Revisiting Neverland: Peter Pan Retellings

Months ago, I downloaded Kindle’s sample of UnhookedI really liked the direction the story was going with this girl whose parents had some mysterious connection with Neverland, but the sample ended right about the same time the story moved out of England and into the world of make believe. As I said, I really liked it, but not enough to buy the book to read the rest.

Months pass, I remember that public libraries exist, and I finally get my hands on the full copy of Unhooked. It was such a disappointment. I wasn’t a big fan of the ending. I felt like the beginning of the story set up a lot of unfulfilled expectations. But overall I couldn’t put my finger on what I didn’t like about the book. And then I read Alias Hook.

It was so much better. The books are very similar. Both make Captain Hook into a sympathetic character. By extension, this makes Peter Pan the bad guy. But how they go about doing that is very different.

In Unhooked, the protagonist and Hook are both teenagers, just like Pan. Pan wants to control Neverland and will stop at nothing to gain more power. He is unquestionably a villain. Hook is a former Lost Boy who has turned against Pan now that he knows the boy’s true nature. While I thought it sounded like a promising premise, it was ultimately unsatisfying.

Alias Hook focuses on a woman who has arrived in Neverland under mysterious circumstances, desperate to escape war-torn Europe and recapture her lost childhood. Hook, a full grown man, has been cursed to stay in Neverland, but with Stella’s reappearance, he learns that there may be a way to escape his prison. And it’s a fantastic character journey that I really want to discuss with you, but not until after you’ve read the book. So read it, get in touch, and we’ll chat. Seriously, I would love it if you did that.

In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I’m not going to go into more detail of the plot of either of these books, but I will talk about why I think Alias Hook works so much better. The idea of eternal childhood is central to the original Peter Pan. Hook isn’t a villain because he’s a pirate, but rather because he’s an adult. By putting Hook and Pan in the same age bracket, Unhooked loses that central conflict.

Alias Hook turns that conflict around by challenging whether eternal childhood is really such a good thing, but the same idea remains at the heart of Neverland. Pan is not the hero of the story, but he isn’t a true villain either. Because he’s still just a young boy, his ideas of right and wrong have not fully developed. He’s still cruel, but the point is that children have no grasp of the consequences of their actions, which is why they can be so heartless. Cutting off Hook’s hand is still a despicable act, but Pan has no notion of what it means to permanently maim someone.

If you want to read a Peter Pan retelling, I highly recommend Alias Hook by Lisa Jensen. If you decide to read a different one, I still really think you should find one that maintains the age difference between Pan and Hook. As with any retelling, fiddling with the details is what makes it new and fun, but the heart of the story has to stay in place.

 

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Jane Steele: Retelling Gone Right

When I reviewed Eligible, I admitted that I didn’t like it, but I thought that retelling someone else’s story was hard. After reading Jane Steele, I might have to change my opinion.

The basis of any retelling is a “What if” question. Most authors ask “What if (insert classic story) took place in a modern setting?” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, most often it doesn’t do much for me. Lyndsay Faye asks, “What if Jane Eyre was a serial killer?”

A question that had never crossed my mind, but once it did, I had to know the answer. And that answer is Jane Steele. I have never been a big fan of Jane Eyre, partially because I don’t care much for Jane herself. I don’t know what it says about me that I liked her so much better as a serial killer, but I loved Jane Steele. Through no fault of her own, she finds herself in difficult situations, starting at a young age. When life gets hard, Jane Steele doesn’t fall apart, she finds solutions. Usually her solutions involve killing someone, but trust me, these people had it coming.

Mr. Rochester also gets a much needed upgrade in this retelling. Charles Thornfield loves his ward, is dedicated to helping his friends, and completely unperturbed by the fact that his governess can wield a knife and swear like a sailor. Sounds like my kind of guy.

Jane Steele is shipped off to boarding school, away from her childhood home of Highgate House, after her cousin dies. What no one knows is that Jane killed him. Accidentally, kind of. She pushes him into a ravine when he tries to rape her. She decides she is a wicked girl for killing someone and embraces her fate. She’s quite happy bypassing heaven as she’s told that her mother, a depressed widow who committed suicide, has no doubt been sentenced to hell.

