Book Review: The Goose Girl

It’s been a while since I last reviewed a book. The thought of going more formal (as opposed to just entering a stream of consciousness into the Good Reads text box), which I thought would be fun, kind of stunted me. But I’m back at it and, a bit randomly, with a title published way back when in 2003…

The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

Fairy tale retellings usually disappoint me. With reason, they end predictably, so if the gettin’ there ain’t great, it’s easy to finish a story wondering why you (I) wasted your (my) time (again) reading something you’ve, essentially, read before. I’ve aired this complaint before, but it hasn’t stopped me from picking them up. Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl reminded me why that is: it’s worth wading through some slush to find the good stuff.

I tend to regard the original tales of the Brothers Grimm as outlines, which is probably why I always have so much hope for these longer retellings. There’s so much room to expand and the plain and often abrupt style of the fairy tale genre… well, it’s boring without deeper storylines. Thank god they’re short, I’ve often thought. Interesting is not the same as entertaining, after all, and my reading of the original tales has generally been out of academic interest/assignment or a desire to understand where inspiration for other stories has come from, not for pleasure. The basic structure is there, and so I think it’s the job of a good retelling to, above all else, add style. If that style is equally lousy to the original, by all means, put it down. Bad style plus you already read the ending on Wikipedia? And there aren’t even any pretty Lisbeth Zwerger illustrations? Why would you bother? But Shannon Hale has great style, and her ending is more gratifying to boot (and the original cover art for the series by Alison Jay ain’t bad either)

If you’re familiar with the Brothers Grimm story of the same name (and if not, you can read it here), then you’ll know what to expect of the plot just from reading the title. Hell, even if you aren’t, the false bride storyline is common enough (so common in fact, folklorists have a name for it: Aarne-Thompson type 533) that you’ll see it coming early on. The goblet, the handkerchief with its three drops of blood, the shifty lady-in-waiting and suspicious goose boy, the talking horse; they’re all present, and there names haven’t even changed. But Hale makes them real people, not static types. The conniving lady-in-waiting? Even knowing the original tale, I I actually trusted her at the beginning only to see her quickly shift into the role of psycho bitch (Bravo, Hale, you had me going for a chapter or two there.) Shannon Hale’s book is still a switcheroo story, but it’s also a story about language and forces of nature. Notable changes, like the fact that Fallada the horse can’t verbally speak with humans, the strained mother-daughter relationship, the class divide, and the backstory and growth of Ani’s connection with the natural world, add tremendous depth to the tale.

Here’s my stab at the book blurb: Princess Andidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, heir to the throne of Kildenree, is a bit of a weirdo. She can talk to animals, for one thing. People, though? Not so much.

From a young age, Ani’s aunt has told her stories, mystical ones of people who can commune with nature. Y’know, sing with all the voices of the mountain, paint with all the colors of the wind and all other form of Pocahontas-brand tree-huggery. Through her, we learn of three types of speaking talents: animal-speech, elemental-speech, and people-speech. Then she dies, and along with her, the queen’s patience for Ani’s lack of royal pedigree. It’s time to get serious about this princess stuff and stop chatting with budgies! Despite her royal tether, Ani forms a special bond with her horse Fallada, with whom she is able to speak telepathically.

Self-conscious and lacking royal ambition, especially next to her confident and well-spoken mother, Ani doesn’t seem suited to rule much of anything. Her mother sees this (and so arranges a foreign marriage that will keep her from wearing the crown), the locals see it (all that animal-speaking is kiiiiiinda starting to make her look like a nut job witch), and Selia, her jealous and conniving lady-in-waiting? That girl definitely sees it. While not the most maternal move, Ani responds dutifully, packing up her trousseau and riding Fallada into the woods for the three month long trek to Bayern, where she’ll meet her future husband for the first time. Or… perhaps… where a girl that has been described as looking like Ani and has grown increasingly disgruntled working for her will hack up her guards, steal her wardrobe, and meet her future husband? …Maybe?

