Published by Saga Press on November 10 2015
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
The nitty-gritty: A luminous and magical Snow White re-telling, with gorgeous imagery and writing beyond compare.
Mr. H liked more than anything to see me dressed like a boy, with a cattleman’s hat and a revolver made to my hand. It had a grip pounded out of the first silver bars of Mr. H’s fortune, so pure and bright, it could blind a body cold. That would have been gun enough for any girl, but I reckon my father had nowhere else to spend his love back then. He had great big red pearls stuck into it like drops of blood spattered on the snow, one for every time I pleased him.
This compact novella was my first experience reading Catherynne M. Valente, and I was literally blown away (pun intended). Six-Gun Snow White has all the familiar elements from the fairy tale—a young girl abused by her stepmother, a magic mirror, seven dwarves, a poisoned apple, a huntsman—and yet it’s completely new and fresh and unlike any other Snow White story you’re likely to read. Valente arms her Snow White with a revolver called Rose Red and gives her a trusty horse named Charming, then sets her off into the world. The fantasy elements are subtle, and even readers who don’t like speculative fiction will appreciate the real-life struggles that Snow White goes through in this story. I loved the fact that Snow White is a half Crow, half white girl with dark skin, who never really feels like she fits in anywhere. Add in a thoroughly engaging western sensibility and you have one hell of a story.
Snow White’s father is Mr. H, a successful prospector who has made a fortune mining whatever precious materials he can find. One day, he meets and becomes instantly smitten with a Crow woman named Gun That Sings, and he decides to do whatever he can to make her his wife. Gun That Sings bears him a daughter, but dies in childbirth, and so Snow White grows up alone, hidden on her father’s vast estate, an embarrassment to him because she’s half Crow. Snow White spends her days by the sea on the boardwalk and saloon that Mr. H builds just for her, alone but more or less happy. Until Mr. H decides to marry again, and Mrs. H enters their lives.
Snow White’s world crumbles as her stepmother tries to mold her into the girl she wants her to be, beating and even torturing her by making her bathe in ice-cold milk, thinking it will turn her skin white. But eventually, Snow White decides she’s had enough, and she runs away. What follows is a grand adventure, as she searches for her place in the world and even finds a band of unusual women who might even give her a home. But Mrs. H isn’t done with Snow White yet, and she sends a bounty hunter to find her. Some of what you might be expecting happens, but not all of it.
More than anything, I adore Valente’s writing. I’m not kidding when I say that at one point I wanted to cry, her words are so beautiful. When Snow White reflects on why her stepmother is so cruel, she says,
“A mother’s like a poison made for only one soul.”
Because this story is so short, I don’t want to give too much away, but there are a few story elements I have to talk about. When Snow White runs away, she stumbles upon a town named Oh-Be-Joyful and meets seven very unusual, kick-ass women (and yes, they would be the seven dwarves of the story you’re familiar with) who take her in and offer her something she’s never had before: acceptance. But don’t think this is the happy ending of the story, because it’s not.
I also loved the way Valente incorporated the huntsman into Six-Gun Snow White, a bounty hunter referred to only as “the dude,” who has been hired to track her down and bring her home—or at least to bring a part of her home. (You know how the story goes, right?) Valente surprised me at nearly every turn, especially when I thought I knew what was coming. She’s just brilliant at subverting your expectations, so if you’re looking for a story that doesn’t ever do the expected thing, then you must read this book!
The magical elements revolve around Mrs. H’s magic mirror, in which some very unusual things happen. You’ll meet a wonderful character named Deer Boy (and I’ll allow you to meet him on your own!) who I adored, and who is one of my favorite side characters in the entire story. I also loved the zoo Mr. H incorporates into the boardwalk, and the animals who live there become Snow White’s only friends when she is young.
Black and white illustrations are scattered throughout, and give it that extra touch that makes this book even more special. I read the e-book, but I may break down and buy myself a physical copy, just so I can have those illustrations for myself. I highly recommend you visit the artist’s website (Charlie Bowater) and check them out here.
The ending was the only part of the story that faltered a bit for me, but it wasn’t enough of a negative to change my opinion or rating, obviously! If you’ve read this book, I’d love to know your thoughts on the ending.
Valente’s main theme running through the story is the idea of choice, who has it, and who doesn’t. Snow White clearly has times in her life where she doesn’t get to choose at all, but later in the story, as she becomes a much stronger woman, it seems like she gets to choose her path. But as the author states time and again,
“It looked like a choice but it wasn’t.”
And maybe I didn’t need almost a thousand words to tell you this, but I loved every inch of this story. Highly recommended.