Trolls’ Eye View, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (Viking, 2009)

In this new collection of short stories from acclaimed anthologists Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, fifteen of the field’s best fantasy authors tackle the subject of fairy tales, retold from the viewpoint of the villain, and aimed at a younger audience. In these stories, they explore things from a new perspective. Are fairy tale antagonists really evil, or just misunderstood? Are they sympathetic, or do they deserve their dire fates? And who really does live happily ever after? Some of those answers may just be found in this book.

Delia Sherman examines the role of the evil wizard, in “Wizard’s Apprentice,” in which a young man chooses the life of an apprentice rather than go on with an undesirable home life. What he learns may just surprise him.

Garth Nix completely reverses the line between good and evil with his retelling of Rapunzel. In “An Unwelcome Guest,” it’s Rapunzel who’s forcing her presence upon a rather unhappy witch, and only a clever reinterpretation of the rules will get rid of this undesirable houseguest.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman opts for a more straight-forward retelling of The Goose Girl, but from the viewpoint of the unfaithful maidservant. In “Rags and Riches,” we’re shown just how and why that maidservant chose to become a princess, and how her choices affected her. It’s a subtle bending of the old story, but intriguing nonetheless, especially with its hints for a wide-open future for the protagonist.

In “Up The Down Beanstalk: A Wife Remembers,” Peter Beagle suggests that the thing with Jack and the giant and the goose that laid the golden eggs may have been blown out of proportion and subject to misunderstanding. The end result is something far less dramatic, but far more humanizing.

Ellen Kushner’s “The Shoes That Were Danced To Pieces” is an elegant, low-key retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. In the absence of a true villain for that story, it twists one small but vital aspect of the tale to take on the topic of responsibility and maturity, leading to a satisfying conclusion.

Holly Black’s offering, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is a rather chilling little piece, about a young man who knows too much for his own good, and who makes a tragic choice in the interests of doing the right thing. This is one of those stories where bad things happen to good people, not the comforting sort at all.

Jane Yolen’s “Troll” looks at the story about the three goats and the bridge from what else, the viewpoint of the troll. Short and sweet, it shows that sometimes, all the villain wants is a nice, tasty, cooked meal.

Nancy Farmer juxtaposes history, literature, and fairy tales with her story of “Castle Othello,” which merges Bluebeard and Othello and adding an interesting twist to their combined history. The result is both wry and respectful, making for an intriguing story all around.

In all of the fairy tale world, few villains have ever been as universally abused and cheated as poor Rumplestiltskin, who made a fair deal by his own standards and was then undone by his client’s case of buyer’s remorse. Well, in Michael Cadnum’s “‘Skin,” we’re treated to a far different interpretation of said tale, where the baby-desiring nature of the titular spinner-of-gold are explored and put into a new light. Is he a villain for having certain culinary desires, or just a gourmand? And is the miller’s daughter so sympathetic after all? It’s an interestingly warped retelling, all in all.

Catherynne M. Valente revisits the witch of Hansel and Gretel, telling her unusual story and unique origins in “A Delicate Architecture.” It’s a beautiful, haunting, strange piece that explores what sort of woman would live in a gingerbread house in the woods. With a little bit of The Gingerbread Man tossed in for good measure (or so it seems) it’s thoughtful and poetic, told with Valente’s usual attention to detail and imagery.

In “Molly,” by Midori Snyder, a different story of clever humans versus giants is uprooted and retold. And once again, the so-called villains are the sympathetic parties, minding their own business until a mean-spirited ‘hero’ comes along to torment them. Poignant and provocative, it summons up the image of unjustly-persecuted minorities just as much as it does fairy tale monsters.

Kelly Link looks at the nature of being a villain, focused through the lense of step-sibling rivalry in “The Cinderella Game.” This is another one of those stories where things are more than a little disturbing, and you’re not sure who to root for … if anyone. Frankly, this is the perfect setup for one of those horror stories featuring naughty, evil children who come to bad ends.

Neil Gaiman’s poem “Observing the Formalities” takes a new look at Sleeping Beauty from the viewpoint of the “bad” fairy. Joseph Stanton’s poem “Puss in Boots, The Sequel” adds a new spin to that particular tale, and “Faery Tales” by Wendy Froud is a poetic speculation on what happens to some of those who live happily ever after.

Not one of these stories is anything less than excellent. They certainly fulfill the mandate of retelling and reexamining fairy tales from the perspective of the traditional villain. Evil witches, trolls, bad fairies, giants and more get their day in the sun, and as you can see, it’s not even as simple as every story making them come out as the true heroes. There’s a subtle complexity, a questioning of traditional fairy tale morals, a subversion of the familiar, and taken as a whole, it gets the point across without overdoing it. So in that regard, A Troll’s Eye View is a splendid anthology. My only gripe is that the stories are too short. Many of them end just as they get good, or leave the reader wanting more about those characters or set in that world. There’s so much room for expansion and further exploration that it’s a disappointment to have the story over with so quickly. And when my only complaint is that I didn’t get enough, that’s definitely a plus in my book. Of course, this anthology -is- aimed at somewhat younger readers, the 9-and-up crowd, so there’s only so far you can go and keep it audience-friendly. Ultimately, Windling and Datlow do what they’ve always done: deliver a top-notch collection filled with excellent authors and perfectly-chosen stories. As always, a superb read.

Originally reviews for SF Site, 2009

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