T. Kingfisher is the name used by author Ursula Vernon for her adult fiction, although some of her T. Kingfisher works fall into the young adult category, like The Seventh Bride, and some of her Ursula Vernon works are adult works, like her wonderful Nebula award-winning short story “Jackalope Wives.” Regardless of the name she uses, I’ve been searching out her fiction ever since reading “Jackalope Wives.” T. Kingfisher writes lovely fairy tale retellings and other folk and fairy tale-flavored fantasies, usually with a twist, sometimes dark and disturbing, always thoughtful.
In Toad Words and Other Stories, T. Kingfisher has collected many of her folk and fairy tale-based short stories. This collection includes eight stories based off of old tales such as “Toads and Diamonds,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Peter Pan,” and others, including one that was entirely new to me, the “Loathly Lady.” Three short original poems, also fairy-tale themed, are included in this collection.
The title story, “Toad Words,” is a very brief tale in which the sister who was cursed to have amphibians fall from her lips every time she speaks (the result of speaking rudely to a fairy), tells how she unexpectedly discovered some hidden benefits of her curse.
“You’ll grow into it,” the fairy godmother said. “Some curses have cloth-of-gold linings.” She considered this, and her finger drifted to her lower lip, the way it did when she was forgetting things. “Mind you, some curses just grind you down and leave you broken. Some blessings do that too, though.”
“Toad Words” is a short but impactful tale that will particularly resonate with readers who are concerned about endangered species.
“The Wolf and the Woodsman” is a twisted version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” where a girl named Turtle ― who actually doesn’t wear a hood of any color, let alone red (“that was added later because it alliterated”) ― helps her grandmother and a kindly wolf take care of a problem with an overly familiar woodsman. Though the story veers away from the classic tale, there are several humorous callbacks to some of the time-honored lines in the original.
“Bluebeard’s Wife” is perhaps not so much a twisted tale as it is an alternative point of view. Althea, Bluebeard’s wife, grew up with extremely annoying busybody sisters. As a result, Althea has a deep-seated antipathy toward people who pry into other’s business. So when her husband gives her a small golden key and tells her never to open the door at the top of the tower, she really has no interest in opening that mysterious door. This story has been reviewed separately in our April 18, 2016 SHORTS post.
“Loathly” is based on the medieval “Loathly Lady” stories, which now have fallen into obscurity, but are based on the motif of a woman who is enchanted to appear physically repulsive, and is transformed into a beauty when a man desires her in spite of initial ugliness. In this story, Kingfisher takes a very dark (and adult) view of the woman’s enchantment, which forces her to make untenable demands of traveling knights, and kill them when they refuse to comply … and of the way that various knights react to the situation, as well as the woman herself. It is a grim and rather gruesome tale, but also a poignant one.
“The Sea Witch Sets the Record Straight” is another brief, amusing twist on the classic tale. Ursula, the sea witch, explains that she really didn’t want the mermaid’s voice for herself, but took it to protect the secret of their underwater society:
No, I took her voice for two simple reasons ― she was a twit and she was in love. I took one look at her and knew that she’d spill everything she knew in that pretty human boy’s ear, and then where would we be?
So Ursula gives the mermaid’s voice to an albatross who has ambitions of being an opera star. It’s not her fault that the prince isn’t really interested in an odd mute girl who’s rather ditzy, however beautiful!
“Never” is another very dark story, based on the Peter Pan tale. The Lost Boys and the occasional girl stolen by Pan to live with him in Neverland actually lead a wretched existence. There are reasons no one ever gets old in Neverland. It’s a disturbing and melancholy tale, with a few haunting revelations, and one of the most memorable stories in this collection.
“Night” is a one-page vignette about the cast members who put on the eternal show of starry nights, eon after eon, for very slowly evolving life forms. It’s an imaginative and humorous tale, so brief that it’s not particularly notable, but it makes a nice amuse-bouche preceding the final tale in this collection.
Boar & Apples, my favorite in this collection, is a novella-length retelling of “Snow White,” in which Snow hangs out with seven talking boars and feral pigs, rather than dwarves. I loved that twist, along with a few others in this novella. Snow is a very pale, generally biddable girl with a stubborn streak. Her mother, the queen, is a cruel woman with no love at all for others, including her own child.
The queen’s witchblood came from an ancestor many years removed, who had loved a troll and been loved in return with little thought for the consequences … The queen’s blood ran hot and cold, and when she had found the mirror, she had no thought but to use it. The demon did not have to seduce her with words or visions; she came essentially pre-seduced. This offended the demon’s notion of its own craftsmanship, but it did save time.
When the neglected Snow turns seventeen, the demon in the mirror tells the now-aging queen that Snow is fairer than her ― mostly just to stir up trouble. The queen orders the huntsman to kill Snow; he takes her far from the castle, where they run into a group of wild hogs that are interested in having a human stay with them and help them with their needs (preparing meals and helping them sell the truffles they gather). The hogs have distinct and often amusing personalities. And Snow slowly comes to “the end of what being quiet and biddable could do for her” … which is a very good thing, once the queen is finally told the truth by the gleeful mirror.
I love Kingfisher’s voice in these tales ― they’re filled with dry humor and whimsical details that make reading them a delight, and they’re often quite insightful about human nature and life. If you’re a fan of fairy tale retellings, this collection shouldn’t be missed, especially since it’s only $3.99 for the ebook. Several of the short stories in this collection are available to read free online; Kingfisher generously lists her online short fiction on her website, including more that aren’t included in this Toad Words and Other Stories collection.