It doesn’t happen to me very often, but ever so rarely I come across a book that’s so purely brilliant that it almost stuns me, a story that’s so gorgeous and rich that I feel paralyzed: not just unable to verbalize how much I love it but actually almost reluctant to, because trying to encapsulate it in a review feels like sullying it, like tacking on extraneous words that it really doesn’t need.
In the case of Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente, which is—in case it wasn’t clear yet—one of the most gorgeous works of speculative fiction I’ve read in years, that odd reluctance is even stronger, because it’s such a short, tight piece of writing. No word is wasted. I am frequently impressed by an author’s facility with words, but in the case of Valente, I feel almost intimidated. Here is a novella that carries within itself more depth and richness than lesser authors manage to bring to a series.
Am I rambling? Let’s start over with the book’s description on the Subterranean Press website:
From New York Times bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente comes a brilliant reinvention of one the best known fairy tales of all time. In the novella Six-Gun Snow White, Valente transports the title’s heroine to a masterfully evoked Old West where Coyote is just as likely to be found as the seven dwarves.
A plain-spoken, appealing narrator relates the history of her parents—a Nevada silver baron who forced the Crow people to give up one of their most beautiful daughters, Gun That Sings, in marriage to him. With her mother’s death in childbirth, so begins a heroine’s tale equal parts heartbreak and strength. This girl has been born into a world with no place for a half-native, half-white child. After being hidden for years, a very wicked stepmother finally gifts her with the name Snow White, referring to the pale skin she will never have. Filled with fascinating glimpses through the fabled looking glass and a close-up look at hard living in the gritty gun-slinging West, readers will be enchanted by this story at once familiar and entirely new.
Based on this blurb and what I’ve read from Catherynne M. Valente in the past, I expected this book to be great, but I wasn’t quite prepared for exactly how great it would end up being. The retelling or recasting of a fairy tale is, after all, not exactly a new concept: it’s been done in multiple formats. There are novels. There are movies. There are (I’m told) multiple TV series. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling filled a series of marvelous anthologies with stories and poetry inspired by fairy tales. People like Gregory Maguire have more or less made a career out of the concept. So, Snow White in the Wild West? Okay, cool.
There are many reasons why Catherynne M. Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White may be, if you’ll pardon the expression, the fairest of them all. For me, the main one is the way it adds layers upon layers of meaning to the ancient tale. It’s a highly personal, emotional story about a strong but broken character, sure, but it’s also—and equally importantly—about race, about gender, about colonialism, about abuse. About magic. Write pages full of thoughts about just one of these angles, and you’re still only looking at one facet. This is a story with so many levels that it’s damn near dizzying.
But starting with the character: Snow White is the daughter of Mr. H, a rich mining baron in the Wild West, and Gun That Sings, the Native American girl he forced into marriage on pains of opening up her tribe’s lands to exploitation. When Mr. H remarries, the biracial girl is cruelly named Snow White by her stepmother and, as much as the girl tries to please her, she is horribly abused and worked to near-death.
The first half of the story is told directly by Snow White, in a narrative voice that’s perfectly balanced between directness and pure emotion. She’s a wise and shrewd observer, but she is isolated and has no frame of reference for what a normal childhood could be like. She has a limited but highly expressive vocabulary, leading to numerous observations that are so, so heartbreaking. My quotes file for this review became so long I ended up not being able to choose and decided not to include any of them. Some of the sentences hurt. I was moved to tears more than once.
Then, when you think “But is she going to do something? Where’s the, what’s that buzz word again, where’s the agency?”…well, then everything takes a turn. Snow White “stops telling a story about other folk and starts being in a story other folk tell.” After all, “no one can tell a true story about themselves.” (Okay, maybe just one or two quotes then.) She takes charge, breaks free, and tramples across the conventions of the original fairy tale in grand, iconoclastic style. Don’t expect this gun-slinger riding a horse called Charming to roll over for the hunter or settle for doing the seven dwarfs’ chores. And oh, the names and descriptions of this novella’s parallel to the dwarfs… they’re worth the price of admission all by themselves.
I could go on and on about this book. Pick an idea, pick an image. Where to start? The titles of the many short chapters that make up Six-Gun Snow White riff on the titles of animistic stories: “Snow White Is Instructed By Heron and Lizard,” “Snow White Steals the Sun’s Tobacco.” They draw a direct line from the European fairy tale to non-European modes of storytelling. The clash between those traditions plays out in the Wild West, a killing ground that’s practically been mythologized by now but, here, described with a realism that’s nothing short of shocking for, well, a fairy tale. Except, well, those original tales weren’t all that innocent in the first place, right? The number of strands that Valente synthesizes in this little book are dazzling.
If you’ve read anything by Catherynne M. Valente before, you know what she’s capable of. Six-Gun Snow White is one of her finest works to date. It’s as near to perfect as anything I’ve read in years. Don’t miss it.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on February 21st, 2013.
You can find an excerpt of Six-Gun Snow White here.