Following on the success of their first collected anthology Snow White, Blood Red, Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling again team up in order to go in search of short-stories that subscribe to their "adult fairy tales" prerequisites. Containing eighteen stories altogether, ranging in length from short novellas to one-page poems "Black Thorn, White Rose" is a nice follow-up to the first volume.
A short introduction outlines the goal of the project: to "give fairytales back their teeth" by inviting a number of writers to reverse the bowdlerization of the original stories whilst keeping them recognizable as fairytales. According to Datlow and Windling: "The literary fairytale, like the music of jazz, is an improvisation on a theme. It eschews our modern obsession with novelty, our insistence on plots that surprise on every page and ideas that have never been uttered before. Like jazz, it is best appreciated by those with an ear for the original melody on which it is based. The pleasure lies in savoring the writer's skill as she or he transforms a familiar story, bringing to it their own unique vision of the tale, and of the world around them.
Despite this common theme, it is an eclectic mix: some stories are straightforward retellings, some transpose the original fairytales to updated settings, some tell the stories from an unexpected point-of-view, and some delve into the psychological depths of the inherent symbolism and themes of the old tales. Sleeping Beauty and Rumplestiltskin are popular choices for adaptation (both of them pop up more than once), but there are also new takes on The Gingerbread Man, The Princess and the Pea, The Musicians of Bremen, and Little Red Riding Hood.
I'll admit being partial to the stories that don't stray too far from the original tale or which get too surrealistic in their treatment of the source material, and since there are too many contributions I'll just mention some of my favorites. "Stronger than Time" by Patricia Wrede is a take on the Sleeping Beauty story that bases itself on the question: "what if the prince was late in reaching the sleeping princess?" whilst Ann Downer uses the same fairytale to tell a sweet little Regency romance in the style of Georgette Heyer.
Tim Wynne-Jones takes the relatively little known "Goose Girl" and tells it from the prince's point-of-view (it may help if you're familiar with the original fairytale) in order explore what he knew and how he felt about his false bride, and Jane Yolen puts a new spin on Rumplestiltskin in "Granny Rumple" by shifting the setting to a Jewish ghetto and giving it a tragic twist.
"Silver and Gold" by Ellen Steiber is a beautiful little poem based on Little Red Riding Hood that explores the allure of the wolf and justification for why Little Red couldn't tell him apart from her own grandmother. Finally, Storm Constantine's "Sweetly Bruising Skin" is my absolute favourite of the collection; in fact I read it twice over just to absorb it properly. Taking the premise of the "princess test" from The Princess and the Pea, the story is not only significantly expanded upon but told from an unexpected point-of-view. The Queen Mother is fond of her young son and sympathetic when he refuses to marry out of duty, so goes to her alchemist and requests that he conjure up a suitable match for him. A few nights later, during a terrible storm, a beautiful young vagabond appears. To prove herself a princess, she is made to sleep on a pile of mattresses to see whether she can feel the dried peas far beneath her.
Yet passing the test is only the beginning of the story. Though the Queen's daughter-in-law was initially languid and rather stupid, she now begins to show signs of cunning and manipulation - and also grave illness that can only be cured by the alchemist. The Queen Mother grows alarmed as to what exactly she's brought into her kingdom, and nobody can be trusted as she tries to get to the bottom of the mystery. In parts funny, suspenseful, surprising and heart-breaking, this was by far the cream of the crop (at least in my opinion).
The difficulty with the anthologies in this series (there are at least seven now) is that the criteria required for a story's inclusion is quite broad. This means that even though each of them are based on fairytales, they differ radically in style and theme. Inevitably, you're going to get some stories that you love, and some that you detest. Had the editors perhaps narrowed the conditions a little bit, there would be more of a central theme running throughout the collection, and a sense of greater consistency. On the other hand, such a wide range of tales raises your chances that you'll find at least one story that you really love, so by all means read for yourself and happy hunting!