Title: The Raven and the Reindeer
Author: T. Kingfisher
Genre: Fantasy, Retelling, Fairytale
Rating: ★★★★★ || 5.0 stars
In the wake of a truly awful year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of queer fiction I want to see. I’ve actually been avoiding a lot of them, in part because some of them are written by straight people and I have No Interest, in part because some of it’s Issue Fiction and I have No Interest, and in part because, while so much fiction is escapist, I can never feel particularly safe, as a bi girl, even in fiction. We’re killed off for shock value, for “realism,” for shits and gigs. We’re killed off in real life and then we’re killed off in fiction and it seems like nothing, nothing, is telling us anything but that they don’t think we deserve to live and be happy. People dance around bisexuality like it’s a bad word and sometimes it seems easier to just disappear. To not exist, because no one wants you to exist anyway.
What does this have to do with T. Kingfisher’s new novel? Nothing, maybe. Everything, maybe. It’s a retelling of The Snow Queen with a bi protagonist and it’s everything that might encourage me to read more queer lit. Spoiler: the bi girl doesn’t die. Nor does her lesbian girlfriend.
Now that we have that out of the way. The Snow Queen is actually one of my favourite fairytales. Barring Frozen, I love stories about ice queens, and intrepid girls, and useless boys who do nothing but await rescue (sorry not sorry, Kay). But I also love T. Kingfisher’s stories, because they take these familiar beats and turn them into something subversive, something interesting, something new.
Here, Kay is not the good boy with sparkling eyes and rosy cheeks whose turn towards cruelty is motivated by the shards of the troll mirror. He’s the neighbour boy who is kind and indifferent to Gerta by turns, who doesn’t care about anything but his puzzles, and who takes his friend––such as his friendship is––for granted, and goes willingly with the Snow Queen. His soft, casual cruelty is inborn, not the kind that comes as a result of a curse. He’s just an asshole.
It can be kind of hard to see why Gerta would set out on so dangerous adventure for so uninspiring a boy, but I think I understand. It’s not really about Kay. It is and it isn’t. Her friendship with, and her love for Kay is so draining and toxic that it’s destroyed Gerta’s self-esteem. Her journey is as much about her rescuing herself from his toxic influence as it is rescuing him from the Snow Queen’s toxic influence. One key thing that emphasises this is that the Snow Queen’s power itself is derived from derision towards other people and the ability to make them think they are worthless; this is canonically the message Gerta receives from Kay and the message she must overcome in her every encounter with the Snow Queen.
Yet for all Kay is her purpose in setting out on her journey, the greater part of the novel is spent with women who help and protect her. And especially Janna. God, Janna, who lives with her cannibal grandparents (it was one time), her bandit father, and who loves Gerta and affirms Gerta and supports Gerta and kisses Gerta and oh god it’s so cute I could cry. I probably did cry; I’m not sure, it was a long day.
There are the magical animals, as a matter of course, between the adorable but unwilling otters who pull the Snow Queen’s sleigh and Mousebones, the raven with the most raven-like full name you can think of.
Kingfisher’s writing is always so delightful and unexpected, like William Goldman meets Peter S. Beagle meets Terry Prachett, whose writing style I don’t actually like, but I like it on her, and I want a thousand million more stories like this. Lighthearted, humorous fairytales that don’t shy away from danger and high stakes but where you can be assured that all will turn out well in the end. Queer characters in fantasy novels who are safe and loved and brave and have adventures and are in danger but who are never, never, in danger because they aren’t straight. Queer fairytales, you guys. Heavy research into indigenous cultures (Kingfisher incorporates elements of Sami culture, which she seems to have done her homework on; she credits Finnish-Sami historian Niina Siivikko for looking over the aspects of her work that reference Sami culture). Adventures and magic and finding your worth, a girl who is so unmagical she is almost anti-magical, which is better than being magical. Girls who love each other and help each other grow! Bi girls who outgrow their feelings for a boy but never have those feelings dismissed or rendered invalid by their attraction to other girls! I just. You guys, this story is so much.
And I want so much more of it, too, because this is what I want from representation. I want to feel like I am part of the cultural narrative. I want to feel like my life, my growth, my personhood are valued for more than just plot devices or shock value, that I don’t have to die for the world to move forward, that the world can move forward with me in it. This book was such a heavy load off my shoulders after all the shit that’s happened this year, and T. Kingfisher has been and probably will be among my favourite fantasy writers for a long, long time.