blackbirdonline journalFall 2017  Vol. 16 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Review | Girls Made of Snow and Glass, by Melissa Bashardoust
Flatiron Books, 2017

spacer Girls Made of Snow and Glass (Flatiron Books, 2017)

Princess Lynet, the heroine of Melissa Bashardoust’s debut novel, Girls Made of Snow and Glass, has skin made of snow—her stepmother, Mina, a heart of glass. Neither is entirely human; they were made to be more creature than girl, magical automatons who cannot feel cold or know love. Shaped by their fathers and creators, they are now searching for the shape their own lives will take. What follows is a gripping, dark, and ultimately heart-affirming retelling of the rivalry between Snow White and her wicked queen, but this time that wickedness is a wild longing—in both women―to be loved and seen for who they really are.

Girls Made of Snow and Glass joins a long line of fairy tale pastiches, following the grooves of old folklore and the inner depths of classic characters. We have a perennial fascination with fairy tales and long to see them turned inside out to fit a new age. These reimaginings are everywhere: from Angela Carter’s classics to the somewhat unwieldy TV universe of ABC’s Once Upon a Time, fulfilling our need to throw all the witches and princes together just to see what happens. We don’t easily tire of the iconography that comes with bitten apples and glass coffins.

But what we often lose in casting and recasting these stories are the elements that drew us to them in the first place: the timeless longings and fears that pop up again and again and don’t wish to be buried under slick, modern trappings. And here, Girls Made of Snow and Glass doesn’t disappoint; it’s not afraid to take the characters to dark places, but the book still retains a fresh, winsome innocence throughout, skirting the pitfalls of overly gritty or overly saccharine reboots. It’s a story, primarily, about hearts and their uses, and it refuses to leave the primal motivations of the original Snow White tale behind: the ideas of beauty and envy that set princess and stepmother on a collision course.

The important threads of the Snow White tale are all here, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of specific, surprising touches in Bashardoust’s novel that ground us in a new world. No dwarven miners. Not much housework. No prince, but a handsome female surgeon who sparks Lynet’s sexual awakening. And there is a magic mirror of sorts—a boy animated by glass who exists to give stepmother Mina company after she’s thrust into the lonely position of queen in a foreign, snowy land.

Both queen and princess are artificial, golem-esque creations, which puts them at a remove from humanity, uncertain of their own natures. Bashardoust makes great use of these elements of body horror, extending them as metaphors for trauma and emotional damage. “Your heart was shaped to survive, not to love,” Mina’s father tells her, but it’s his hands that did the shaping, teaching her that she can hope for nothing that her beauty can’t win. He sees her as a tool he can use to gain the king’s loyalty, and Mina—believing him—sets her sights on the throne, desperately hoping that becoming queen will force people to adore and need her, even if she won’t be able to love them in return.

The story unfolds with two asynchronous narratives. Mina’s chapters show her rise to power as she is transplanted from her sunny home to the king’s court in the north, a place that seems to reject her at every turn. Lynet is a freer spirit, coddled from a young age, but no less trapped in the rigid traditions of her father’s kingdom. The two women both inhabit a frozen, stifled world where they are expected to be beautiful, delicate and demure, shaped perfectly to fit their roles as royal figureheads. Over time, we see that both are struggling to fill the void left by the late queen, whose death turned her into a kind of saint in their kingdom; but no matter what, they can’t seem to mold themselves into what others think they should be.

“There are worse things in the world to be than delicate,” Mina tells Lynet as she’s brushing her stepdaughter’s hair. “If you’re delicate, it means no one has tried to break you.” Mina cannot remember a time when she wasn’t willing herself not to fall apart. “She had always felt herself covered in invisible fractures, a map of scars.” Her reflection in the mirror is always off-kilter, and she cannot tap into anything essential about herself; it’s all a haze of barely understood longings.

