Subterranean, 2013, 168 pages
From New York Times bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente comes a brilliant reinvention of one the best known fairy tales of all time. In the novella Six-Gun Snow White, Valente transports the title's heroine to a masterfully evoked Old West where Coyote is just as likely to be found as the seven dwarves.
A plain-spoken, appealing narrator relates the history of her parentsóa Nevada silver baron who forced the Crow people to give up one of their most beautiful daughters, Gun That Sings, in marriage to him. With her mother's death in childbirth, so begins a heroine's tale equal parts heartbreak and strength. This girl has been born into a world with no place for a half-native, half-white child. After being hidden for years, a very wicked stepmother finally gifts her with the name Snow White, referring to the pale skin she will never have. Filled with fascinating glimpses through the fabled looking glass and a close-up look at hard living in the gritty gun-slinging West, readers will be enchanted by this story at once familiar and entirely new.
Note: This year, I am going to try to read and review as many of the Hugo Nominees as I can. I will tag them with 2014 Hugo Nominee.
I love Catherynne Valente's prose, and she does modern, futuristic, and historical retellings of myths and fables better than anyone, Bill Willingham included. Still, one might reasonably wonder why we need yet another version of Snow White?
Well, why not? And if it's written by Catherynne Valente, you know that at least the writing will be pretty.
Actually, in Six-Gun Snow White, the voice is at first "Snow's," narrating her own tale in the first person. The daughter of a Crow woman who was forced into marriage with a silver baron who wouldn't take "no" for an answer, her mother tried to kill herself on the eve of Snow White's birth, and then died soon thereafter anyway. The lonely little girl was raised by a succession of nannies and attendants with only occasional attention from her father, until she meets her Wicked Stepmother, Mrs. H of Boston and Beacon Bill.
When she hit me, she said she loved me. When she scratched my face, she said she loved me. And let me tell you, Mrs. H loved me most of all the day she locked me in my room with no lamps or candles because I looked too long at a groomsman and that's the mark of a whore, a slattern with a jackal for a mother, hellion trash with an animal heart. For a week I had no bath or books, no light and no food, but she loved me the whole time, whispering through the door that her love could burn the whore out of me. Love could make me pure again.
Snow White (the name mockingly given her by her stepmother, for the snow white skin she can never have) eventually runs away with her horse, Charming, and her jewel-encrusted six-gun, Rose Red.
This is a Western, and Snow White is a tough little hellion despite being sheltered and naive about the outside world (a naivete she quickly sheds). But she hews roughly to the fairy tale, with a shady but not wholly irredeemable huntsman, and a magic-using Evil Stepmother who's given just enough moral ambiguity to make her evilness tragic.
"Let me tell you something, kid," said Mrs. H of Boston and Beacon Hill. "Magic is just a word for what's left to the powerless once everyone else has eaten their fill."
I liked the first half of this novella, narrated by Snow White. In the second half, Valente shifts to third-person to include the viewpoints of other characters, like the Pinkerton sent by Mrs. H to bring her the heart of her runaway stepdaughter. Here the story remains interesting but loses some of its voice. Valente inserts her usual clever subversions and crafts sentences and paragraphs that are a treat to read in their own right, but as I have noticed in some of her other books, the ending spins away into an unpredictable and confusing fusion of ideas and images. I'm not sure if it was brilliant or if the author just didn't know how else to end the story.
I bought the pricey signed limited edition hardback from Subterranean last year, but only got around to reading it this year, after it was nominated for a Hugo Award in the Best Novella category. Fortunately, you don't have to shell out $40 like I did (actually, it looks like they're going for more than that on Amazon and eBay) — the Kindle version is only $2.80.
Verdict: If you like fairy tale retellings (like Fables) or any of Catherynne Valente's other work, then you'll enjoy Six-Gun Snow White. I didn't love it quite the way I love Valente's Fairyland books, but as one of the nominees for Best Novella, it's a worthy contender.
Also by Catherynne Valente: My reviews of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, The Habitation of the Blessed, Silently and Very Fast, and Deathless.
My complete list of book reviews.