The Raven and the Reindeer is the first thing I’ve read by Ursula Vernon since Digger—though Vernon has written this short novel, based on the Snow Queen folktale, under her T. Kingfisher pseudonym. Funny, touching, dark and uplifting by turns, it may be one of the best fairy tale retellings I’ve ever read: and not just because it seems every third character is a terrifyingly competent woman old enough to be a grandmother.
Gerta grows up with the boy next door, Kay. She thinks she’s in love with him; she thinks she will marry him one day. When one night Kay disappears—taken up in the Snow Queen’s sled, an event that only Gerta witnesses—Gerta sets out on a quest to rescue him. Along the way, she encounters at least one witch, and a raven called “The Sound of Mouse Bones Crunching Under The Hooves Of God” who becomes her friend and companion, and is captured by a small group of bandits led by a young woman, Janna—who is delightfully sensible, wonderfully ruthless, and surprisingly kind. But with Janna’s help and companionship, Gerta is eventually able to travel the reindeer road to the furthest north, where the Snow Queen dwells—and where she finds a Kay who doesn’t want to be rescued.
Apart from the raven and the reindeer, who are very much animals, rather than humans wearing animal suits, the most delightful things about this novel are its pragmatic, lightly sardonic voice, and how it turns your expectations around on you when you’re not looking. Kay turns out to be rather less worthy of Gerta’s heroism and loyalty than Gerta might have hoped. But in the unexpected person of a bandit girl, Gerta finds something she didn’t anticipate:
This was not like kissing Kay behind the stove. This was not even remotely close to it. Janna’s hand slid up the back of her neck and drew her face up. Her mouth was hot, not cold. Her fingers were warm and strong.
Kay hadn’t touched her at all.
Somewhat dazed, Gerta thought, Am I supposed to be doing something with my lips—?
The thought was not even half completed. Janna’s tongue flicked over her lips, coaxed them open. There were no more thoughts. She had never felt anything like that. She was aware that she was shaking. Her chest felt as if it were melting—was she holding her breath? Who could breathe?
Throughout the rest of the book, the relationship that unfolds between Gerta and Janna is touching, and sweet, and sensible—even if the whole project of “rescue Kay from the clutches of the Snow Queen” is not sensible in the best possible epic fairy tale way.
The Raven and the Reindeer is compassionate, and honest, and clear-eyed. It’s a novel about how you can’t keep other people safe against their will, and the costs of trying to save people from fates they chose themselves. It’s also a novel about growing up, growing out, and learning how and when to trust oneself and others.
It’s an amazing kind novel. Quietly and unapologetically generous of spirit: it made me cry, reading it, because it was just so right, and generous, and gloriously, practically, kind.
Even if kindness alone cannot save you.