“Magic is just a word for what's left to the powerless once everyone else has taken their fill.”

There is something about fairy-tale retellings that speak to me. Maybe it’s the fact that I grew up on a steady diet of reading fairy tales and they were my main introduction into reading fantasy. Maybe it’s the taking of something that is so utterly familiar and attempting to make something new of it. I only know two things: that I am always seeking out new retellings and that I love them the most when they are subversive.  

Taking place in the Old West, Six-Gun Snow White follows a half-Crow, half-white child whose mother died in childbirth and her father—a Nevada silver baron—who is ashamed of his half-Crow child. She grows up alone, in a life of seclusion, with a few animals (from her father’s private zoo) and a favorite gun for company.

One day, her father remarries and a new stepmother comes into the picture. Her first step is to give the child a new name, Snow White, in mockery and disdain for what she will never be. Next comes the life of servitude and the continuous baths in which Snow White is scrubbed and scratched in the hopes that her color will fade to an acceptable white.

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Rejected by those who are supposed to love her, Snow White runs away, seeking a new life, a new future and possibly a happily-ever-after.

Six-Gun Snow White is a gorgeously written, brilliantly retold, feminist, subversive reinvention of “Snow White.” Catherynne Valente takes the original story and reshapes it to make it a thing of beauty and of pain, by examining a myriad of motifs: gender, race, family, longing and belonging. In it, Charming is a horse, the seven dwarves are fabulous, if a bit underused, seven outlaw women, and there is no prince.

When one thinks of “Snow White,” one inevitably thinks about the central theme of the story: beauty and jealously, all voiced by the mirror on the wall. In this retelling, the story is not really about beauty and jealously. In fact, “fairest of them all” has a gut-wrenching, tragic meaning. The mirror too has a different use than what’ usually expected. This fascinated me: the mirror is used as window rather than a reflexion. A window into the past, or into an alternate reality. Snow White looks into it and learns about her stepmother and, in doing so, we learn that she had a childhood as terrible as Snow’s (it’s as though Cinderella grew up to become Snow White’s stepmother) and the motives for her treatment of Snow go beyond the surface. It’s chilling but also sad in a way that shows how internalized misogyny is utterly destructive: “This is what it means to be a woman in this world. Every step is a bargain with pain.”        

The ending I suspect will be a matter of love or hate for many readers: I loved it. The story ponders Snow’s relationship with her stepmother as central to her motivations in the familiar resolution of the tale. In it, there is an interesting confluence of history and story and a resolution that is both perfect and thought-provoking.

Six-Gun Snow White has been nominated for Best Novella for this year’s Hugo Awards. It has my vote.

In Book Smugglerish: 8 out of 10

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can also find them on Twitter.