Fairest by Gail Carson Levine
Target Audience: Middle Grade/YA
Summary: In the kingdom of Ayortha, who is the fairest of them all? Certainly not Aza. She is thoroughly convinced that she is ugly. What she may lack in looks, though, she makes up for with a kind heart, and with something no one else has-a magical voice. Her vocal talents captivate all who hear them, and in Ontio Castle they attract the attention of a handsome prince - and a dangerous new queen.
Type of Adaptation: Retelling
So, we haven’t yet talked about Gail Carson Levine’s utterly masterful Ella Enchanted, which is really one of the reasons I read fairy tale adaptations at all, because we haven’t gotten to Cinderella yet. It’s coming. I promise. But we’re not there yet.
But this book came later, a companion novel with two crossover characters set in a different country in the same universe, and man was I excited when this book came out. And rereading it was delightful, going back and visiting one of these fairy tale worlds that I love so dearly. And if anyone can improve the fairy tale of Snow White, it’s Gail Carson Levine.
Because here’s what I love about how Levine approaches fairy tales. She takes a common glaring issue of the original story and works it into her narrative. For Cinderella, it’s the question of why Cinderella never tried to defy her stepmother. For Snow White, though, it’s the point that if a girl actually had white skin, black hair, and blood red lips, she’d look pretty hideous, actually.
And that gives us Aza, a girl unlike any other in her kingdom. She is ugly and sticks out like a sore thumb – too tall, too big, too different. People stare, people point, people whisper. Doubly hard is the fact that she doesn’t know her origin. She was left in the bedroom of an inn as an infant, and the innkeeper and his wife took her in and raised her as their own daughter.
Aza may not be pretty, but she has the most beautiful voice anyone has ever heard, and one day, she discovers a special ability. She can throw her voice, to make it sound as if it’s coming from other places, and she can imitate anyone else’s voice and throw those, too. She calls it ‘illusing,’ and she keeps it a secret from everyone.
Through a completely random set of circumstances, Aza finds herself invited to accompany a prickly duchess to the king’s wedding. Basically, the duchess won’t take no for an answer, so away Aza goes. The new Queen is young, and a foreigner, and Aza feels sympathy for her, knowing so well what it’s like to be an outsider. She doesn’t think she’ll have opportunity to meet the new Queen, but she might as well go and see the palace. So you know where this is going, right?
The country has mixed feelings about their new Queen, mainly stemming from the fact that no one knows whether or not she can sing because she has apparently lost her voice. This is a deal because Ayortha is a kingdom based entirely around song. They have songs for everything, hold Sings instead of Balls, even sing half their conversations to one another. So having a Queen who cannot sing would reflect badly on the kingdom. And having a sore throat on your wedding day is a terrible omen.
But everyone smiles and sings and pretends to ignore it. Aza is terrified to be presented to the king and his new Queen and his nephew the prince, but the king and prince are both very kind, setting her at ease and praising her for her voice. And the Queen seems to like her as well.
Aza enjoys her time at the palace. She spends her time with the duchess when ordered, but has freedom to wander otherwise. One afternoon, she visits the Hall of Song and finds herself partnered with Prince Ijori for a composing game. He mistakes her for a lady and is very impressed with her, and she never gets the chance to explain that she’s a commoner, so when she does finally tell him, he’s a bit disappointed in the deception. He gets over it pretty quickly, due to the circumstance, but this will become relevant later on.
Ivi, the Queen, is young and silly and pretty, but it’s when she overhears Aza practicing her illusing in a courtyard that she becomes dangerous. Though that comes later. For now, she just flatters Aza and shares confidences with her, and offers to make Aza her lady-in-waiting.
So everything seems to be going well, and then the bad stuff happens. Namely the king gets hit in the head with a stray iron ring at an outdoor entertainment, meaning that Ivi, young and silly and having no understanding of her kingdom and its customs, is now its sole ruler.