Dun dun dun. Aarne-Thompson type 533, all systems are go.

Along with Selia and a sizable “guard” (Oooh! What might I mean by that!), Princess Anidori travels through wilds of Kildenree. The rough-it nature of their journey opens her eyes to the gap between herself and her lady-in-waiting. While Ani enjoys warm baths even in the forest, Selia bathes in a cold stream; while Ani drinks stream water from a golden goblet, Selia emits steam from her ears and her eyes begin to bulge from their sockets (no, not really). The gap, needless to say, isn’t lost on Selia, and she begins to let her contempt for Ani show more and more as they approach Bayern…

“A servant,” said Selia again. She looked down as her face flamed and her chin began to quiver. “All I have ever wanted is what you have. And you, you don’t even care about what you are. And I have had to serve you and call you mistress and wait and wait and wait.” Selia put a hand over her eyes, and her shoulders began to shake. “What a horrid title, lady-in-waiting. I have waited and waited until I thought my bones would crack and my muscles freeze and my mind shrivel like a raisin. And there you were, with horses and tutors and gowns and servants, and all you did was hide in your room.”

…ultimately going BAT-SHIT CRAZY on Ani’s ass before flouncing into Bayern on one very disturbed Fallada, wearing a crown that doesn’t belong to her.

Unlike the Grimm tale, our goose girl isn’t taken to the kingdom as the demoted lady-in-waiting, she has to fight to stay alive and get their on her own, then figure out a way to stay alive (Selia’s spies are ever on the look out for the golden-haired Kildenreen princess; she’d stick out like a sore thumb in a dark-haired, calloused-handed crowd of Bayern…ians… if not for her field hat) long enough to make friends who’ll support her when she finally attempts to tell the truth of her identity to the king. Because also unlike the original version, Ani and Selia’s true identities aren’t so quickly revealed, and when they are, it isn’t thanks to the king’s secret agent impersonation. Ani is a goose girl for a long time, and during that time we’ll see her form friendships (one in particular with Enna of the book’s sequel Enna Burning, which I’m anxious to read), figure out who she really is (does she even want to be a princess?), HAVE THE CUTEST COURTSHIP EVER, and *yawn and stretch* prevent a potentially catastrophic war on her homeland for good measure.

It’s exciting, it’s full of the kinds of interesting and well-organized details that make the ending feel like a puzzle with all its pieces in place (Frances Hardinge and J.K. Rowling are my go-to examples of this style, which I enjoy so much), it’s not entirely predictable, it’s a bit magical, and it’s wonderfully written. And in big ways, it’s a story about speech and storytelling itself. I’m testament to the fact that readers still love reading about the power of stories IN stories. I self-reflectively eat that shit right up.

This was my first foray into Shannon Hale’s YA fare. I finished reading the forthcoming Princess Academy: Palace of Stone (which, unlike its hideouso cover, is excellent and also deserves a review) and was fueled to read more by her. Now that I’ve read Goose Girl I’m anxious to read more of the Books of Bayern (of which there are four in total). While I love the Princess Academy books (they’re similarly magical, in love with language, and, clearly, about princesses) from the first pages of Goose Girl it was clear that her writing for teens is far more sophisticated.

Not down with all the princess talk? That’s okay. I think titles like “Princess Academy” sound silly too. The books are grittier and more substantial than their jackets would suggest, and as far as fairy tale retellings go, Goose Girl is one of the good ‘uns.

There are so many others, but here’s a short list of some other good retellings I’ve read including the dark, gory, feminist bent, and funny, from chapter book to adult fiction:

  • A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz
  • The Birthday Ball by Lois Lowry
  • The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter
  • The Pull of the Ocean by Jean-Claude Mourlevat
  • The Vanishing of Katharina Linden by Helen Grant
  • A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce
  • The Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley
  • *Goose Girl illustration by Arthur Rackham


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