Book Review: Rags & Bones: New Twists on Timeless Tales

rag and boneFirst published on 26th January, 2014 in The Star


Author: Various

Editors: Melissa Marr & Tim Pratt

Publisher: Little, Brown

I DO love a good re-telling of an old tale, and I like collections of reinterpreted stories because it’s interesting to see how different writers tackle the task of re-presenting classic stories. In fact, I would like to read a collection in which the focus is just one story. For instance, the legend of Mahsuri told by the 12 different authors. How unique would each version be? What aspects of the tale would each author choose to highlight? From whose point of view would each account be told? Would readers recognise the source of these reinterpretations? Would the stories be repetitive and boring? I think not, so long as the authors are chosen for their distinct styles and perhaps even according to the genre they specialised in. Just imagine, the versions might include a sex-and-shopping Mahsuri by Jackie Collins; a murder mystery by Michael Connelly; and maybe something with vampires from Anne Rice. How about it, Little, Brown? Random House? Fixi Noir?

There is no magic formula for a successful re-telling, but, in my opinion, it is best if the story is able to stand on its own. The reader should not have to be familiar with the source material to understand the plot. I also enjoy stories that offer a perspective that is different from what is in the original. And it’s very exciting when a tale inspires a completely new one, perhaps a sequel, or even one which is linked only by themes or motifs.

Rags & Bones: New twists on Timeless Tales compiles 12 stories by 12 well-known YA authors, including Neil Gaiman, Kami Garcia, Rick Yancey, Garth Nix, and Melissa Marr (who is also co-editor, with Tim Pratt). The source material ranges from fairytales (Gaiman reimagines both The Sleeping Beauty and Snow White into the glorious The Sleeper and the Spindle) to Edwardian sci fi (Carrie Ryan takes E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops and runs with it) to gothic horror (Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu shapeshifts into Holly Black’s a 21st century Millcara).

One of my favourites here is Awakened by Melissa Marr, inspired by Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Chopin’s novel explores women’s emotional needs and sexual desires, and Marr continues examining these issues, putting them into heartbreakingly clear focus by incorporating into the story the Celtic myth of selkies or seal women.

Another reimagined tale I absolutely love is The Soul Collector by Kami Garcia, which you won’t recognise as a re-telling of Rumplestiltskin until you acquaint yourself with the author’s reading of the fairytale. By the way, the authors’ notes are placed after each story, perhaps so that the source material doesn’t interfere with how the reinterpretations are received. Still, if you want to know what you’re getting yourself into, you can always read the notes first.

The story I enjoyed the most and have already re-read (twice) is Saladin Ahmed’s take on The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser. Reading this story makes me wish for a re-telling of The Merchant of Venice (from Shylock’s point of view) as Ahmed, sensitive, to the portrayal of the Other in classic fantasy fiction (think of the Haradrim in The Lord of the Rings and the Calormen in The Chronicles of Narnia), tells the story of Sansfoy, Sansloy and Sansjoy, the Saracen brothers in Spenser’s poem.

I would have liked an illustrated book and there are actually six drawings by Charles Vess here. However, they have nothing to do with any of the featured re-tellings. These are pictures that Vess drew in response to five stories and a poem – all close to his heart (as he explains in accompanying notes). I do not like this artist’s work and I find his illustrations in Rags & Bones quite unremarkable, especially alongside and in contrast to the very fine stories. The one supposedly inspired by Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market is especially and singularly uninspiring and rather hideous too, in my opinion. As much as I would love all works of fiction to contain some pictures, I think this one would be better served without the ones that it’s ended up with.

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