When I was a little girl, I drank fairy tales like breakfast orange juice. I wanted many sips every day. The obsession with them did not stop when I got older and I even took courses about fairy tales in college. When I was contemplating starting a Ph.D. program I asked my husband, “Do you think there is a doctorate in fairy tales?” True to fairy tale form, he answered, “You can create anything you want.” So, when I was asked to write a review on the debut novel Bearskin
by Jamie Robyn Wood, I was excited. I knew the old Grimm fairy tale of judgment and honor and I could not wait to hear a retelling. However, to my surprise I found this was not a retelling. Instead it was a what I would call an intertwining. Wood has pulled threads and archetypes from the genre and woven them together in a new story.
The book opens with an evil witch trying to persuade her son Heppson to kill his older stepbrother Conrad. She has married the King of Alaistair (whom she has stripped of his power) and the King’s heir is in the way of her taking power on the throne. The evil witch also has a daughter, Moiria, who is watching the entire interaction from behind a curtain. Her critical choice was a surprise. Heppson makes a decision that thrusts the entire plot of the book forward. He challenges the Queen’s power and he eventually becomes our Bearskin wearer. We also meet characters in the forest, sisters Lark and Heart, who become an integral part of the novel. Magic invades their normal life and throws everything in upheaval.
Wood’s writing was refreshing. It was lyrical and poetic without being heavy. Her descriptions were clean and vivid and the settings were inviting. It is not easy to describe a person becoming a bear or shedding that same skin. Wood does it beautifully. She did not overuse words or become cliché, which I have seen in many Young Adult novels. All her characters are multi-dimensional. That is a feat! I loved all the dark and good magic that weaves throughout the novel. The dialogue is believable and keeps the plot moving forward.
I gave the novel to my ten-year old son and twelve-year old daughter who usually love books like this. They both read it for about fifteen minutes and independently said that they were confused. They would not pick it up again. Wood has a lot of plot to disseminate at the beginning of the book and it can be a bit tedious for younger readers where there is not a lot of dialogue and more setting up of the plot. My recommendation is that this book is for more experienced readers because it takes patience to understand the change in points of view and follow all of the characters. Once this is done, the writing really pulls you in. That’s where Wood gets her groove on and the plot flows seamlessly. My other criticism is that although Moiria’s character is never dull, she changes from good to evil so quickly that it confused me. From what we are given of her at the beginning, the actions she takes seem completely out of character. This thought made me disbelieve her deeds throughout the entire novel…but I am kind of a difficult like that.
Like every good fairy tale, the themes of the book are magic, honor, love, and choice. Even the smallest decisions that the characters make have far reaching consequences. They realize that the power is within themselves to be self-seeking with their choices or to help others and live in a more noble way, no matter the cost to themselves.
I would recommend this novel to anyone seeking a few hours of living in a magical world with interesting characters. If you like castles, evil witches, magical forests, shape-shifters, nice grandmothers, romance, strong female characters, and changing settings, then this is a book you should definitely pick up, tuck your feet in, and cozy up with by the fire for a while.