Once Upon a Winter’s Night by Dennis McKiernan
Target Audience: Adult
Summary: Once upon a winter’s night, a poor crofter trades his daughter Camille to wed Prince Alain of the Summerwood in exchange for a lifetime of riches. Though love blossoms between Camille and the prince, he is haunted by sadness and will not allow her to see his unmasked face. Believing she can lift whatever curse has been bestowed upon him, Camille acts on her own – with devastating results, as all she loves is swept away. To regain what she has lost, she must embark on a desperate quest through the hinterlands of Faery, seeking a mysterious place lying somewhere east of the sun and west of the moon.
Type of Adaptation: Retelling
So, unlike the other three adaptations I’ve reviewed so far this month, this novel is aimed at adults, not children or teenagers. And it shows. Sex scenes aside, the language is much more sophisticated, one (meaning me) might even say dense. I’ll be honest; I almost didn’t get through this one, for reasons that have little to do with the story at its heart and more to do with incredibly verbose and archaic style the story is written in.
McKiernan makes it clear in his foreword what his style is going to be. He claims that fairy tales were meant to be expanded upon, stretched and lengthened and heightened by traveling bards, and that as we’ve drifted further and further away from oral traditions, we’ve lost that. He wanted to return that sense of style to this story. Fair enough. That’s a perfectly valid opinion. However, I ended up having the same problem with this book that I did when I read Tolkien – the story often gets lost amidst the endless descriptions, and the diction and style that McKiernan chose to use separated me from the story rather severely. To me, I interpret his foreward as saying that he wanted to give the expanded story the same timeless, fairy tale feel as the shorter version. But the way that phrases are worded and the way his characters speak just make the story feel archaic at best and disingenuous at worst. I felt like I was reading a story that someone made up rather than a telling of events that actually happened. And while that’s a perfectly valid form of storytelling as well, it’s not one that appeals to me personally as a reader.
The book got easier to read the farther into the story I got, though that sense of disconnect never fully disappeared. I think a contributing factor was also McKiernan’s choice to give the story a French rather than Nordic feel. He says he made the choice because, as a romance, that felt more authentic to him, but it made the story sit a little less comfortably with me.
But like the other versions, we start with the poor family in their hovel. Camille, the youngest girl, has a myriad of older sisters, all selfish, silly, and shallow, and a brother who is much younger than the rest. Her mother is shrewish and cruel; her father is hen-pecked and weak-willed. When the Bear arrives, he does not speak; indeed, the Bear never speaks. Instead, he wears a message on his collar – the faery prince of Summerkeep has fallen in love with Camille, and if she consents to be his bride, prince Alain will ensure that her family want for nothing. Her sisters are jealous, her brother pleads with her not to go, but her mother insists, demands, even, that she do her part to aid her family. Camille cannot bear the thought of being married off to a man she has never met, but when she looks to her father to stand up for her, her father is silent – a twist. In the end, she is guilted into accepting, for her younger brother is ill, and without the money the prince will provide, Camille knows he will not survive another winter.
The readers who know the story already will know that the Bear is also Prince Alain, but Camille does not know this. In her mind, he is simply a traveling companion sent to protect her. And here we reach the first place that McKiernan starts to really expand the story. As they enter faery, Summerkeep is of course the season farthest away from them. And the journey to get there takes forever. As they journey through Springkeep and Winterkeep and Autumnkeep, we are treated to minute, detailed descriptions of what the days were like and what their camps were like and how they foraged for food and how Camille kept clean and what traveling outfits she wore and what they ate every meal and the different tastes each variety of apple had and on and on and on. And the only thing of any real importance that happens in these five chapters is that, while crossing the cursed region of Winterkeep (which is apparently the only way they can go because otherwise the trip would be too long), they’re set upon by goblins and trolls, and a strange man Camille doesn’t know has to make a secret deal with the Troll King to allow them safe passage
And finally, they reach Summerkeep, and Camille is shown to her rooms, but she can’t meet the prince yet because, as she is told, he just returned from a long and tiring journey and needs to recuperate. Does Camille figure it out? No, she does not. But that’s okay. She’s only been given one clue.
When she does finally meet him three nights later, he is masked, and he tells her that unfortunately, he must always be masked when she sees him, and he cannot tell her why. He says he will understand if she chooses to return home and not wed him, given this truth, but she says she made a deal, and she will honor it.
Though the journey to the palace was ridiculous in its length, I think the time spent at the palace is handled very well. Alain truly loves Camille, and he is willing to wait for her to return those feelings, which she eventually does, and that progression is very realistic and very smoothly done. I like Alain’s character a lot. He’s charming and friendly and genuinely in love, but not forceful about it. I like Alain and I like his siblings, the prince and princesses of the other three seasons. The character I don’t like? Camille. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
So Camille spends her days at the palace with the Bear and her evenings and nights with Alain. It’s curious, she thinks, that she never sees Alain before twilight or the Bear after twilight, but since the servants awkwardly tell her that Alain is “kept busy” during the day, she doesn’t question it. So now, with two clues, three if you count the obviously lying servants, does Camille figure it out? No. But that’s okay. As readers, of course we know more than the characters. She has time.
