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the woodcutter by kate danley

One of these days, I am going to choose a book for The Casual-Ass Internet Book Club about which I actually have something significant to say. Today’s not that day.

That being said, The Woodcutter was pretty alright. Spoilers herein.

I keep trying to come up with good, interesting sentences about my experience with The Woodcutter but nothing’s really coming. Reading it was enjoyable enough, but it’s not a book I’ll read again or probably tell anyone to read and I feel like… the longer it’s been since I read it and the more time I’ve had to process it, the more rage might build up in me about it?

It seems like Danley set out to do the whole, “Here are fairytales, but not like you expect!” kind of thing, but in retrospect it all felt terribly flat and familiar. Instead of taking fairytale tropes and doing things to them in order to subvert the canon or playing with the familiar characters in new ways, it mostly felt like she took all of these fairytales and made them happen at the same time and then threw in a central antagonist that set it all in motion. It didn’t feel innovative or new or even interesting and that’s coming from someone who hasn’t spent any amount of time examining or even reading fairytales.

It stuck to stock women in peril — always fair, always beautiful, always young — and tossed in prostitution and fairy dust as a drug trade in an attempt to… I guess… modernize? The story. The Woodcutter himself was likable enough, but no characters developed or learned or even said anything of interest to anyone. The villains are villains — and for no reason other than power that is never fully fleshed — and the heroes are always heroes — without conflict, without fear, without motivation for their heroics. It is the Woodcutter’s job to protect the treaty between the fairy and human realms and so he does. He doesn’t show fear until the very end and it seems tacked on and unbelievable. This dude who has been fearless and stoic for, like, 75 chapters despite wandering the woods alone and watching innocents die, is suddenly completely overwhelmed by a hellhound? To the point of tears? A hellhound who just scares people to death? No. Boring. And no.

There’s no play with gender or sexuality. Everyone is straight and white and seemingly driven to action only because the author has decided that those actions are to take place. The Queen wants to control the Twelve Kingdoms as a single kingdom because… she wants power? Okay? She runs a trade in fairy dust for… ? I don’t even want to think about it anymore. Boring.

The thing is, there are the bones of something great here: Twelve kingdoms bound to safety and calm by true love between the fairy-blooded and the human, protected by a single person born to do it, and threatened by the greed of an individual. Titania, Oberon, Odin, Cinderella, Snow White, Baba Yaga, Rumpelstiltskin, Jack and the Giants, and a dozen more classic characters all on the same plane of existence, all interacting. That is an unbelievable amount of potential!

But Danley squanders it. She squanders it by giving everyone the dead white girls and women they expect. She squanders it by having only straight couples head the Twelve Kingdoms. She squanders it with clunky, monotone writing. She squanders it with a boring, stoic hero. She squanders it with a drug trade that feels as old and expected as Little Red Riding Hood and her Big Bad Wolf. She squanders it by literally cutting down Odin’s rogue hellhound to a puppy. She squanders it by reaching too far and failing to give any element the time or treatment it deserves. She squanders it by failing to do anything new, to subvert the canon, to even try at something innovative.

Danley’s not the first to make this trip and if you’re looking for something similar that tries harder and does more, try Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber instead.