Fairest of All by Serena Valentino
Target Audience: YA/Teen
Summary: For anyone who’s seen Walt Disney’s Snow White, you’ll know that the Wicked Queen is one evil woman! After all, it’s not everyone who wants to cut out their teenage step-daughter’s heart and have it delivered back in a locked keepsake box. (And even if this sort of thing is a common urge, we don’t know many people who have acted upon it.)
Now, for the first time, we’ll examine the life of the Wicked Queen and find out just what it is that makes her so nasty. Here’s a hint: the creepy-looking man in the magic mirror is not just some random spooky visage—and he just might have something to do with the Queen’s wicked ways!
Type of Adaptation: Retelling with a perspective shift
Really, I could call this an adaptation of an adaptation, with a perspective shift, because the evil Queen in question here is very specifically Disney’s evil Queen. This book exists to show us her backstory, her character, how she became who she was. And it does so very well. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked it up, but let me tell you, I am entirely on board. This book was wonderful.
This is the story of the Queen. Just like in the movie, she is given no name. What she is given is a history. She is the daughter of a renowned mirror maker who has no love for her. As is revealed over the course of the narrative, this man is a Piece Of Work. The Queen’s mother died giving birth to her, and her father never forgave her for that. He hated his daughter, and made that hatred known. He called her ugly her entire life, made it clear that no one would ever want to be with her.
And so, she grew to believe it. She grew up believing herself to be ugly, avoiding the mirrors her father made, believing that she will never be loved. So when the king shows up to pick up a special mirror and calls her beautiful, the Queen believes that he is poking fun at her. He father calls her an enchantress, saying she must have bewitched the king because he would never care for her on his own.
Well, the son of a bitch dies, and the king finds the Queen and professes his love. And the Queen is determined to be a better parent than her father ever was. The King has a daughter, Snow White, and the Queen loves the girl dearly and deeply. She is determined that the girl will grow up happy, knowing stories of her real mother and how much she was, and still is, loved. And this is their happy family.
So how do we get from here to the story the movie tells? Well, a war certainly helps. The king goes off to fight, and I know what you’re thinking. He dies in battle, right? Well . . . yes, actually, but not for a while. At first, he’s just gone for long stretches of time. The Queen becomes increasingly lonely, as does Snow, but they have each other, so they make it through. But the isolation is there, and it calls questions to mind for the Queen – does he really love her if he’s constantly off fighting?
Also, the Queen has this mirror, given to her by her husband, made by her father, and she becomes convinced that she’s seeing a face in it that’s not her own. She tries to tell the king about it when he comes home from one war, and she tries to tell her closest friend Verona about it, but they both put it down to stress and exhaustion.
But of course, as readers and watchers of the Disney movie, we know it’s more than that. There is a face in the mirror, and it turns out that the face belongs to the Queen’s father, or more accurately, to his soul.
See, the King has these three creepy cousins who are always together and speak in tandem, and they stop by the palace once when the King is away at war and start freaking Snow out, talking about losing her in the woods, poisoning her, cutting out her heart, etc. The Queen gets righteously angry and has them sent from the palace grounds, but not before they’ve spilled both whose visage is in her mirror and how to call him forth.
And it’s when the Queen learns that the spirit is her father that the trouble starts. As cruel in death as he was in life, the Queen is determined to control her father’s voice, forcing him every day to tell her that she is the fairest in the land, as recompense for all the days of her childhood when he told her how ugly she was.
But he gets his own back. He is still cruel, and he tells her of the death of her husband, taunting her for letting it happen.
When her husband dies, the Queen starts the descent into, well, madness, honestly. All she can see is how loving has hurt her. And when she looks at Snow, all she can see is her dead husband, just like her father before her. She isolates herself, refusing to see or speak to anyone but the mirror. As much as she thinks she’s forcing him to praise her, the truth is, she becomes more and more dependent on hearing those words every day – that she is the fairest of them all, and no one compares to her beauty. That’s all she has left.
And then there are the three creepy women who keep poking around, who leave the Queen a dungeon workshop full of spellbooks. She becomes more and more obsessed with beauty and magic, slowly eliminating everyone the mirror says has the potential to be more beautiful than she. She has nightmares, too, in which Snow White is killed by her hand, her heart taken out and eaten.
She has lucid moments, moments where she realizes what is happening, moments when she is horrified, when she tries to destroy or get rid of the mirror. But it always ends up back in her chamber. She can’t escape it, because it’s her father’s soul trapped inside, and her father’s soul is linked unchangeably to her soul.
And then, Snow White falls in love, with a prince who happens to be passing by, and the Queen is incensed. How dare Snow White let another man take her father’s place in her heart? How dare she give herself over to love when love has harmed so many so greatly? The Queen separates the lovers, but they find each other again anyway, and so Snow White is punished, put into rags and forced to clean the castle as a servant.
Now, it’s been a while since I’ve seen Disney’s Snow White, but the way they work in these little details is great, to my memory. The highlights of the movie that I remember are all there – Snow White in her rags, Snow White with her bluebirds, the skull of poison on the apple, the box with the heart and sword clasp. The attention to detail is wonderful. And I love that it is always love for Snow White that prompts the Queen’s lucid moments and helps her drive back the darkness that is consuming her.
So how does she get to the point where she can order a huntsman to kill her stepdaughter? Those three sisters again. She drinks a potion she is told will help her control the mirror better, and instead, it quenches that voice inside her head, and now she sees Snow only as a threat. And here the movie plays out in the narrative as expected.
The huntsman fails to kill the girl, the Queen disguises herself and makes the poison apple, she heads to the woods and she kills Snow. And then, she needs, so desperately needs, to return to the mirror and hear it tell her that she is the fairest, but the three sisters appear again, taunting her. She begs for the spell to undo her disguise, and they tell her there is none.
And then the enormity of what she has done hits her, and she comes back to herself. Knowing that she will never again be the most beautiful, she is able to see clearly what she has become. And she knows the dwarfs are after her, and she knows if she climbs the cliff, death is what awaits her. But that’s what she wants. Because that’s all that there is left.
And she dies, and becomes the soul in the mirror. And she sees Snow one last time, and apologizes, once more the mother that Snow so dearly loved.
I kind of adore this book. Let’s go to the checklist.
Make Snow White less of a mindless ninny? I was all prepared to say no, given that this was Disney’s Snow White. But Valentino managed it. We don’t see a lot of her, true enough, but what we do see is an empowered young woman with an exceptional capacity for love and forgiveness.
Strengthen the Queen’s motivation? Absolutely. That’s what the entire book was about. And it was done so, so well.
Understand how poison and murder work? Disney actually did a decent job of this. I do like that, in Disney’s version, it’s an enchantment not straight poison because that really does make more sense.
Fill in the background? Beautifully. The prince made his appearance sooner, we got the backstory of the King and Queen, we understood how she came to work magic, we got an explanation for the mirror. Just beautifully done.