And then things just get worse and worse. Ivi proves to be selfish and tyrannical. She demands that Aza illuse a voice for her, so she can be beloved by her kingdom. She dissolves the King’s council, saying she has her own counselor to advise her. Even the tiniest slight offered against her is met with punishment of the worst sort – imprisonment, banishment, etc. Ijori and Aza do their best to talk sense into Ivi, but to no avail. And in singing Ivi a voice, Aza is continuing to deceive not only the kingdom, but Ijori, with whom she is, of course, falling in love. And she worries constantly, because this isn’t just about the deception. Singing is a serious business in Ayortha, and faking the Queen’s voice could be harming the progress of the ailing king.
Things get progressively bad – Ivi refuses to send grain to the drought-ridden south, she releases the palace songbirds into the wild to get rid of them, she’s flirting constantly with Ijori and her personal guard, and Ijori tells Aza in secret that a rebellion is forming among the common people. He confides in her that as long as his uncle lives, his loyalty is with the crown, but that if his uncle should die, he will oppose the Queen. Aza agrees, and doesn’t know what to hope for. She wants the king to live, but she wants also to be free of her deception.
It doesn’t help that, because she’s the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, she’s getting the same disrespectful treatment as the Queen herself. Add to that the way she looks, and it’s really no wonder that Aza starts to obsess about finding a beauty spell. She wants so badly to be beautiful, or to at least not look as she does, a desire helped along by a reflection of herself that she caught once in a secret mirror of Ivi’s.
And then Ijori confesses his love for her, and I wish this had been built up a little bit more because it happens really suddenly. Not as suddenly as the love at first sight of dead girl in the original story, but still pretty sudden. We know that Aza has these feelings, but Ijori hasn’t given much sign of them, not to that extent. But whatever. It’s minor.
But then Aza gets caught illusing, and the shit kinda hits the fan. She tries to tell everyone that Ivi forced her into it, made threats against her and her family if she didn’t, and she thinks for a moment that they will understand, but then the Choirmaster reveals his big Theory: that Aza’s looks combined with her powerful voice can mean only one thing – she is part ogre, and therefore cannot be trusteed. Ogres are the villains of this world, with incredible powers of persuasion in their voices. The idea that Aza might be part ogre is a death sentence.
Everyone turns on her, everyone including Ijori. Her words mean nothing, and in her despair, the face in the mirror comes to her again, offering her a vial marked ‘beauty.’ She thinks if she can make herself beautiful, this all might go away, but she’s smart enough not to down the whole thing. She dilutes it and only drinks half, despite the urging of the mirror.
Everyone is shocked when they return to her, and thinking this is more trickery, throw her in the dungeon. But not before Ivi has time to see her and recognize that a) Aza is more beautiful than she is now, and b) she’s spoken to the mirror and drunk the potion and that is not good. Aza must be removed.
So, it took us a while, but here we are, at Snow White. It’s a little tweaked, but now it’s there. A beautiful girl, hunted for her beauty by a jealous and fearful queen.
Because Aza is hunted. Ivi’s guard appears to break her out of jail. His orders are to kill her, but he wasn’t told of her transformation, and he’s so stunned, he can’t kill her. Instead, he agrees to help her escape. They head for the Gnome Caverns, for it was foretold early on that Aza would visit them once her appearance had changed.
In the Gnomes’ home, she is welcomed, and she earns her keep by composing songs for the gnomes, for they have no music of their own, but dearly love it. And far from believing that she holds ogre blood in her veins, the Gnome chief believes that she has gnomic blood. Her size and coloring give it away.
She is safe with the gnomes, but she can’t stop thinking about the world she left behind. She yearns for news, and in lack of it, she dwells on all that has happened to her – and Ijori’s mistrust most of all. Everyone at the palace believes her to be dead, but before Ijori learned that, he wrote her a heartfelt letter which the gnomes manage to get to her. In it, he tears himself apart with guilt, saying that after spending some time with his thoughts, he realized that Ivi’s version of events didn’t make sense, that if Aza had wanted to manipulate him, she could have done a much better job of it, etc. And Aza immediately forgives him.
I have a bit of a problem with this, to be honest. I’m all for the forgiveness, and I buy his explanation entirely, and for the most part, I like what their relationship becomes, but it’s just a little too easy. I wish a bit more time had been spent on the betrayal and moving past it. But again. Minor point.
