Black Heart, Ivory Bones is the sixth and final entry in Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s series of fairy tale anthologies. Of the six, I’ve read four, and each has its own particular flavor, its own unique mood. While all of the books contain a mix of light and darkness, in this volume there seems to be more of a balance: “all that’s best of dark and bright,” if you will. The mood that Black Heart, Ivory Bones evoked in me was a wistfulness, maybe, or a pensiveness. When I first read the series, Black Thorn, White Rose was my favorite, but I’ve come to a deeper enjoyment of this volume as I’ve grown older. At this point I’d have to say the two are now tied in my mind.
My favorite stories in this collection are:
“Rapunzel” by Tanith Lee. Lee is famous for dark, sharp-edged stories, but here she offers a sweet, sunny tale of a prince who falls for a quirky young lady in the forest — what’s stuck with me is his musing that loving her is one thing, but liking her is dangerous indeed — and needs a way to make his father the king accept her as his bride. Luckily, “the Dad” is a sucker for a fairy tale, so the prince spins a yarn about an evil witch and a doorless tower…
“And Still She Sleeps” by Greg Kostikyan. A sleeping beauty from Arthurian times is unearthed on an archaeological dig. Only true love can wake her, but how can true love find her when there’s no one left alive who really knows her? The story is bittersweet and will get you thinking about the nature of love and the way “true love” is often presented in fairy tales.
“You, Little Match Girl” by Joyce Carol Oates. This story hit me like a ton of bricks, and it did so by making me forget all about the fairy tale until the last minute. When I did realize what was going on… well, I don’t want to spoil any more, but wow, what a haunting piece.
“The Cats of San Martino” by Ellen Steiber. Steiber starts with an Italian version of the type of tale in which one sister is kind to a supernatural being and is rewarded, while the other sister is snotty and is punished. Here, though, one “sister” is a modern-day woman reeling from a nasty breakup, who finds rest and comfort at a mysterious villa populated solely by cats. The other “sister” is not her sister at all, but someone else entirely; you’ll have to read the story to learn the rest! Steiber paints the Italian countryside so vividly you’ll think you’re there right along with the heroine as she takes in its beauties and recovers her emotional strength.
“Mr. Simonelli or the Fairy Widower,” by Susanna Clarke. Clarke blends traditional fairy lore with the mannered style employed in 19th century literature to create this drily hilarious story.
There are many other great tales in this collection, and this review would take up the whole page were I to list them all! My choices for favorite stories in the anthology have changed somewhat over the years, but the book as a whole is a standout to both my 23-year-old self and my 32-year-old self. I highly recommend it.