Eventually, Camille overhears the servants talking about the curse that’s on Alain. And she puts it together! Well, kind of. Does she figure out now that Alain and the Bear are one and the same? Nope! She’s just now aware that he’s specifically under a curse. Because, you know, that apparently wasn’t obvious to her before.
I’m just gonna come out and say it. Camille’s dumb. She’s dumb, ladies and gentlemen. And after overhearing this, she gets it in her head that maybe the key to breaking the curse lies in seeing Alain’s face. Maybe, she reasons, he can’t show her his face, but that doesn’t mean that she can’t see it under her own power, and maybe that’s the key!
Except that it totally isn’t, and whoops, away goes the prince and all his household, leaving Camille behind in the ruined Summerkeep palace. Where she stays. For seven days. Wandering around. And not doing anything. Yes, to be fair, she has no leads and no direction to go. But she doesn’t even try. She has to be reminded that there’s an oracle within close distance, and only when the Lady of the Mere gives her a swift kick in the pants does she actually get moving.
And once again, the journey takes forever. Because the oracle tells her she has a year, a month, and a day to find Alain or he’ll be lost forever, and in a fantasy novel like this one, if a quest is given such a time frame, by God it will run down to the last possible minute.
But that means that the year, month, and day have to be filled with something, and I’ll spoil it for you now: Camille meets the three women and the four winds all within the last two months. So what happens the other eleven? Well, I’ll tell you:
Camille travels. She loses hope of finding her way. Someone shows up to help her. She is overly trusting and loses something for it, time or money or possessions. She sings to earn enough money to keep going. Some man falls in love with her.
This happens at least four times.
Camille irritates the hell out of me. She’s cloyingly innocent, almost stubbornly innocent, refusing to change or learn from her mistakes or be even a little more wary the next time around. It takes her forever to figure things out. She spends nearly a week and a good ten pages wondering why one of the nearly 400 magical flowers on her staff from the oracle dies at the end of each day before she finally figures out, hey, it’s a freakin’ calendar, honey. And everyone falls in love with her and jumps to help her in any way that they can, and when she cheats on her true love with an elven bard, it’s given an, “eh, that’ll happen sometimes.” Shoot me now.
But finally the story picks back up, eleven months later, when Camille finally makes it to the three sisters, here the Three Fates. I liked this choice a lot, as well as the concept of time introduced. The sisters were done really well.
Then we came to another standstill when we reached the winds. The winds, here four ships named after the winds, all came to Camille rather than the other way around. She sat in a harbor and waited for each one to appear to see if it could carry her where she needed to go. And of course time was running out, and of course the ship she needed took the longest to appear, and of course the young man protecting her went with her when The North Wind finally came.
Once we got to the trolls, the story really picked up. The pacing was spot on, and the way McKiernan wove this part of the tale was very engaging. Camille challenges the marriage before the assembled court and challenges the King to a battle of riddles to win back her prince. She uses the gifts and riddles of the Fates and wins two of the three rounds. The King then changes the rules and says the final challenge must be physical. Camille sets the challenge of removing the candle wax from the Bear’s fur without pulling any hairs out. The King, Queen, and Princess cannot, but Camille, with the carding combs, can. Then there’s a battle, the trolls are all killed, and happily ever after?
Kinda. But not really, and not in the ambiguous bittersweet way that I can get behind. No, the end of this story was as complicated and muddled as the middle bits – because McKiernan got so wrapped up in setting up the sequel that he forgot to deal with the end of the story. Seriously. The reunion scene was pretty much, “and then they went off and had sex” before moving on to a reveal that was supposed to be shocking and plot twisty but was instead so confusing that I read it four times and still don’t understand what happened.
Let’s cut to the chase and get to the checklist, shall we?
Kick-ass but flawed heroine? No. I’m sorry, but no. Too needy, too irritating, too innocent, too fairy-tale manic pixie dream girl. And too helpless. For someone who was told to go the journey alone, she was hardly ever alone. There was always someone waiting to jump in and help. And she needed the help almost every time, which I wouldn’t have minded as much if she had at least been the mastermind, but she wasn’t that, either. The only remotely clever thing she did on her own was the contest of riddles, but even in that, she used the riddles of the Fates and their prophecies. Kick-ass? Hardly. No point.
Dimension given to other characters? This one I will give McKiernan – he’s created a rich and varied cast of characters. I did enjoy most of the people I was introduced to.
Elimination of repetition? Yeah, no. The opposite, in fact. I didn’t think it was possible to add to the repetition of this story, but wow. He did it.
Overall, when McKiernan kept to the story, I was entirely on board. The take he wrote on “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” was clever and intriguing, and it had me. But his strange need (fully expressed in his foreward) to expand the story was where he lost me. Every time he went off the path and started adding extraneous trips and details, he got bogged down and I stopped paying attention.
Bottom line? If someone asks me for a novelization of this fairy tale to read, this is not going to be my first recommendation. And even if I do recommend it, it will be to a very select audience.