Lynet, too, dreads the day when she will grow up and step into her role as queen. The dread of living (and perhaps dying) in her mother’s shadow consumes her, especially in gripping scenes such as this one, in which she journeys down to her mother’s crypt:

Lynet could imagine [her mother], too: a corpse laid out, eyes closed, hands crossed—but the corpse had her own face. . . . Lynet knew that if she opened that casket now, she would see something like herself—her own body, her own face—after nearly sixteen years of decay. Perhaps life was the only thing that set Lynet apart from her mother, the boundary between them as indistinct as a single breath.

In Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic, Anne Williams, a professor of English at the University of Georgia, describes the plight of heroines locked into castles or coffins as the promise—and perhaps the threat—of “rebirth.” In Gothic literature, the heroine is often “rescued at the climax from the life-threatening danger of being locked up, walled in, or otherwise made to disappear from the world.” Bashardoust heightens this unease in her characters, striking a perfect balance between their desire to be known with being cocooned somewhere safe, invisible and alone—a kind of conditional freedom that allows them the choice of never having to face their fears.

Bashardoust continuously taps directly into these sublime elements of fairy tales, bringing uneasy opposites together in a way that makes them sing. One of the book’s most compelling aspects is the immense power that both main characters have brimming beneath the surface: Lynet’s strange birth of snow means she cannot be killed, and Mina has inherited her father’s skills with magic, enabling her to transform glass into whatever she wants, although each mutation cuts a little more deeply into her artificial heart. Bashardoust turns our attention to the way the girls bind and harness their power to navigate a world turned against them. Their power so often seems cut off from them, its location as nebulous as their identities. Does power lie in a crown? Magic? A lover?

Bashardoust does a lovely twist here by upending our conceptions of power and freedom. Most often, the girls turn a corner by resting in who they really are, insisting on quiet moments when they can gather themselves together and make a decision, or think their way out of the seemingly impossible choice they’ve been forced into. Mina longs for the admiration of strangers but finds freedom in flitting along the edges of a crowd, enjoying “being invisible,” with no burden of forcing anyone to notice her. Lynet flees from the cold weight of her ancestors’ crypts by climbing up the walls of her castle, but she eventually turns to face her dread, tired of being “frightened prey.” The dilemmas facing them are often false choices, sculpted by their fathers. Only one can be queen. No one can truly love you. You will be just like your mother. Bashardoust allows her heroines to take their biggest leaps in quiet moments, with deep breaths and heartbeats, grounding them in a sense of self that comes from trusting themselves and the people who most care about them. They find themselves in those moments, like Lynet when she escapes to the woods, alone:

She was blood and snow, and so she would be like the snow, like the pine needles, like the winter wind: sharp and cold and biting. Snow didn’t break or shatter, and neither would she. All she had to do was be true to her nature.

Cold as snow, sharp as glass.

But that loneliness is not the end goal; we are not made to be walled up in coffins forever. The isolation may provide respite and clarity, but it’s an incomplete picture, as warped as a broken mirror. Sometimes it takes seeing ourselves through someone else’s eyes to see rightly.

Girls Made of Snow and Glass claims that power comes from stories, those we tell ourselves and those we tell each other. They can ensnare and inspire us, lifting us out of the well-worn grooves of a tragic tale. If nothing else, Mina and Lynet have control over their own hearts, and it’s here that the battleground becomes fully alive, as dangerous as ever but growing more and more navigable the more people they let into their lives. In Bashardoust’s vision, these girls face their false, impossible choices and insist on a third way: an escape that not only allows the girls to reconstruct themselves but to rebuild their relationships, a world where love and forgiveness don’t feel cheap or easy, but vital and rejuvenating. It’s a refreshing, uplifting take that will make your heart soar. The author is already at work on a follow-up based on Sleeping Beauty, another queen in slumber ready to wake up in a world where she knows her heart—and all its magic and dangers. These are fairy tales the way they’re supposed to be—full of horror and doubt, with the actualization of the heroines always shining at the center, sharp as glass.   

Melissa Bashardoust is the author of Girls Made of Snow and Glass (Flatiron Books, 2017), which is her debut novel. She holds a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley.

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