Book Review: “The Raven and the Reindeer” by T. Kingfisher

Blurb & Info

(via Goodreads)

When Gerta’s friend Kay is stolen away by the mysterious Snow Queen, it’s up to Gerta to find him. Her journey will take her through a dangerous land of snow and witchcraft, accompanied only by a bandit and a talking raven. Can she win her friend’s release, or will following her heart take her to unexpected places?

A strange, sly retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Snow Queen,” by T. Kingfisher, author of “Bryony and Roses” and “The Seventh Bride.”

Publication Date: February 7, 2016

Publisher: Red Wombat Tea Co.

Pages: 226

T. Kingfisher is the pen-name of Hugo award-winning author and illustrator Ursula Vernon.

Review

Okay, where the heck do I start with this book?

I guess I should say that I’ve read Ursula Vernon’s graphic novel, Digger, as an adolescent and absolutely loved it, so I walked into this little novel with very high expectations — and was not disappointed.

The Raven and the Reindeer is told through a singular third person POV that follows Gerta, our main character. She starts off as a typical small town girl who is in love with Kay, and we get to see her grow up and become more wise and worldly over the course of the story. The narrator (who is not Gerta) begins the story as extremely opinionated and a very present force in the plot, almost a character in their own right:

Gerta would have said that Kay was her best and truest friend, that they could tell each other anything and they would take on the world together.

Kay would have said that Gerta was the neighbor girl. “She’s all right, I guess.”

In fact, he did say this, on a number of occasions.

There are not many stories about this sort of thing. There ought to be more. Perhaps if there were, the Gertas of the world would learn to recognize it.

I enjoyed the gentle cynicism of the narrator. Retelling fairytales is, in my opinion, difficult, because the writer is up against everyone’s expectations for how the story is going to be. As readers, we already can guess a good bit of what happens because the original version of the fairytale already exists. (If you’re unfamiliar with Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” you can read and/or listen to an English version here). The beginning of the story is where Kingfisher stays the closest to a simplified version of Andersen’s tale, and the narration enlivens everything. As Gerta begins her adventure, however, the narrator stops interjecting their thoughts and opinions into the prose, and things really take off.

I loved the way magic was presented in this story. It played a very prominent role, but it never overwhelmed the plot and I never felt confused as to how anything worked. Magic is part of the landscape and is older than the recent intervention of Christianity — but Kingfisher’s version of Scandinavia isn’t portrayed as a battleground between indigenous culture and a southern religion. Instead, the two are blended together with surprising harmony:

She… spoke words, then, words that Gerta didn’t recognize, the same words three times over, and then recited the Lord’s Prayer…

“Are you a witch?” asked Janna.

“No,” said the old woman, “I’m a Lutheran. But we’ll make do.”

The characters in this little book were a joy to read. I loved Mousebones, the raven, who is properly named something much more grand. He’s sassy and snarky and is arguably Gerta’s greatest friend, because he promises to only eat her eyeballs after she has died and will (probably) no longer need them. Janna is also wonderful, since she’s so different from Gerta. She’s tough and can be scary with a knife, but is also full of compassion. The otters and their dialogue were also a delight — they talked exactly the way I imagined a pack of over-excited, clever mustelids would talk, and it was just so amusing!

In the acknowledgements, Kingfisher says she took the time to get in contact with a Finnish-Sámi cultural historian to be sure that the Sámi character in The Raven and the Reindeer was represented well, which I appreciated. It’s a small thing, but I’m glad she did it.

What I loved most, however, was how this book was a little bit bloody, very quirky, but also full to the brim with heart. It’s a wonderful coming-of-age story that I wish I could have read when I was Gerta’s age, and it does so much more than retell Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairytale. My only complaint is that the final battle was just a little anti-climactic and underwhelming, but that is honestly the only negative thing I can find to say.

⭐⭐⭐⭐/5


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