Poison by Sarah Pinborough
Published by Gollancz, April 2013 (Review copy received.)
ISBN: 9780 575 092976
Review by Mark Yon
If you’ve ever had the good fortune to come across Sarah on Facebook or Twitter in the last year or so, you may have noticed from her comments that she is a huge fan of the TV series Once Upon A Time.
Clearly all that television watching has not been a waste of time. Poison is Sarah’s alternative version of those traditional fairy tales. And if you know anything about Sarah’s other writing, you may guess that her version of fairy tales is about as far away as you can be from the children’s version you may remember.
Let’s make it clear, though. Poison is definitely adult in tone. As a result, It’s sexy, deliciously dark and, in places, rather bitter in taste. Sometimes reading about people’s darker feelings and thoughts highlights aspects of ourselves that might be better left untouched. What Sarah has done is take many of the parts of the old stories you may remember, but then given them more adult motivations and backgrounds to create a tale like the original adult Grimm’s Tales but rewritten for a contemporary audience. I enjoyed it a lot, reading it in just about one sitting.
You may know the story, at least in outline. Snow White’s stepmother, the Queen Lilith, has married not for love but for ambition. She sees that the king is weak, and her people favour the young, kind Snow White over her, seeing her instead as cool and cruel. Lilith realises that in order to reach her ruthless goals she has little choice but to make Snow White disappear. Whilst the king is away fighting a war, various attempts are made to get rid of Snow, including poison and the use of a huntsman to kill Snow White whilst out in the forest. (Fans of Snow White and the Huntsman may recognise this part of the story.) Cue mirrors, poison, princes and even dwarves, not to mention an Arabian Nights link.
It’s dark, but fun. I enjoyed spotting all the links to other fairy tales. Disney, this definitely isn’t.
Dreamy and Grouchy, the two dwarves here, are stolid and loyal, and there is a fair amount of sympathy for their tough existence. Lilith is suitably scheming, not afraid to use sex as a weapon, but also given a sensible rationale for her actions. Snow White is not always the innocent young maiden of the traditional tales.
Whilst Sarah ramps up the adult side of the tales, it must be said that she has also managed to show restraint. The story has sex (and if you’ve read the extracts online, you’ll see what I mean), but the emphasis is usually on the telling of the tale itself. The writing is generally tight, with rarely a superfluous word, which consequently never loses focus away from the core of the tale.
This is recommended for those wanting the romance of fairy tales with the addition of ‘a little more’ passion than they remember from the stories they read as a child. Poison is a book clearly written by a writer with a lot of love for the originals, but with a wicked new perspective that contemporary readers will like.