Grimm or Tangled? Once Upon A Time or Snow White? Since fairytales aren’t what they used to be, readers may not be sure what they’re getting when they pick up a book touted as a fairytale fantasy.
Starflower, book four of the Tales of Goldstone Wood series by Anne Elisabeth Stengl is somewhat of a mix of the two extremes. While the covers of each of the books in the series might lead a reader to think along the lines of the happy-ever-after stories, there’s a great deal of the dark side of fairytales in the pages behind those placid pictures.
The Story Eanrin, a faery who can take the shape of a cat, is the poet of Rudiobus Mountain. He, like the others in this faery kingdom, is light-hearted, self-assured, perhaps a little bored. His world turns around when he sees the Golden Hound–something that would not have happened if he hadn’t stopped to help a mortal girl caught in a curse because she went too close to the river.
The girl turns out to be cursed in more ways than one because she cannot speak. Against his better judgment, Eanrin saves her more than once and determines he must see her safely out of the faery realm.
The problem is, he’s on a mission. The professed love of his life has been taken captive by a dragon woman. In order to win his love’s hand, he must rescue her before Glomar, the captain of the guard, does. The race is on! But the cursed mortal makes Eanrin’s life … confusing.
Starflower is cursed, but not in the way Eanrin thinks. After he saves her from certain death, yet again, she determines she will help him rescue his professed love. To do so, she makes a bargain with the dragon that unleashes more than the captive faery.
Strengths. There are many things to love in this story. The writing is beautiful; the characters memorable, unique, creative, realistic; the plot, unpredictable; the theme, woven subtly into the fabric of the story.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the story is the portrayal of the title character. The mortal girl Starflower is a heroine to love. She is not weak and helpless, suffering as a victim, awaiting someone to rescue her. Nor is she a macho woman, out to conquer or to shed blood trying.
Rather, she is a character who withstands. She chooses to do what is right when it goes against her culture, to love when she is shamed for it, to sacrifice rather than give in. She is truly noble.
I also loved the way the theme is subtly woven into the story. There is no long exposition detailing how and why and who at the appearance of the Golden Hound. He simply is who he is.
Another wonderful strength of this book is the creativity of the world. From the river to the enchanted and vacant city of Etalpalli to the lands of the Crescent Tribes, the world is rich, detailed, unexpected, sometimes magical in the best sense of the word and sometimes in the worst.
An interesting aspect of the story is the humor–the light-hearted behavior of the faeries who don’t take too much in life seriously, who have little worry and less fear. Eanrin in particular reminds me most of Shakespeare’s fairy Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He’s not such a great prankster, but he has the same “faery-ness.”
Weakness. I am a huge fan of Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s, as you can probably tell by what I’ve already said. Nevertheless, I’d prefer a story that had a stronger start. Because the book is entitled Starflower, I’d prefer to see the title character front and center. I realize that withholding her backstory is designed to create intrigue, but since her past is such a huge part of the story and comes out as a fairly lengthy flashback, I think I’d have connected sooner and cared more deeply if the story had started with Starflower and her plight. As it was, I thought the story unfolded too slowly.
That’s my only complaint, but it’s a big one because I can see readers mistakenly setting the book down and not coming back to it, thinking the pace isn’t going to pick up.
I’d like to shout loudly, keep going!
Recommendation. Fairytale fantasy is an interesting genre. Not everyone will enjoy the Alice in Wonderland feel that seeps into Starflower at times. That’s too bad because they’ll miss out on some of the most inventive fiction in the Christian speculative genre.
I personally think “young adult” isn’t quite the right market group. I’d say this one will best be enjoyed by the twenties and thirties crowd. Anyone who is a fan of the fairytale genre, especially the new iteration made popular by the TV shows mentioned earlier, must read Starflower and the entire Tales of Goldstone Wood series.