Author: Gail Carson Levine
Released: September 19 2006
Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers
Goodreads Rating: 3.87 (of 54,671 ratings)
In the kingdom of Ayortha, who is the fairest of them all? Certainly not Aza. She is thoroughly convinced that she is ugly. What she may lack in looks, though, she makes up for with a kind heart, and with something no one else has-a magical voice. Her vocal talents captivate all who hear them, and in Ontio Castle they attract the attention of a handsome prince – and a dangerous new queen.
Have you ever read a book and then whole-heartedly wished it was turned into a movie? Fairest would make the best book-turned-movie/musical. Think Into the Woods except focused on one character. I know by saying this I risk seeing the movie turn into a hot mess (since not all book adaptations please the reader fanbase) but oh man, this book has the material for it.
Fairest takes place in the fictional kingdom of Ayortha, where singing is prized above all. People hold monthly Sings to celebrate accomplishments. Singing is believed to heal the sick, to bring forth good fortune. Gail Carson Levine scatters numerous (original) ditties throughout the book based on how characters are feeling and what they are thinking.
“Climb the day,
Drop your dreams,
Possess the day.” — Part of a song sung at the beginning of the day
“You float to me.
Your face is granite.
I raise you above the water.
I push you below. I acquaint
You with the tides. Do not die.” — Part of a song of healing
This gives the book a unique element. Also, each character has their own singing “voice,” identified by the songs they enjoy singing. Identifying her fictional kingdom for its love of singing is not all Levine does to make her fantasy world unique — she expands it with her own take on ogres, gnomes, centaurs and more (clearly explained throughout the book, in a way that is not confusing to the reader or an information overload).
Yet in Ayortha, a second highly praised thing is beauty. The people love what is appealing to the eye, which Aza learns quite early on in life she is not.
I was an unsightly child. My skin was the weak blue-white of skimmed milk, which would have been so bad if my hair had been blond and my lips pale pink. But my lips were as red as a dragon’s tongue and my hair as black as an old frying pan.
If this description does not hint anything to you, YUP, Fairest is also a Snow White re-telling. I mean, when you consider it, Snow White would be kind of odd-looking. Pale white skin, black hair, and red lips? What I adore so much about Levine’s take with this retelling is that you almost don’t even know it’s a retelling (which I know for some can be a downside) until you take a moment and go, “Oh, wow, I see it now!” and you can pick out all these clever references slipped into the narrative. For one, Aza mentions at the beginning of the book her strong hatred for apples. Another? Um, how about the entire singing aspect of the book? (This may be ripped more from the movie Snow White, since I have not read the OG fairytale version). When it comes down to it, though, retelling or not, you cannot see how this ending will play out. Which I liked!
In terms of plot, the book is well-paced and kept me engaged. I would say I read it in one sitting, but that’s how I read almost all my books. If I *don’t* read something in one sitting, that’s when there’s a problem. Not once does it seem like Levine is forcing plot moments so the story mimics Snow White more closely. Everything feels authentic to her own story. Even better, Aza’s story leaves readers thinking about the beauty and the meanings we associate to it. Levine does not end the book by stating being pegged beautiful is either good or bad: she allows readers to develop their own understandings throughout the course of the novel, alongside Aza. Which, thank you! I don’t like meanings stuffed down my throat.
In terms of romance, not my fa-a-a-v-e-e-e in the world because I never fully connected with the love interest (a good guy for sure, but he did fall a little flat to me in terms of characterization). I got so much from Aza, from the Queen, from Master zhamM, but the love interest sometimes seemed just like an object of affection for Aza. HOWEVER, still enjoyed.
RATING & VOTE FOR NEXT WEEK’S BOOK
Four and a half crowns on this read! Losing that half a crown for the romance because gosh darnit, the dude needed a bit more dimension for someone as kick butt as Aza. But this book really stands out for its world-building (not too much to overwhelm, not too little that it’s basically Earth but with a fancier name and also hover cars for some reason) and also new take on Snow White and also plot that is so “can’t take my eyes away.”
NOW, what genre should I read for next week? Vote in the comments below!
What makes a retelling just right? Is it better to stick close to the original, or try to forge a new path? Let’s discuss in the comments below!