September 29, 2011


Fateful. By Claudia Gray. HarperTeen. $17.99.

Dark of the Moon. By Tracy Barrett. Harcourt. $16.99.

The Princess Curse. By Merrie Haskell. Harper. $16.99.

     Werewolves on the Titanic! Why didn’t anyone ever think of that before? Maybe because it’s laughably outrageous, so absurd that it’s not worth thinking about? Well, maybe it wasn’t, but it is now – for now there is Fateful. It is not enough for Claudia Gray to reimagine the 1912 sinking of the White Star Line’s most famous ship – that, after all, has been done many times. Nor is it enough for her to use the Titanic as the setting for romance – again, that is an oft-told tale. Gray wants something more, and to find it, she merges the myths surrounding the Titanic (which, although certainly real and tragic enough, has long since passed into the realm of the imaginary, or at least reimagined) with those of the werewolf, suitably reinterpreted for today’s teenage readers. Gray’s protagonist is an 18-year-old maid named Tess, who is aboard the Titanic with her employers, the Lisles, from whom she cannot wait to escape after the ship reaches America. The plans Tess has been making are upended when she meets first-class passenger Alec, and the attraction is mutual – but it turns out that Alec has paranormal problems: he is being hunted by werewolves. Besides, there is something more than a little strange in his own background – a secret that readers will guess long before Tess learns it. Tess may be, in Edwardian terms, of the lower classes, but it takes her little time to adapt to what is going on and absorb traditional paranormal-fantasy methods of talking about it: “Before today, I thought [a future with Alec] was impossible, and for more reasons than I could count. But those reasons are falling like trees beneath the woodsman’s ax. The Brotherhood may lose any chance of having power over him, now that he has the Initiation Blade. If Alec can find someone else who knows the initiation magic, then he will be free from the need to change every single night. His life will become almost normal, save for once every twenty-eight days.” Of course, things are not so easy – not that Tess’s ideas sound simple. There are the usual plot twists and the usual heartbreak: “We kiss again, but now tears are swimming in my eyes and neither of us can bear it. I break away from him and walk out of the cabin without saying good-bye.” And there is, lest we forget, an iceberg in Tess’s future, and Alec’s. There is also a deadly enemy who survives the sinking and is overcome only at the novel’s very end. Fateful is formula romance throughout, its juxtaposition of werewolves and the Titanic being both its most absurd element and its only significant distinguishing feature. Genre fans will enjoy it, but it is scarcely a memorable book.

     Dark of the Moon twists old tales in a different way. It is a retelling of the story of Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur, with Ariadne depicted as a 15-year-old princess who is destined to become a moon goddess; she is desperately lonely when Theseus shows up as one of the planned sacrifices to the monster – Ariadne’s brother. The Theseus legend, taken in its totality, has an unusual amount of resonance, even for modern readers, with Theseus eventually abandoning Ariadne on the island of Naxos and inadvertently killing his father by failing to switch the sails of his returning ship to white from black. And elements of that legend are retold at the end of Tracy Barrett’s book – as if they are erroneous versions of the “true” story told in the book itself. But the focus in Dark of the Moon is on the earlier part of the story, which is narrated in alternating sections by Ariadne and Theseus, who is 16. Ariadne has family issues involving the Minotaur (who in this book is not the offspring of Ariadne’s mother and a sacred bull), and Theseus has some of his own. Among them: “When Iason decided to take another wife, as was only to be expected of a ruler, Medea flew into a rage, and in her passion and fury she did something unspeakable. To punish her husband, with her own hand she killed her own children, hers and Iason’s. And this same Medea – this woman smiling across the table at me – this is my stepmother.” One thing that Barrett does in this retelling is to rethink the character of the Minotaur, whose name is Asterion: “Seeing him absorbed, I addressed Theseus. ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Came to see the monster.’ I was lucky that Asterion was engaged in twisting the limbs of his new toy, or he would have been upset at my indignant gasp. ‘He’s not a—’ ‘I know, I know,’ Theseus hastened to assure me. ‘I know he’s not that. Anyone can see it. People call him one, though, don’t they? But I don’t think he’s so bad.’” Barrett transforms many elements of the story, emphasizing family connections and humanizing mythic figures to the extent possible, even when Ariadne becomes the Goddess or is possessed by her: “Far, far inside me, I was still Ariadne. I wondered what to do next; I worried that I did not know how to find my husband. …But mostly, Ariadne was gone. …I looked out over my people and felt a rush of love. They were so imperfect, and different one from the other, yet so similar. They were beautiful, even the old ones deformed with stiffening bones and the tall, young ones whose faces bore the angry red marks of youth. …Yet at the same time, they were hideous, because every one of them was dying. As I gazed at them, I saw rotting corpses, even the babies, even the rosy maidens and the youths hanging over them.” Dark of the Moon will be of most interest to readers already familiar with the Greek myth on which it is loosely based, for it is that myth that gives the book its resonance. The ins and outs of the story are interestingly enough told, but it is the unseen presence of the original mythic tale that lends this one a great deal of its effectiveness.

     Merrie Haskell’s debut novel, The Princess Curse, retells a myth of a different type – one that is usually called a fairy tale. It is the Grimm brothers’ story of the 12 dancing princesses, who mysteriously disappear from their bedroom every night and whose shoes are found to be worn through the next morning. In the Grimm story, the king declares that he will give a princess bride and his kingdom to anyone who can solve the mystery, but will put to death anyone who cannot do so in three days. Interestingly, and somewhat atypically for fairy tales, it is an older soldier who eventually figures everything out – and chooses to wed the eldest princess, since he is not a young man. Haskell makes of the story something quite different. Like many Victorian editors of the Grimms’ tales, she drops the put-to-death element; she replaces it with a kind of “Sleeping Beauty” notion – that anyone who interferes with the princesses falls into an unending sleep. And Haskell turns the tale into the story of an apprentice herbalist named Rebeka, who is 13 years old and wants the promised financial reward from undoing the curse so she can move to a convent and have her own herbary: “I would have all the time I was supposed to be devoutly praying to think about herbs.” Here, the older soldier of the Grimms’ story is Konstantin, Rebeka’s father (the girl’s mother died shortly after giving birth to her), and the tale is told with more humor and fewer sexual implications than the original. It is also made into a Romanian story, with some Romanian vocabulary and a comment that Konstantin was serving in the army of Vlad Ţepeş (known nowadays as Vlad the Impaler and thought to be the model for the vampire in Bram Stoker’s Dracula) when Rebeka’s mother became pregnant. Haskell’s transformation of the tale makes it more remote and exotic than the original Grimm version, and her focus on Rebeka provides an opportunity for some levity and even outright humor. So far, so good. But Haskell also tries to turn The Princess Curse into a rather serious coming-of-age book involving questions of good and evil, life and death; and there is romance here, too. There are explanations of herbal medicine as well: “The whole of betony [woundwort], from root to flower, is medicinal, and it is good for fevers, spasms, peeing more, peeing less, high blood, bad stomachs, worms, flatulence, excessive bleeding, and even wounds.” And there is a “Beauty and the Beast” metamorphosis of the story that is not really convincing, along with elements of the myth of Persephone. The many ingredients of Haskell’s novel do not always blend smoothly, but they are mostly enjoyable in their own right, and Rebeka comes across as more than the typical spunky-and-energetic young teen encountered frequently in books for ages 10 and up. The Princess Curse ends with more than a hint of a possible sequel, and plenty of readers will look forward to it.

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