I admit it - I have always been a sucker for retellings of fairy tales. Part of it is because I grew up reading fairy and folktales, and for whatever reason they resonated for me as a young reader. And part of it is that I always wondered about the stories, wished I knew more about the characters, why they acted as they did, what they thought about what was happening, and what happened afterwards. Maybe the many authors who have written retellings of fairy tales had the same kinds of questions I did; maybe they just love the stories so much they wanted to create their own spin on them. Robin McKinley loves the story of Sleeping Beauty so much that she has written two retellings (Rose Daughter and Spindle's End), and they're both really good, as well as surprisingly different from each other.
The story begins with Aza, a foundling who was adopted by loving parents who are innkeepers. Aza is not what anyone would call attractive -- she is toweringly tall with an extremely pale, overly round face. But in a country where singing is a way of life, Aza has been blessed with a beautiful voice. She works at the inn, hiding her face from those who would stare at her disapprovingly, and her life would have probably continued uneventfully had she not suddenly been chosen to take the place of a noblewoman's sick servant. Aza is whisked off to the palace to attend the king's wedding. There, she draws the attention of the new queen, once a commoner like herself, but of uncommon beauty. Aza soon finds herself at at a crossroads, and whatever decision she makes, it is certain that her life will never be the same again.
Fairest was an especially enjoyable fairytale retelling because it is very loosely connected to the original fairy tale, full of surprises and interesting twists and turns. I found myself caught up in the story, completely forgetting about the Snow White theme, and then when an element of the fairy tale crept in, it felt like suddenly seeing a familiar face in a new light. It was very neatly done.
I'm also a fan of writers who create fictional worlds that grow and deepen with additional books (Charles de Lint's Newford is my very favorite of these worlds). Fairest is set in the same world as Ella Enchanted, and it was fun to revisit it.
This book is shelved in the young adult section of my library, but I think it would appeal to strong younger readers and young-at-heart adults. It has romance, intrigue, action and adventure. And it addresses the issue of beauty, what it means, how we think of other and ourselves, its power and its weaknesses. Not a bad topic these days, I'd say.
Fairest by Gail Carson Levine (HarperCollins, 2006)