Fantasy lit review: LETTERS TO ZELL, fairytale princesses as wine-bar book club friends trying to fix their lives; includes f/f HEA

Letters to Zell by Camille Griep is a powerful, beautiful book using the veneer of Western European fairy-tale princesses living in a magical realm just a portal away from ours to tell a familiar, timeless story about four female friends struggling to redefine themselves, and their friendship, in the face of lives that don’t match up to “happily ever after” expectations. This is partially due to the fact that structure of the magic world is such that there are rules that, when broken, lead to a ripping in the fabric of reality.

I think that’s a great metaphor for “other people’s expectations” (and our own) carrying unnecessary weight, but it also leads to some good SFF plot and conflict. For example, one of the princesses has already suffered a romantic loss before the story even opens. The author also explores the realistic implications of the canonical elements of dysfunctional family in several of the fairy tales–stepmotherly betrayals, absent fathers, etc. This is far more nuanced, fleshed-out, and fun to read than many of those clickbait posts making fun of what if Disney princesses were real. The leading ladies in this book were compelling, three-dimensional, and sympathetic.

Let me reassure you that this is an official Shira Glassman endorsement, which means that yes, this book does include a happy f/f resolution. My sapphic sisters, you may safely proceed. Moving along: it’s also a bittersweet and powerful story because some situations aren’t salvageable, and it does go down some dark roads although by the end I embraced the entire package. I also loved how no matter how angry the friends got with each other, they still remained friends and loved each other–they could discuss I’m angry with you without breaking up the friendship. That is valuable.

The focus of the book is on platonic love, mostly between the princess leads, but there are also satisfying dips into m/f and f/f romance. I’ve seen many people looking for fantasy books where m/m and f/f relationships aren’t treated as remarkable, and this is one of those books – there is never any kind of negative reaction to the f/f subplot, or indeed literally any kind of comment about it being unusual, and some of Snow White’s dwarves are in relationships with each other (which I’m sure will make @tofeklund very happy.)

I loved the clever bits of worldbuilding, like how the portal to the “real world” is near enough to Disneyland (Cali, not FL–we’re “world”) that nobody would question people popping out of thin air in princess garb. I loved the complexities the author drew out of familiar, relatively simple stories. I loved the fact that one of the points she was making was that we aren’t getting less imaginative like a lot of technophobes seem to think–we’re getting more imaginative, with more and more variations on the old stories, and adding new ones. The princesses step out of their world into ours astonished at all the things Disneyland got “wrong” because we’ve done so many new things with the old legends! (I mean, I was definitely struck by the pointed way all four princess protagonists’ lives adhere to the storybook originals, rather than the Disney version.)

TW for a suicide metaphor that winds up being a lot less painful than real suicide because of some worldbuilding-specific magical elements that smoothed it over to a point where I, as a reader, felt soothed. I do feel like the grieving portions of the book rang true to my experiences with loss. (Also, I hope the author was being tongue in cheek when she said the cellist was the one who suggested Pachelbel’s Canon for a wedding–most cellists would rather fall out of a tree than willingly offer to play it! The cello part is the same eight notes over and over again. I’m a violinist, so I’m fine with it :P)

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About Shira

Queer Jewish feminist author
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