Datlow, Ellen, and Terri Windlings, eds. 1999. Silver Birch, Blood Moon. New York: Avon.

Reviewed 04 July 1999

Silver Birch, Blood Moon (cover) This is an excellent collection of "retold fairy tales." The fifth in a contracted series of six, it is also the weakest. (That said, competing with Snow White, Blood Red is a losing battle.) Examining the table of contents will help show why.

The table of contents reads almost like a "who's who" of 1990s fantasy. We find (in no particular order) Tanith Lee, Robin McKinley, Nancy Kress, Patricia McKillip, Neil Gaiman, Nalo Hopkinson, and Delia Sherman. Other contributors, like Melissa Lee Shaw, have published stories in other books or magazines edited by Ms. Datlow and/or Ms. Windling. And therein lies the rub.

If Silver Birch, Blood Moon was the first in this series of retellings of fairy tales, we could praise it as groundbreaking and see its excellence on its own. Several of the stories—to my taste, Karawynn Long's "The Shell Box," Melanie Tem's "The Willful Child, the Black Dog, and the Beanstalk," and Robin McKinley's "Marsh Magic"—belong in "year's best" collections. The problem is that these stories no longer stand on their own. Instead, they form part of a new method of adult fairy tales that is in danger of becoming Method. Aside: This may well be because these are "closed" anthologies. The editors do not read slush, but only stories they request. Administratively, I don't know how they could do otherwise. The sixth volume, to be published next year, is already closed; it may be one volume too many in the series, although there will always be a place for intelligent retellings of myth.

Much of the difficulty comes from the overprominence of a few tales. Despite the cunning, skill, and art that each author brings to the tales, there are only so many times that one can read a retelling of "The Frog Prince," or something on the edge of the tale, without the retellings beginning to run together. Further, the relatively limited stable of writers—again, I don't see any realistic alternative, but I'm allowed to be unrealistic in these reviews!—that forms the core of each book gives not just the desired stability, but a certain stagnation, to the development of the tales. Tanith Lee, for example, has a particular style and approach that proved somewhat predictable by this volume in the series.

A few words are also in order concerning the kinds of fairy tales retold in this volume. The series is not antisemitic—far from it. But one begins to wonder exactly what is going on when the entire semitic region is ignored—the Thousand and One Nights, the auxiliary tales, even the Biblical tradition. I, for one, would love to see Tanith Lee or Charles de Lint (or the late Angela Carter) take on, say, some of the Old Testament tales.

One must also remember that the source material is from an oral tradition. We don't need to go quite as far as Fr. Ong in developing a detailed theory of the differences between oral and written traditions. However, it is appropriate to recognize that fairy tales—even in the unexpurgated Brothers Grimm versions—are meant for a storyteller, not a reader. The differences between the two traditions are fertile ground for storytelling. Too few of the contributors seem to realize this.

This has gone a bit far afield from the stories themselves. However, I'm not going to give "plot summaries" or "descriptions" here. Each story's headnote has a more-than-adequate description that provides context for the story (although I wish the author credits were reserved for afterwords). I suggest browsing through the book at the bookstore and seeing for yourself.

Overall rating: 4 stars
Excellent.
These criticisms aside, Silver Birch, Blood Moon is a very enjoyable volume. You'll find enchantment and horror, magic light and dark, in these pages. The stories by Karawynn Long, Melanie Tem, and Robin McKinley are particularly good. This volume contains only one story that stood out as substandard—an astounding success rate (even the various Year's Best anthologies usually do worse).


A Powell's Books Partner

  • You can buy this book on-line through Powell's Books. At this writing, it's available as a trade paperback.
  • the fine print first (you'll need to replace "{at}" with "@" on the address line). Please come back soon.
  • Return to Savage Reviews
  • Return to The Savage Beast (est. 1215): Literary Reviews and Resources on Speculative Fiction
Intellectual Property Rights: © 1999 John Savage. All rights reserved.
You may contact me concerning permissions via email. This copyright notice overrides, negates, and renders void any alleged copyright or license claimed by any person or entity, specifically including but not limited to any claim of right or license by any web hosting service or software provider, except when I have transferred such rights with a signed writing that complies with the requirements for transferring the entire copyright as specified in Title 17 of the United States Code. This includes, but is not limited to, translation or other creation of derivative works, use in advertising or other publicity materials without prior authorization in writing, or any other non-private use that falls outside the fair use exception specified in Title 17 of the United States Code. If you have any question about whether commercial use, publicity or advertising use, or republication in any form satisfies this notice, it probably does not. Violations of intellectual property rights in these pages will be dealt with swiftly using appropriate process of law, probably including a note to your mother telling her that you're a thief.
"The Savage Beast", "Savage Reviews", "Surreality Check", and the dragon-and-book banner are trade and service marks of the website owner. Other marks appearing on these pages belong to third parties, and appear either with permission or as exemplary references.