Bearskin, by Jamie Robyn Wood, is a book I almost put down. Now, that may sound like a bad start to a review, but hear me out.
It is a book I almost put down, but I’m glad I didn’t.
If you’re like me, you will have a hard time getting into this book. It has some awkward editing, especially at the beginning, where effect comes after cause and long exposition interrupts the description of important action sequences. This also makes it hard to feel anything for the characters, as the beginning relies a lot on telling instead of showing, making the characters’ motives and reactions a little unbelievable.
These hiccups, especially at the beginning, made it hard for me to understand what was going on. If I were the editor*, I would have switched the order of a few sentences, asked the author to add a bit of emotion to justify the characters’ actions and reactions, and cut back on the lyrical prose, just a little bit. It would have made the book much more readable, and I wouldn’t have started out hating the book with so much vehemence. (I did hate the book, at the beginning, but more because of the editor than the author. This is the author’s first novel, and for that, she did a very good job. But parts of it needed a firmer or steadier hand by the editor. For example, in one scene a minor character’s gender changed three times. None of the other characters’ genders were fluid, and no mention of the gender change was mentioned by the other characters. So it’s safe to say that the gender change was editing error instead of story error. I’m still not sure if that character was supposed to be male, female, or something in between)
The author is very lyrical in her presentation of the book, to the point at times to the book’s detriment. For example, instead of breathing a character might let the air in and out (This is not an exact quote, but a mild retelling of a situation–since this is my first review, I didn’t think to do anything like mark the book up or add post-it notes. I’ll be sure to do that in the future). And the lyricism sometimes relied heavily on telling instead of showing, leading to me feeling a disconnect between the gravity of the situation and how calmly the characters were telling each other what was going on (yes, some of the internal emotional action was told through straight dialogue). However, later on (I’m imagining a change of editorial hands somewhere in here) the lyrical tone and poetic rhythm of the book adds to the story instead of detracts. The emotions of the characters are allowed to come through, and the dialogue gets less clunky and expository.
“But what about the story, Ellie? Did you like it? Was it good, despite the flaws? Move past the technical aspects of the book! Come on, I’m getting bored!”
The story is a retelling of an old fairy tale “Bearskin,” one of the many collected by the Brothers Grimm. I remember, long ago, reading this fairy tale, though I cannot remember many of the details. In fact, that’s what drew me to this book–a retelling of a fairy tale that wasn’t Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, or another of the well-known favorites? I had to read it!
The lyrical tone of the book is similar to a lot of fairy tales, giving the book an almost wistful and oral feeling to it. In the story, you have three siblings: Conrad, Heppson, and Moiria, who all live under the thumb of Heppson and Moiria’s mother–the wicked witch who has cast her spell over the King and his kingdom to become queen. The witch wants to rule beyond the end of the King’s life, so she orders her son Heppson to kill the one man who stands in her way–Conrad, the King’s first son from his first wife, who is simply called the Queen. However, Heppson loves his half-brother, and although he feels his mother’s spell pulling tight around him he chooses another way: escape to the desert to die, taking his mother’s spell with him. This leaves Moiria to kill the witch, but doing so casts her into darkness, taking the place of her mother before her as an evil witch. With her dying breath, the witch casts a spell on Conrad, making him lose his memory and casting him out of the kingdom forever.
There are two other siblings, unrelated to the other three, who live in the distant forest: sisters Lark and Heart. Through a series of events, they meet the wandering Conrad and Lark gets turned into a bird. It’s up to Heart, with the help of a guardian Bear she meets, to break Lark’s curse and defeat the witch.
Like many of the old fairy tales, some things seem a bit too happenstance for my taste. For example, if the spell on Heppson was so strong, why was he able to simply walk away? And why did it have to be to the desert? This is one place where there was too much telling instead of showing, where the characters’ struggle with emotions simply wasn’t there. And why was Moiria’s descent into darkness so easy and so complete? Again, telling instead of showing is the culprit here. We’re told that Moiria had to do unimaginable things in order to keep control of the kingdom, but it’s done in such a detached and undescriptive way that I was beginning to wonder if Moiria was simply a character that couldn’t feel emotion.
And then there were the parts where the simplicity of a fairy tale was the book’s strength, allowing the themes of love, forgiveness, and finding oneself to shine through. Perhaps I was looking too much for a book where everything is explained instead of a fairy tale where it’s the simple parts that make everything worthwhile.
I enjoyed the emotional journeys of all the characters–except Moiria’s. Her’s was too unbelievable–and after those first forty pages the lyrical prose flowed a lot better. I especially enjoyed Hart and Heppson’s journeys and growth (spoiler alert: Heppson doesn’t die in the desert). As a first-time author, Ms. Wood did a fine job creating a book that, after its rocky beginning, held me fast to the very end.
*A note on the editing. This book is published by Cedar Fort, Inc. I have a sort of love-hate relationship with their books. I’ve read a few books by this small publishing house, and they all seem to have editing problems in one way or another. It’s hard for me to tell how much is the author’s fault and how much is the editors’. I’ve also known an author whose first book was published through them, and she told me that she had four different editors all working on her book at the same time, all editing it in different ways, and all thinking they knew best when it came to her story. While she’s grateful they published her book, she also wants to get the rights back so that she can publish it again with fewer changes. Since that time, there has been an upheaval of editors being hired and fired at that publishing company. To me, any one of those scenarios could have influenced the quality of the book. So in my mind, Ms. Wood has created a great first novel (which would have been even better with either more or less editorial meddling, depending on her personal circumstance).