Charm by Sarah Pinborough. Gollancz £9.99
Reviewed by Peter Coleborn
Charm is the second in Pinborough’s reworked fairy tale cycle, being with Poison and to be concluded later this year with Beauty. Although there are recurring characters and story-ties to the previous volume, I don’t think it’s necessary to read them in order and so new readers can start with this volume – as long as you do read all three.
We all (almost all, at least) are familiar with the tropes of the Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, et al, stories and Charm sticks fairly close to those tales to begin with. But luckily the story does go off at little tangents, when a character from another tale makes an appearance, or when a discovery is made, that jolts one’s expectations. And I rather enjoyed these moments.
Charm is about Cinderella and her desire to attend the Ball, to meet Prince Charming, to fall in love with him and live happily ever after. She has two step-sisters and a step-mother who seem not to care for her; a father who is attempting to write a novel (that’s a novel idea, isn’t it, in a fairy story?); Buttons, the thief who provides food and coal for warmth in an unending winter; and the fairy godmother who grants Cinderella’s wishes. And then there are the mouse and the huntsman...wait! I don’t remember them. One of those plot twists. Unlike the familiar fairy stories we know, despite Cinderella’s best intentions, things don’t work to our heroine’s plan. But do things turn out happily ever after? Maybe, maybe not...
Fairy stories are metaphors for their young audience, about duty and honour and honesty and hard work all being good; laziness, deceit, lust, avarice all being bad. These remain germane to Charm but I would have preferred to see less absolutes. There are some grey areas: sex, for example. It’s there in Charm (and in Poison) and it’s dealt with in an even-handed manner – sex is natural, after all. I suspect you’ve heard that Pinborough’s fairy stories are written for adults and that there’s rampant sex between the covers. Well, not really. It features but it doesn’t occur often and when it does it’s modestly described.
Charm is a quick, amusing read and shouldn’t be taken seriously. It’s FUN. Read the book and allow it to evoke memories of those times when your parents told you stories of Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks. And one other thing: there are loads of lovely line drawings by Les Edwards.