkin Press, £8.99) is one such example. It’s a retelling of the Norwegian tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon, although its focus on a magical library will likely remind readers of that tale’s cousin, Beauty and the Beast (both are believed to be variations on the Cupid and Psyche myth) and in particular its Disney rendition.

Joanna-Ruth Meyer’s Echo North is a retelling of the Norwegian tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Photograph: Gary Smith
Joanna-Ruth Meyer’s Echo North is a retelling of the Norwegian tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Photograph: Gary Smith

Early on, Echo is lured into the home of the wolf who scarred her when she was young, on the pretext of saving her father’s life. There, a girl shunned by the village and despised by her stepmother finds a different kind of existence. Echo is conscious of the power of stories from the very beginning, reflecting: “I learned very early that in the old tales of magic the wicked were always ugly and scarred, the good beautiful; I was not beautiful, but I wanted to be good, and after a while I couldn’t bear to read those stories anymore.”

The versions of stories she finds in the wolf’s library, with “book-mirrors” one can step into, rekindle her love of reading, and more than anything else this luscious retelling is a love-letter to books. This is a book to sink into like a hot bath, both comforting and satisfying.

Akshaya Raman draws on classic tropes (treasure hunts, family dynamics) and Indian culture for The Ivory Key. Photograph: Emily Gillaspy
Akshaya Raman draws on classic tropes (treasure hunts, family dynamics) and Indian culture for The Ivory Key. Photograph: Emily Gillaspy

Debut author Akshaya Raman draws on classic tropes (treasure hunts, family dynamics) and Indian culture for The Ivory Key (Hot Key Books, £8.99), the first in a much-anticipated duology about magic, politics and power.

The number of focal characters may take a little while to ease into, with readers reminding themselves which of the four siblings the narrative has zoomed in on in each chapter. Still, it’s pleasing to have an adventure tale that draws on a diverse range of sources and moves away from presenting either European or American norms as the default. It is also reassuring that the book veers towards being complete in its own right, rather than simply half the story, which is a fine line fantasy writers must tread.

The same cannot be said for Marissa Meyer’s Gilded (Faber & Faber, £8.99), a reimagining of Rumpelstiltskin that is both gorgeous (as one might expect from the author of the Lunar Chronicles) and frustrating. Serilda’s disdain for spinning wool, which she refers to as “tedium incarnate”, is matched only by her great gift for spinning stories, but the latter is what gets her into trouble. As is to be expected, she gets caught in a situation where she’s forced to spin straw into gold – enter Gild, the charming boy who can make that happen.

The idea of a Hot Rumpelstiltskin, much as Fleabag’s Hot Priest, may seem incongruous at first, but Meyer makes it work, presenting a layered world of ghosts and curses that is very much worth inhabiting for 500 pages. The problem is that it ends abruptly, making it an unsatisfying read when the planned sequel is still a year away. There is a difference between hooking your reader and tricking them, and the latter feels more applicable here – which is a feature more of the marketing rather than the writing, it must be said.

Leslie Vedder’s The Bone Spindle (Hodder Children’s Books, £7.99) is another “book one in a series” and a spin on a classic fairy tale: in Vedder’s world, Briar Rose is a sleeping prince who must be rescued by a girl. Readers will see where the story is going as soon as Fi thinks, “She’d sworn never to fall in love again”, but there’s a lot more to this book to admire, including the storyline involving Fi’s partner in adventure, Shane, and her own romance with the mysterious Red.

The presentation of a world in which same-sex relationships are not noted in any way as “different” – in which heterosexuality is not assumed – is what will appeal to many readers, and rightly so. If you can imagine a world with magic, it should not be a great stretch to imagine a world where a king’s daughter might be betrothed to another girl.

Vedder’s tale is fast-paced if sometimes a little awkward in its placing of backstory, and at times her deliberate use of contemporary dialect (at one point, Shane notes that “a guy at the bar was definitely giving her the stink eye”) jars with the realm of magic, quests and curses depicted. But it is certainly entertaining.

Kate Weston’s Must Do Better (Hodder Children’s Books, £7.99), her follow-up to Diary of a Confused Feminist, manages to be simultaneously entertaining and deeply cringe-worthy. Kat is having a tough time of it (“It’s only January and I’ve already been a gif, a meme and a mess”), worrying about not being good enough as she sets up a feminist society in school with her best friends. Naturally some girls sneer at her for doing so, including her nemesis Trudy. Others, such as  clever Jane in the form above, seem to have everything figured out already and make Kat anxious about all the academic jargon she doesn’t yet understand.

There is such joy in finding teen fiction that gets the balance between hilarious and heartbreaking absolutely spot on, and Weston has created characters that speak to the particular, unique struggles of contemporary teenagers as well as the more ubiquitous feelings of not-belonging and realising that the world is not quite how you thought it would be. If at times the book is a little heavy-handed and earnest in its explanations of feminist principles, it’s forgivable, given the authenticity.

Finally, drawing on Ireland’s battling traditions of Catholicism and paganism, Caroline O’Donoghue returns to the witchy world of Kilbeg in The Gifts That Bind Us (Walker Books, £7.99), in which Maeve and her friends deal with newfound magical skills and the return of an old enemy. O’Donoghue is wonderfully attuned to the delights and agonies of adolescence, heightened by Maeve’s burgeoning mind-reading abilities: “This is what telepathy is, really. Hearing awful things about yourself and not even being able to be mad at the people who thought them. Telepathy is the trouble you go looking for and have no one to blame afterward but yourself.”

The emotional intelligence of this book, and its grasp of how friendships can be a source of fierce love and tremendous pain at different times, is what stands out here; every detail (even those involving magical binds, dramatic explosions and a global network of bad guys) rings true. This series is Ireland’s answer to Buffy the Vampire Slayer; I adore it.

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