Monday, April 15, 2013

When is a Fairy Tale a Sci-Fi Time Travel Novel? When It's Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper!


I often wonder why some books rise above others and become paragons of their genres and part of the literary canon, while other equally engaging stories are read, loved, awarded, and then all but forgotten by the literati. Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper, originally published in 1991, sheds some light on the phenomenon: Beauty is an imaginative story that marries classic fairy tales, time travel, faerie myth, environmentalism, and feminism. Keith and his mother both love this book, and I read it at their behest. It's an engaging story, but it often loses its focus and is encumbered by ham-fisted political diatribes. It's a shame; I think a more tightly edited version of Beauty could have become a timeless piece of literature.

The title character is born in the 13th century to a French Duke and a beautiful fairy who abandons the family soon after Beauty's birth. The reader quickly surmises that Beauty is known to most of us in the 21st century as Sleeping Beauty. But our protagonist neatly sidesteps her somnolent fate and goes on a quest to find her mother. Meanwhile, the rest of her household are in the throes of a deep, enchanted sleep.

Beauty experiences events that inspired classic fairy tales, and the differences between the Disney stories and Beauty's experiences are often very funny. The grim events Beauty witnesses in the future are sobering, and Tepper's take on the Faerie world is chilling. Tepper's talent is obvious; a lesser writer couldn't make the reader feel so deeply.

But Tepper often interrupts her story to beat the reader about the head with a variety of themes: Ugliness is steadily replacing beauty in our world as species die out and natural settings are destroyed! True. Authors who write horror stories bring another kind of ugliness into the world (I'm not entirely sold on that point)! Rape is bad! Thank you, Captain Obvious. 

I wish Tepper had narrowed her focus to just one theme. As it stands, the story lacks cohesion. And once Tepper chose a single theme, I would have liked for Tepper to show, rather than scream, this theme. A bit of subtlety and restraint go a long way with such screamingly obvious topics!

Despite the lack of focus and clumsy political rants, I like this book. I fell deeply into the worlds Tepper builds, and I admire the dexterous means by which she connects these separate worlds into a smooth, convincing story. Unlike many Goodreads readers, I had no trouble keeping track of characters, times, or places. Each one has such unique characteristics, it's easy to remember who is who! When I finished the story, I felt like I was leaving friends behind. Read this book for the new version of old fairy tales, and please forgive it for its lack of subtlety.

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