Classic fairy tales collide in Francke’s debut novel.
Once upon a time in central Germany, the young girl Besse cowers against her abusive father while her mother, Beata, hides away in a tower, combing her hair. The only person who seems to truly care for Besse is the servant Fee, who has assisted the family since before Besse was born. Fee works tirelessly to keep Besse away from her father, whose abhorrent acts of sexual abuse go unchallenged by anyone else in the vicinity. But Fee knows that time is running out for Besse, and she is desperate to find a way to free her young charge. Elsewhere, the boy Jacques arrives in town in search of his absentee father. The dauphin Charles of France and his best friend, Hans Handler, train for battle and dream of winning the hands of virtuous women. And in Burgundy, the duchess Enchantresse broods over her fading beauty and turns an envious eye on her stepdaughter Giselle, who grows more desirable by the day. These characters and several more cross paths and tangle over the course of many months, every interaction providing a twist on a recognizable fairy tale. “Rapunzel,” “Snow White,” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” are only a few of the many stories that appear as the characters struggle toward their own endings. The intricacy of the fairy-tale subplots is commendable, and careful readers will enjoy spotting allusions large and small. In some ways, however, the book feels overly complicated. The sheer number of subplots slows an otherwise engaging narrative to a crawl. Several characters in the enormous cast are one-dimensional, making it difficult to remain invested in their journeys. The author relies on dialect (“think only upon how t’ improve your work enough t’ make it passable t’morrow!”) for many of the peasant characters, which distracts from the story rather than enhancing it. Ultimately, the novel might have been better served by a smaller cast, which would have afforded readers the opportunity to engage more deeply with each character and storyline.
An ambitious but uneven undertaking that melds new characters and familiar tales.