Fairy tales with a twist

By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly

Six Crimson Cranes
By Elizabeth Lim
Knopf Books, 2021

Shiori’anma is the only princess in Kiata, and she has a secret. In a kingdom where magic is forbidden, she has it running through her veins. Typically keeping it concealed, she ends up losing control of her magic the morning of her betrothal ceremony, where she’s set to meet her husband-to-be for the first time. While this stops the wedding (which she never wanted to begin with), it also catches the attention of her stepmother, Raikama.

A sorceress herself, Raikama banishes Shiori to a far corner of the kingdom and turns her six brothers into cranes—warning the princess that for every word she speaks, one of her brothers will die. Penniless, voiceless, and mute, Shiori searches for her brothers. Along the way, she discovers a conspiracy to seize the throne and realizes she can make things right—with the help of a shapeshifting dragon, her trusty, enchanted paper bird, and the same boy she fought not to marry.

“Cranes” is a story that combines elements from Western fairy tales and East Asian folklore.

Lim does a great job of weaving them all together into a story about a young woman who’s been forced to start her life over, away from everything and everyone she’s ever known. I really enjoyed how Lim took the archetypes many of us are familiar with—the “evil” stepmother, a young woman relegated to a lower social position, a prince in search of a missing princess, with only a slipper as a clue—and put here own twist on them. It’s also fun to see how these different elements come to fruition in the end.

Shiori is a strong and smart character. And while she always had a rebellious streak as a princess, it’s not until Raikama curses her that she truly learns how to stand on her own two feet and stand up for what’s right. She shows readers how being voiceless doesn’t mean you can’t speak up for yourself.

Once More Upon a Time: An Enchanting Romantic Fairy Tale
By Roshani Chokshi
Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2021

Meet Imelda and Ambrose, a princess and prince who meet, fall in love, and get married over the course of a couple of days. But unlike other fairy tales, the wedding isn’t followed by the pair riding off into the sunset and living happily ever after. Thanks to a poisonous tomato that leaves Imelda ill and on her deathbed, Ambrose makes a deal with a witch, who makes them forget their love for each other, in exchange for Imelda’s life.

Then a year and a day pass and their true story begins.

To reclaim their hearts’ desires, Imelda and Ambrose embark on a quest together, braving magical landscapes and fighting off horrible creatures along the way. They may not have a trusty steed, but they do have an enchanted cloak that thinks it’s a horse. And as they get closer to the end of their journey, the magically estranged couple becomes closer and discover what their true hearts’ desires are.

“Once More” is a fun twist on the traditional fairy tales many of us know. While the story contains many of the usual archetypes—princes battling dragons, a witch’s curse, finding your true love after knowing them for an extremely short period of time—things aren’t always what they seem. Which I really loved. And because it’s Chokshi, author of my beloved Pandava quintet, there’s humor and commentary from the story’s narrator that will have readers smiling all the way to the end.

One thing I especially appreciated was how Chokshi takes the common fairy tale trope of meeting someone and immediately knowing they’re your One True Love, and makes readers really question it through Imelda and Ambrose. Throughout the story, as the pair grow closer, they wonder whether love is enough to build a strong relationship and marriage—especially as their past experiences with love have meant different things and haven’t always been positive. This never happens in fairy tales and I am all for us questioning whether we should persevere for things only for the sake of tradition or whether we should think twice about them.

The Magic Fish
City of Trung Le Nguyen
Random House Graphic, 2020

As a young boy growing up in the United States and an immigrant from Vietnam who struggles with English, Tien and his mother come from different cultures. One of the things that brings them together is reading fairy tales they check out from the local library. The stories allow Tien’s mother to practice her English, while the tales of love, loss, and travels across the world give him a glimpse into his mother’s own experiences coming to the United States.

But no matter how much these fairy tales bridge the gap, there’s one conversation he’s still not sure how to translate into Vietnamese. How does he tell them he’s gay? And if he does figure that out, will they accept him?

“Magic Fish” is the story about a family caught between two worlds. Nguyen includes fairy tales from different cultures—some that readers will recognize. He does a great job of showing how these stories really are universal and we can relate to them, no matter where they come from or where we come from. It reminded me that one of the reasons I love stories is their universality and how they can bring people together.

In addition to the stories—from Tien’s and his mother’s, to the fairy tales themselves—“Magic Fish” is a beautifully illustrated graphic novel. I haven’t read much of the medium, but Nguyen shows how a picture is worth a thousand words. He’s able to tell these stories without much text, conveying what’s happening through images, characters, and their expressions. I also appreciated the different styles he used when going between Tien’s and his mother’s stories and the fairy tales—which to someone who is not as artistically inclined, was very impressive.

Samantha can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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