Author: Carolyn Turgeon
Genre: fairytales, retellings
Pages: 290 (ARC edition)
Published: August 6 2013
Source: publishers via edelweiss
Living in an enchanted forest, Rapunzel spends her days tending a mystical garden with her adoptive mother, Mathena. A witch, Mathena was banished from court because of her magic powers, though the women from the kingdom still seek her advice and herbal remedies. She waits, biding her time to exact revenge against those who betrayed her.
One day Rapunzel’s beautiful voice and long golden locks captivate a young prince hunting in the forest nearby. Overcome, he climbs her hair up to her chamber and they fall into each other’s arms. But their afternoon of passion is fleeting, and the prince must return to his kingdom, as he is betrothed to another.
Now king, he marries his intended to bring peace to his kingdom. They have a stunning daughter named Snow White. Yet the king is haunted by his memories of Rapunzel, and after the mysterious death of his wife, realizes he is free to marry the woman he never stopped longing for. In hopes of also replacing the mother of his beloved daughter, the king makes Rapunzel his queen.
The Fairest of Them All is a fairytale retelling that combines two well-known and often-told stories - that of Rapunzel and that of Snow White - and asks, "what if Rapunzel was Snow White's Evil Stepmother?" It's an intriguing idea and one that lends originality to such famous stories, but one that sadly lacks subtlety and pathos. Carolyn Turgeon does an able job of meddling the two separate stories into one cohesive plot, but her characters lack agency and can come off as rather bland.
The premise is obviously one of the strongest aspects to the story of The Fairest of Them All. We've all seen the Disney and/or Pixar movies, we've read the Grimm versions, so a new idea on both Rapunzel and Snow White (don't even mention that Kristen Stewart failure) feels like a breath of fresh air for retellings. The way that Turgeon introduces both stories, both apart and together, feels organic. It's not hard to believe that these two women came to be directly involved with each other's lives. The story is told in pretty straightforward and nondescript prose, but the author isn't afraid to whip out some pretty big gamechangers before it's all said and done.
My main problem lies with characterization. Rapunzel was the best character -- she's desperately flawed, but she's more interesting and compelling for it. Both Josef, her King, and Snow White, his daughter by his first Queen, come off as blandly beautiful. The King is shown to be somewhat imperfect - his philandering, lack of attention for Rapunzel once he has her - but he has such little presence it makes almost no difference. Snow White is where I really struggled. She's too perfect here, as she is in almost every representation you find of her tale. I had hoped that The Fairest of Them All would do for her what it did to her counterpart - Rapunzel is unlike any other version before. But this Snow White is ripped right from Disney: she's beautiful and perfect and thus inspires jealousy easily. I was disappointed with her one-note personality, and never really grew to care about her the way I did for her "evil" Stepmother. (Yes, Rapunzel does horrible things. But she grows and learns and evolves before/after.)
Despite Snow White's perfection, Turgeon isn't afraid to go to dark places with her story. It's more along the lines of the Brothers Grimm than old Walt. Murder, enviousness, jealousy, betrayal, revenge, rape and more are all part and parcel to the plot. The author deviates from the norm several times - the apple appears but functions in a new way, the seven dwarfs are a group of bandits, Rapunzel's hair has powers besides being able to bear weight - and it works for the story. The infusions of originality keep these old stories feeling fresh and unique, rather than a retread of what has been done before.
The Fairest of Them All is an involving, interesting read. It has a few faults with characters and could do with a bit more polish, but overall, makes for an entertaining new take on some of the world's most popular fairytales. It's dark, it's full of surprises that will keep readers guessing. All in all, this was a promising introduction to this author and I would definitely read more from her.