The idea behind Once is pretty genius: six authors who enjoy writing historical fiction and fantasy band together to self-publish a collection of fairy tale retellings in various historical (and imaginary) settings. And if you like fairy tale retellings, or are already a fan of any of these authors, you're most likely going to enjoy this collection.
I've already read something by several of these authors, whether it's been a story in one of the Rooglewood Press collections, Five Glass Slippers and Five Enchanted Roses or something they've self-published elsewhere. And as a whole, Once reminded me a lot of those collections -- fun and imaginative and not trying to be Serious Literature, but just here to entertain.
I was especially interested in reading "The Mountain of the Wolf" because I've really liked the other westerns I've read by Elisabeth Grace Foley, especially her western Cinderella, "Corral Nocturne." In this retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood tale, a handsome stranger meets a lonely woman living on the edge of the wilderness. Little by little, he learns the reason for her seclusion: she wants to find and kill the man who murdered her brother. By the time I finished reading "The Mountain of the Wolf," I was sure it would be my favorite story in the collection.
And then I read "She But Sleepeth" by Rachel Heffington, and was like, "Oh, nope, THIS is going to be my favorite." You'd think I'd be a little tired of the Sleeping Beauty story after writing my own retelling, "The Man on the Buckskin Horse" and then reading and re-reading the other four stories from Five Magic Spindles too, but "She But Sleepeth" was a very, very different take from any of those. In it, a movie set designer and her handsome intern traveled to Romania to research a castle for an upcoming movie. There, they unexpectedly time-travel back a hundred years and learn that the intern is actually a princess, lost to her parents through the machinations of an angry Gypsy. I really like fish-out-of-water stories, and the two people from today trying to navigate life a hundred years in the past tickled my fancy.
But then I read "Rumpled" by J. Grace Pennington, a steampunk retelling of the Rumplestiltskin story. It so happens that Rumplestiltskin has always fascinated me in a repellent sort of way -- when I was a kid, it was one I read over and over. This is the most straight-forward retelling, in that there's still a poor girl, a king who wants what she supposedly can create, and an ugly little man who helps her in exchange for the promise of her firstborn child. The addition of all kinds of technology to the story gave it a fresh vibe, but it was the characters that made me decide this was my favorite story -- I found both girl and king very realistic and sweet.
However, when I read "Sweet Remembrance," Emily Ann Putzke's retelling of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Match Girl," and I knew it was actually my favorite. Set in a Jewish ghetto during WWII, the story of two young people who found and then gradually lost each other, their world, and then their whole lives made me cry more than once. It was achingly beautiful, and the fact that people like these really did live through horrors like that made it even more poignant. I love learning about WWII, both from non-fiction and from fiction -- that time period fascinates me endlessly, and this story was obviously well researched, which I appreciated.
I had to put this book down for a day after finishing "Sweet Remembrance" so I could process my feelings about it. But then I read "Death Be Not Proud" by Suzannah Rowntree, a lively retelling of Snow White set in New Zealand during the Roaring Twenties, and I had to change my mind AGAIN because it was obviously my favorite. You know I love F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and I've become increasingly interested in the 1920s of late, so the setting definitely drew me in. But it was the murder mystery at the heart of the story that made me love it, and the way the Snow White elements were not staggeringly obvious, but instead were woven subtly throughout.
You're probably expecting this, but when I reached the end of the collection and read Hayden Wand's "With Blossoms Gold," I knew I had finally found my true favorite story of the six. This is a Rapunzel retelling with some amazing twists. For one, the girl hasn't been imprisoned in a tower, she's staying there for her own safety. And for another, it tackles head-on what it's like to live with panic attacks. I have friends who suffer from panic attacks, anxiety, and depression in one form or another, and I absolutely loved the way Hayden Wand compassionately described how debilitating these can be, what a real problem they are, how they are not just imaginary things people could "get over" if they tried hard enough. Also, both of the main characters had wonderful character arcs and truly grew as people over the course of the story, facing fears, sacrificing things for each other, and ultimately learning to understand both each other and themselves so beautifully.
I don't know if there are plans to release this collection in paperback format at some point, but I hope that does happen, because I want Once on my real bookshelf, not just my Kindle carousel.
Just so you know, I did receive an ARC of this book in exchange for me promising to review it honestly.
If This Was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG-13 for violence, some suspenseful moments, mildly scary scenes, and a couple instances of mild bad language. There's also some kissing, alcohol use, and discussion of people being married in name only. Fine for teens, but I'm not going to let my 9-year-old read it until he's older.