With this rather inauspicious start to life, Jane finds herself in an abusive school, which leads her to London, which eventually circles her back around to Highgate House, where she plans to kill the man who inherited the house when her aunt died and so claim her own inheritance. There’s only one problem.

She really likes Charles Thornfield and his household. So do I. I’ve already hit Thornfield’s highlights, but the rest of his household is just as good. The most prominent features of this unorthodox English estate are the Sikh butler, Sardar Singh, who seems like a great guy but is obviously hiding something, and Sahjara, Thornfield’s ward who is delightfully wild.

Unraveling the mystery of this odd household becomes more urgent after Jane kills a nighttime intruder. The answers lie in the Sikh Wars in India, but Jane’s investigation is further hampered by Mr. Sam Quillfeather, an Inspector who may be able to tie Jane to at least three deaths.

Even more complications arise when Jane discovers that her aunt was not her father’s sister-in-law, but rather his legitimate wife. He married Jane’s mother under false pretenses with an assumed name.

To top it all off, Jane can’t just fall back on her usual method of un-complicating things, because she has fallen in love with Charles Thornfield and doesn’t want to admit to him that she is, in fact, a murderess.

The way Faye weaves all of these storylines together along with seamless character development makes for a very enjoyable read. The fact that Jane most often kills to protect other people makes her a downright heroic figure. The way the people around her react to her protection often made me judge them more than her.

If there was one thing I disliked about the book, it was the way Jane blamed herself for her cousin’s death. She saw that as her downfall from grace, when anyone else would clearly label it as self-preservation. But the book is redeemed when Jane finally comes clean to Thornfield about the people she has killed and he quickly sets her straight on her view of herself.

Jane and Thornfield’s relationship is everything a literary romance should be. They are remarkably well suited for each other, becoming good friends rather quickly. Their banter is endlessly entertaining, and the obstacles to their relationship genuine problems and not contrived issues. It’s true strength is that the romance is not the center of the story, but rather a thread that runs underneath the plot and helps to tie it all together.

Not only did I love reading this book, I’m already looking forward to re-reading it. 5 out of 5 stars, no question.

Uprooted: Magic that Works

I really loved Naomi Novik’s fantasy novel Uprooted. In addition to being an author she is also a computer game designer. Much of her novel echoed aspects of the old Sierra adventure games like King’s Quest and Quest for Glory. So maybe part of it is just my 90’s nostalgia, but I loved it.

Her characters were great, her world was well-developed, and her folk story foundation was rock solid. But the crowning masterpiece of this book is the magic.

It’s hard to come up with a workable magic system for a fantasy world. If you’re not careful, you end up with the solution to all of your characters’ problems being right at their fingertips. Then you need to come up with some convoluted reason why magic can’t fix this particular problem. This is compounded when your main character is the most powerful wizard to be seen in hundreds of years, which is another fantasy staple.

So the question becomes, how do you make your character special without giving them unlimited power? Naomi Novik has found the answer in Uprooted.

Agnieska lives in a region protected by a Dragon (not a real dragon, just a wizard known by that name). Every ten years he picks a girl to be his servant. Everyone knows that he will take Agnieska’s best friend Kasia, who is beautiful and graceful and everything that Agnieska is not. But then choosing day comes and Angieska is the one taken.

Once back at the Tower, the Dragon tries to teach Angieska magic, but she is a horrible failure at it. Then she finds a little book full of spells that all work for her. The Dragon is stymied, as no one considered those spells any good, and eventually it all comes out. Agnieska does magic differently than other wizards do.

This is a brilliant move on Novik’s part. Agnieska is not more powerful than everyone else, but she can do things they can’t. On the flip side, things that come easily to them are hard for her. And when she works with someone, combining their two forms of magic, they can accomplish even more.

This gives them their best chance yet to beat back the Wood, a malevolent power that corrupts everyone that comes in contact with it. But it also creates even more problems. Working magic together is kind of intimate. What if no other magic user is around to work with you? What if the only one available isn’t someone you’re comfortable forming that type of connection with?

Novik’s magic system sets up a framework that allows her characters to break new ground while still providing limits. When you combine this with a world-weary sorcerer with a dry sense of humor, a determined heroine who makes things up as she goes along, and a sinister villain whose power reaches farther than anyone ever guessed, the resulting story is simply magical.