Book review(s): Poison, Charm, and Beauty by Sarah Pinborough

Fairytales are for children, right? Wrong, if you go by Sarah Pinborough’s retellings of Snow White (Poison), Cinderella (Charm) and Sleeping Beauty (Beauty).

I’m assuming I don’t have to recount the basic plot points of any of those three stories, and I can’t really expand on how Pinborough changes them, and adds to them with other fairytales without spoiling the stories, so let’s just hope straight to the review part…

Pinborough’s books are definitely for grown ups, although the core elements – princesses, princes, massive castles, adventure – are all there. What isn’t there is that clear line between good and evil, which is one of the many things that make the books far more adult than most fairytales. Instead of an easy categorisation of good and evil, Pinborough presents everything in shades of grey, along a scale, meaning you feel sympathy for so-called bad characters. Top of the list here is Lilith, Snow White’s stepmother, who rather than being a jealous harpy is a multifaceted character whose nature has been formed by terrible experiences in earlier life. It’s easy, in Pinborough’s world, to understand why she does bad.

There is also far more sex, death and violence in Pinborough’s world than in regular fairytales, but the chief difference is that in Pinborough’s three books gender does not dictate actions or personality, and I love what she’s saying about male/female dynamics. Pinborough’s women are women, not girls. They’re tough, although they can still be hurt, and they’re nothing like the royal men in the books expect. Where in classic fairytales the women are often naive and weak, here it is the royal men who are naive, who expect the princesses to be simpering and needy. When they’re anything but, it’s a shock, and the princes sometimes do extraordinarily bad things to keep their vision of the pure princess alive. Somehow, Pinborough has turned fairytales into a commentary on modern society and gender relations, and it’s just fantastic.

Fairytales might be for children, but Pinborough’s sophisticated, fun, dark versions add layers to those childhood tales that are unexpected, and so, so interesting.

How I got these books: From the publisher, Gollancz. This did not affect my review.

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