Some people decide to read more books written by women and underrepresented writers. Others decide to try and read fewer YA novels featuring rail thin girls wearing big, foofy dresses on the cover... but, yeah. YA. Foofy dresses. It's a Thing. Less so in this novel, however, as the dress isn't quite what it's meant to be. Sarah Prineas describes it as kind of a Marxist thing, taking on fairytale ...slaves, a magic sweatshop, and evil Godmothers. Though Prineas is a familiar writer for middle grade, this is her first YA novel.
Summary: The Godmother is a powerful and terrifying being who is in charge of Story. She owns slaves, which she pulls from the Nothing and sets them to work - the Spinsters of Straw Into Gold, the Jacks of All Trades who can make anything, the Shoemakers and the Seamstresses. Together, under the lash of the Overseer and the iron hard fist of the Godmother... dreams come true. The Godmother's dreams, anyway. The Fortress where her makers live supplies her with endless magic to make Story come alive -- but to make the magic, she steals lives.
When Pin arrives from the Nothing, somehow she comes with a thimble clutched in her hand. It's... something from Before, and it reminds her daily that there is something more out there. Though others have been broken in the fortress, Pin hides her secret self. Like Shoe, the green-eyed, stubbornly resilient shoemaker who was lashed thirty times for making a single, tiny mistake, Pin doesn't cry when the switch falls. She grits her teeth and stubbornly decides to endure. She makes a plan. She prepares-- and then she escapes, taking Shoe with her.
But, life on the outside of the fortress isn't as easy as it might be. For on one side of the wall are the storymakers, but on the Outside, there's Story. And it's strong. And it's forcing Pin - now Penelope - into a prince-marrying-Godmother-loving Lady -- no one she'd ever be in truth. Though many loving hands reach out to help, Pin/Pen once again proves that one can best save oneself.
Peaks: I loved the idea of Story as first encountered in Pratchett novels, as a chemical element in its own periodic table which sluices through the Universe and effects things. Story here is absolutely sinister, more in line with Story in Mercedes Lackey's 500 Kingdoms novels, since it blithely ignores your will and creates your endings for you. Unlike those books, Story has no one fighting against it but one girl. This novel twists Cinderella and also contains elements of Sleeping Beauty. There are also references to Twelve Dancing Princesses, The Princess and the Pea, etc.
Some YA novels struggle to portray aging and various classes, but Prineas does well with this. It may surprise some readers to find that Story was trying to create a romance with a Princess who wanted to love another Princess - and this may help explain how insidious story really is. It is also such a strong force that even "good" people would often say, "But, I could be happy like this. Isn't this good enough?" Self-actualized characters, and characters who insist on being the heroes of their own tales are really rare, and you'll find them here.
Those who hate a Wicked Witch being blamed for everything in fairytales will be mollified to learn that the Godmother and the Witch kind of swap roles here.
Valleys: Though I found this an intriguing premise, personally, this novel and I didn't click. The Godmother's slavery was hopeless and grinding, and Pin simply... gets up and walks away from it. Not without consequence, but her inability to be turned away from determination, and the subtle assistance that she got from everyone around her didn't ring true for me. It seemed like the kind of magical thinking that makes people say that slavery wasn't so bad, because if it was, the slaves, who outnumbered masters and overseers in the American South, would have just gotten up and done something about it. The emotional toll wasn't really apparent in Pin. I tend to believe evil isn't disembodied so Story wasn't a villain I could believe in - I guess I'm programmed to dislike a mind behind evil, and the Godmother was pretty awful. I found the romances - all of them - unnecessary, and not really resonant.
The novel is divided into three, and the first section was my favorite, even with the many questions I had. I was okay with the not-knowing, but felt myself flailing a bit in the middle of the novel, as some of my confusion persisted and was exacerbated by new characters, a wealth of description and a whole different set of changing scenes. I found my feet a bit at the last, but not in enough time to feel fully immersed in the narrative.
Conclusion: This novel has an intriguing premise, but at the end I had big picture Questions which were never fully answered... I always wondered where the thimbles came from, and why Pin had one. I wondered where Godmother and Story - in all its people-powered strength - came from. I wondered that Pin came from the Nothing, but unlike others, she was so self-actualized, had this verve and attitude that she was looking people in the eye, poking into things, and being noticed. Why was she a Special Snowflake, immune to the ruinous depredations of slavery? Without revealing too much, I also wondered why she was contented to be Pen, and not know more about Pin - that drove me kind of crazy. I also wondered if anyone was looking for the many, many, many kidnapping victims from the Kingdom - were they only coming from one? It didn't need to be a CSI novel, but it did seem somewhat significant that people could appear/disappear without much ...concern.
A cover that piqued my interest - finally, a foofy dress getting snagged! - this was a reasonably entertaining novel which fairytale lovers might enjoy on a damp autumn afternoon.
I checked out my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find ASH AND BRAMBLE by Sarah Prineas at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!