Bryony and Roses: T. Kingfisher

★★★★

I thoroughly enjoyed T. Kingfisher’s retelling of the Snow Queen legend in The Raven and the Reindeer and was unable to resist this reworking of Beauty and the Beast. It’s a fairy tale I’ve always loved, ever since I was six years old and went to see the animated Disney film at the cinema for a friend’s birthday treat. There’s much to love about the traditional version, but Kingfisher’s story is delightful in a different way, offering a no-nonsense heroine, a Beast with a dry sense of humour, and brooding dark magic.

It all happens because of the rutabagas (better known to me as swedes). A keen gardener, Bryony is tempted out in the snow to visit a friend who has promised her some rutabaga seeds for her prized garden. On her return journey, she loses her way in the forest and, when all seems lost, she and her clumsy pony Fumblefoot find themselves at the gates of a grand manor house. Seeking shelter, Bryony knocks and finds herself ‘welcomed’ into the house, in the sense that she’s offered food, warmth and a place to sleep (as well as fodder for Fumblefoot). The only problem is that all of this hospitality appears as if by magic. While eating breakfast the following morning, before heading home, Bryony sees a beautiful red rose in a vase on the table, and decides to take it as a gift for her sister Iris. But – as you know – one should never try to take roses from enchanted castles. All of a sudden, Bryony’s way out is blocked by a formidable Beast, who informs her that the rose cannot leave the house, and that she must now become his prisoner.

At first, Bryony is terrified by the Beast, but once she’s recovered her composure, she negotiates with her new captor. She will return voluntarily if he allows her to go home to see her sisters and collect some seeds and plants from her garden. If she’s going to be a prisoner, she might as well have something to do with her time. And so she returns laden down with pots and cuttings, ready to create her own little vegetable patch in the corner of the otherwise perfect garden. The Beast is fascinated by her work and, gradually, she begins to realise that her imprisonment isn’t so bad. Certainly, there’s the whole issue of the tusks and the fur and the incredible height, but the Beast has a dry wit and a good library and an inquiring mind. Bryony begins to think it might not be so bad:

The next few days settled into a routine that was actually rather pleasant, insomuch as being held captive against one’s will in a giant enchanted manor house with a somewhat sarcastic Beast could be.

But soon she begins to realise that all is not well. The magic of House (which seems to have a definite personality) is not entirely benevolent, and the Beast is no less a prisoner than Bryony herself. Moreover, she begins to have disturbing dreams. She’s sure there must be a way to break free of the spell, but if the Beast knows it, he isn’t able to explain it to her. After all, there are ears and eyes everywhere in House. If Bryony is going to free them both, she will have to think of a cleverer way to go about it.

Intelligent and playful, this is a refreshing blend of canonical elements and new ideas, which keeps the story just different enough to hold you in suspense. This isn’t a story for children, not because of sex or violence, but because the underlying magic is very dark. But, for grown-ups, it offers a fresh new perspective on a familiar and much-loved tale, with a witty, intelligent and very unsentimental relationship at its heart. Definitely one to recommend for a quick, light read.

In her author’s note, Kingfisher urges us to read Robin McKinley’s Rose Daughter, which inspired this novella. I’ll have to track it down. Has anyone read it – or, for that matter, any other reworkings of Beauty and the Beast that offer a different take of the story?

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4 thoughts on “Bryony and Roses: T. Kingfisher

  1. elainethomp says:

    Huh, wordpress seems to have eaten my comment. Ok
    I’ve read B&R and thought it was only ok. Bryony seemed awfully dense. Any time I find myself scraping for explanations of why the character isn’t doing something that seems incredibly obvious, it’s a bad sign.

    I’ve read Robin McKinley’s various retellings, not just BEAUTY, or ROSE COTTAGE, but I think SUNSHINE and CHALICE are also retellings. I prefer her first, BEAUTY. Rose Cottage’s conclusion had me practically throwing the book across the room, it so strongly seemed wrong. Although details now escape me.

    If you count retellings of East of the Sun, West of the Moon as Beauty and the Beast, which I think they are, I recommend J.M. Ney-Grimm’s TROLL-MAGIC, which has been haunting me lately. It’s one of the few books I’ve wished were longer, and it takes a lot of time with the enchanted prince, who is usually neglected in these things.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Thanks Elaine! Yes, don’t know what happened to your last comment as I can’t see any sign of it. 😦 Did you really think Bryony dense?! Admittedly I only have points of reference to the Disney versions and to Cocteau’s Belle et Bête (where Josette Day’s Belle is less dense than completely self-obsessed). But I rather liked her.

      When you say Rose Cottage, is that another name for Rose Daughter? Judging from what Kingsfisher says in her intro, I strongly suspect the endings to that and Bryony may be the same. If so (I didn’t want to go into the ending to avoid spoilers), it’s certainly different… but here I didn’t mind it too much. I have Rose Daughter in the post as we speak, so I guess I’ll find out about that soon! Thanks for the other recommendations – Troll-Magic definitely sounds interesting.

      I think Kingfisher’s sense of humour just really appeals to me. I read a lot of books where the dialogue seems forced or scripted, whereas here many of the conversations flowed nicely.

  2. elainethomp says:

    Yes, It was obvious to me (and my kid, who kept glancing over my shoulder) what she should be doing long before she figured it out. I figure it was because she’s a gardener, so to her plants are plants, not magical things. But it made for a frustrating read.

    Oh, oops. Yes, Rose DAUGHTER, not cottage. I don’t think the endings of the two were the same, although, as I said above, details are lost to years. What I remember about it is choices made without proper input from others affected by… trying to dredge up detail AND not (possibly) spoil, is hard.

    In SUNSHINE – it’s a vampire story – there’s one decent one that the titular character bonds in a weird fashion with.

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