I stumbled across Mercedes Lackey’s The Fairy Godmother after drafting my own story about a fairy godmother (I’ve been on a side-character to main character kick lately, I’ve also got a story about a bartender in a band). Curious to see how someone else had handled putting the fairy godmother as the main character rather than the deus ex machina, I picked it up (also to make sure I wasn’t trying to write a story that had already been written). The reviews on Amazon were enticing too, especially since I can’t stay away from revisionist fairytales. I’m not sure why, but I’ve come to find that Amazon reviews can be even less useful than the summary on the cover of the book.
The novel follows the trials and tribulations of Elena, a girl who was supposed to be a Cinderella archetype but the story goes awry in the hands of the Tradition, the deus ex machina of the story. So Elena becomes a fairy godmother instead. The ideas for a great story were waiting to be woven into a new kind of fairytale. And every good fairytale needs a good knight in shining armor, this time played by the arrogant Alexander of Kohlstania.
There’s an old adage that goes ‘show, don’t tell.’ One of the 1 star reviewers pointed this out and I think that best sums up the whole failure of this novel. The narrative constantly tells us what happens in a Reader’s Digest/Cliff Notes style and doesn’t display anything for the reader to figure out on her own. There is no ‘aha!’ moment anywhere in the story. Lackey explains how the magical world works, then has it working in favor of whatever Elena needs to do in a less than clever way.
Elena’s growth into the role of fairy godmother loses it’s edge and depth because it is told rather than shown. The reader is told that she learns from the books in the library all she needs to know from fairy godmothers past. It was hard to invest in such a two-dimensional character, she just cries about being unable to have sex and that is the extent of her emotional range. Her relationships with the other characters aren’t developed, she doesn’t think much on the death of her father, the abuse of her stepmother and stepsisters, or Madame Bella; she’s just passive-aggressive in a scene where she’s not just taking up space in the room. Alexander has a bit more depth because he has to “redeem” himself for being an ass and has some feelings for his younger brother who people think is queer because he’s not callous like his older brothers (spoiler alert: he’s just a flake who’s soft-hearted).
While there were interesting twists on the fairytale world they’re living in, it was more like the story was trying to turn every tale on its head for the sake of, rather than having a set point. Also, in a post-Shrek (Shrek 2 and Shrek the Third) world, many of these twists become trite in their efforts. Especially when too many get mentioned. Instead of streamlining the story and focusing on Elena and Alexander, the narrative gets too caught up in discussing elements of the world they’re in and goes to lengthy explanations for side plots while failing to genuinely develop Elena or Alexander. If there was anything remotely mysterious, you could count on someone popping in with a paragraph long explanation before the characters could even think about it.
The action scenes requisite for the fairytale genre were also deeply watered down. Instead of combat, we get Elena slipping past the enemy with no trips or slips whatsoever. The grand fight scene with the big bad Sorcerer is not shown until the final strike, so there was no pay off there either. Once again, telling not showing ruined what could have been an impressive scene.
The epilogue was absolutely pointless as well. It covered characters briefly mentioned (who were also awful rip-offs of Ever After characters) and it made it seem like everything wraps up nicely even though the narrative spent the whole time saying ‘but it doesn’t always end neatly,’ the entire novel is a contradiction of happy endings for every tale involved.
Overall the story had the potential for a wonderful revisionist tale, but instead became a huge ‘Reader’s Digest of the Five Kingdoms and Beyond.’ I was disappointed while reading it, even though I found it to be helpful in pushing my own story forward (not in a plagiarizing way, the plots are quite different much to my relief). It serves as a good reminder that while background information is nice, it shouldn’t be the backbone of the story. That’s the plot’s job and while it was clever and interesting from the few glimpses I got from it, it really needed to be developed fully rather than taking a backseat to explanations and anecdotes. However, since many of the bad reviews cite that this isn’t up to Lackey’s standard (her mentor was Marion Zimmer Bradley), and I’ve heard good things about her other books, I’m willing to give her other books a shot before blacklisting her from my reading list.