Anyway, down with the gnomes, Aza is going crazy for a bit of human food. Gnomes eat only root vegetables, and Aza would give anything for fruit or bread or even an apple, which it has been stated she hates. And so, who should appear in the marketplace but an old gnome woman selling human food??
Now me? I’d be a bit suspicious at that. But then, I also haven’t been existing on carrots and potatoes and beets for weeks, so maybe it’s not my place to judge. But anyway, surprise, surprise, it’s Ivi in disguise, the apple is poisoned, and it lodges in her throat, and she collapses. She’s not dead, not quite – the tiniest gap is allowing air in and out, but she’s pretty near death, and that’s when her spirit gets whisked away to —
– Ivi’s magic mirror! And she’s not alone. No, she’s joined by the Skulni, the creature who lives inside the mirror and has been manipulating Ivi for so long, the creature who tricked Aza into drinking the potion that made her beautiful. Because he’s prisoner, trapped in the mirror by a really dumb fairy who causes all sorts of trouble, and his deal is that he gets to go on a vacation every time someone who drinks his beauty potion dies. Then their spirit inhabit the mirror for a time, and he goes free. So basically, his whole life is about getting people to drink the potion and then figuring out how to make them die. Pleasant chap, really.
But the thing is, Skulni can’t leave the mirror. Either because Aza’s not really dead or because she didn’t drink the entire potion, and so, she has, inadvertently, trapped him there, and she is able to manipulate the mirror so that she can speak to Ivi when Ivi returns from the Gnome Caverns. As much damage as Ivi has done, it becomes clear to Aza that she really was just a young, silly, frightened girl who got taken in and used.
Armed with this knowledge, knowing it’s the only way to help Ivi, Aza breaks the mirror, freeing the trapped Skulni, but also breaking his spell over Ivi. And at the same time, Ijori is led to Aza in the Caverns and frees the apple lodged in her throat.
Meanwhile, back at the castle, the king has woken and is recovering, and Aza tells the whole of her tale to him, while a much subdued and physically different Ivi sits in and confirms the whole telling. In the end, the king agrees that something must be done so that Ivi can never wreck harm in the same way again, though he loves her dearly. So he agrees to abdicate in three years and let his nephew take the throne, and in that time, the Queen will spend her days at the summer palace.
And Ijori and Aza marry and it’s all happy fun times for all.
I love the way in which the narrative is spun a little differently here, but with all the necessary elements still worked in. Let’s to the checklist.
Make Snow White less of a mindless ninny? Yes, but what I love is that Aza is still noticeably flawed. She longs for beauty, obsesses over it, and it’s not until nearly the end of the novel that she realizes that she has been as vocal a critic about her appearance as anyone else, and that her pursuit of beauty is what caused many of the problems she faced. She’s smart and clever and we like her, but she is still very flawed, which is as it should be because it gave her somewhere to go.
Strengthen the Queen’s motivation? Yes. I love that this Queen isn’t inherently evil. She’s just young and scared and silly, and another villain is feeding off of that and using her. She goes after Aza yes because she’s prettier, but also because she knows the secret, and that puts Ivi in danger. It’s beautifully intricate.
Understand how poison and murder work? Eh, okay. See, again, like in the original, I’m confused about how this went down – was the apple poisoned, enchanted, or did it just get caught in her throat? I really don’t know, and it’s the one part of the novel I wish had been done better. If your windpipe is blocked, then it’s blocked and you suffocate. If it’s only mostly blocked, you don’t lie in a coma for three days. But if it’s poison or an enchantment, then why did it disappear after the apple was dislodged? I am confused about the apple, is my point, which means, sadly, no check.
Fill in the background? I love this world of Levine’s. I love it in Ella Enchanted, and I love it here. Her range of species is so diverse and well-drawn, and the traditions based around song? Lovely. But my favorite part about this novel? That we don’t discover who Aza is in the end. Remember, she wasn’t the innkeeper’s biological daughter. Someone left her in that room. But we never find out who. She’s never revealed to be a secret princess or the illegitimate daughter of nobility or anything like that. We’re left not knowing. And I love it.
Beautifully rendered, and lovely to reread.