The Raven and the Reindeer

by T. Kingfisher

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Publisher: Red Wombat Tea Company
Copyright: 2016
Format: Kindle
Pages: 191

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Once upon a time, there was a boy born with frost in his eyes and frost in his heart.

There are a hundred stories about why this happens. Some of them are close to true. Most of them are merely there to absolve the rest of us of blame.

It happens. Sometimes it's no one's fault.

Kay is the boy with frost in his heart. Gerta grew up next door. They were inseparable as children, playing together on cold winter days. Gerta was in love with Kay for as long as she could remember. Kay, on the other hand, was, well, kind of a jerk.

There are not many stories about this sort of thing. There ought to be more. Perhaps if there were, the Gertas of the world would learn to recognize it.

Perhaps not. It is hard to see a story when you are standing in the middle of it.

Then, one night, Kay is kidnapped in the middle of the night by the Snow Queen while Gerta watches, helpless. She's convinced that she's dreaming, but when she wakes up, Kay is indeed gone, and eventually the villagers stop the search. But Gerta has defined herself around Kay her whole life, so she sets off, determined to find him, totally unprepared for the journey but filled with enough stubborn, practical persistence to overcome a surprising number of obstacles.

Depending on your past reading experience (and cultural consumption in general), there are two things that may be immediately obvious from this beginning. First, it's written by Ursula Vernon, under her T. Kingfisher pseudonym that she uses for more adult fiction. No one else has quite that same turn of phrase, or writes protagonists with quite the same sort of overwhelmed but stubborn determination. Second, it's a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen."

I knew the first, obviously. I was completely oblivious to the second, having never read "The Snow Queen," or anything else by Andersen for that matter. I haven't even seen Frozen. I therefore can't comment in too much detail on the parallels and divergences between Kingfisher's telling and Andersen's (although you can read the original to compare if you want) other than some research on Wikipedia. As you might be able to tell from the quote above, though, Kingfisher is rather less impressed by the idea of childhood true love than Andersen was. This is not the sort of story in which the protagonist rescues the captive boy through the power of pure love. It's something quite a bit more complicated and interesting: a coming-of-age story for Gerta, in which her innocence is much less valuable than her fundamental decency, empathy, and courage, and in which her motives for her journey change as the journey proceeds. It helps that Kingfisher's world is populated by less idealized characters, many of whom are neither wholly bad nor wholly good, but who think of themselves as basically decent and try to do vaguely the right thing. Although sometimes they need some reminding.

The story does feature a talking raven. (Most certainly not a crow.) His name is the Sound of Mouse Bones Crunching Under the Hooves of God. He's quite possibly the best part.

Gerta does not rescue Kay through the power of pure love. But there is love here, of a sort that Gerta wasn't expecting at all, and of a sort that Andersen never had in mind when he wrote the original. There's also some beautifully-described shapeshifting, delightful old women, and otters. (Also, I find the boy who appears at the very end of the story utterly fascinating, with all his implied parallel story and the implicit recognition that the world does not revolve around Kay and Greta.) But I think my favorite part is how clearly different Greta is at the end of her journey than at the beginning, how subtly Kingfisher makes that happen through the course of the story, and how understated but just right her actions are at the very end.

This is really excellent stuff. The next time you're feeling in the mood for a retold and modernized fairy tale, I recommend it.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-05-13

Last modified and spun 2017-05-14