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Fair Peril by Nancy Springer
Avon Books. 246 pages.
Reviewed by Lucy A. Snyder
Okay, I admit it. Despite (or perhaps even because of) the glowing review blurbs
that decorate the frontispage of this book like so many medals on a general's chest,
I was skeptical that this book would be half as good as everybody seemed to be
saying. I mean, come on, a light fantasy book centered on the Frog Prince myth?
We've seen this trope played out again and again in books, cartoons, comics, TV
shows, movies, plays, heck, even greeting cards. Hasn't this myth been beaten half to death?
Well, no. Nancy Springer proves that there is plenty of rich material left
and she takes us right into the enchanted forest to show us. This
deftly-written novel (usually) takes a light tone, but is by no means
lightweight. In this twist on the old tale, we meet Buffy, a disenchanted
forty-something divorcee who finds a talking frog in the forest. She takes
him home unkissed, whereupon her rebellious teenage daughter Emily delivers
the smooch and flees with the buff Prince Adamus to a fairyland (aka Fair Peril)
that lies hidden beneath the plastic veneer of Mall Tifarious. I won't say
much more about the plot, because I dislike spoilers, but the arrival of the
young lovers at Fair Peril (a realm where you'd better be damn careful what
you wish for) is just where things start to get really interesting.
This book goes a lot deeper than most light fantasy you'll find on the
shelves these days; it's a good, fast read, but it will leave you thinking.
Springer explores the physical and symbolic ramifications of being turned
into a frog ("To be a frog was to be loved by no one. To be a frog
was to be cold. Always afraid."), turning someone else into frog
("Apparently turning a guy into a frog is kind of a hands-on way
of calling him a prick."), and of being a storyteller (" ...
only in story is there life.") She really comes up with some
interesting "what-ifs" here: what if the Wicked Stepmother
and the Fairy Godmother are the same person? How does the search for
a kiss change when the ensorcelled frog is gay? What if the
happily-ever-after marriage is really a soul-destroying bondage
worse than being enfrogged?
This book is clearly being marketed to women: on top of a demure, arty
cover (which amused me since this book really does contain a bimbo,
discussion of male genitalia, and several scenes where an ensorcelled
frog rides around in the heroine's cleavage), we're treated to several
review blurbs which herald this is as a feminist fantasy. Well, I suppose
so, but I'd prefer to think of this as a humanist fantasy. After
all, this book is about men just as much as it is women. My favorite
character is, in fact, LeeVon, a gay children's librarian, storyteller,
and Buffy's assistant in the quest to rescue Emily and Prince Adamus
from their magic bondage in Fair Peril. LeeVon wears black leather,
sports facial piercings and tattoos of Peter Rabbit and Mr. MacGregor,
and has the power to turn blank notebooks into magical tomes for library
patrons. Prince Adamus is likewise a highly sympathetic character. It
would be a shame if the packaging and marketing of this book discouraged
men from picking it up.
The only thing I can find to criticize about this book is that
the section where Buffy is put in a mental institution (after a
misadventure with the police at the Mall) rang false with me. I
don't think Springer has any real knowledge of mental health
facilities, and it shows. Furthermore, Buffy breaks herself out
of the nuthouse; after that the police certainly would be looking
for her, but aside from dodging the cops at the Mall a few more
times, this thread is never picked up again and is left untied
at the end of the book.
Aside from that, though, this is an excellent little book. It
kind of reminds me of a big slice of strawberry pie: sweet,
tart, delicious, and surprise, it's good for you, too. Definitely
a dessert book, but a dessert for what? If you're like me, you
like horror, and (if you have the time) you're a binge reader. I've
done silly things like stay up all night and part of the next day
reading Clive Barker's The Hellbound Heart followed by every
last bit of Weaveworld (I mean, hey, how I supposed to sleep
after THH?) On another occasion, I read all the The Sandman
graphic novels from start to finish, and felt, well, a little skewed
afterward. Fair Peril would have been an excellent finish to
either of those binges, something twisty and intelligent enough to
keep my saturated mind focused but light enough to let it decompress properly.
But don't wait for a binge. Life is perilous; read your dessert first.