ONCE UPON A WINTER'S NIGHT
by Dennis L. McKiernan
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In Once Upon a Winter's Night, Dennis McKiernan has taken a classic fairy tale, although one which may not be as well known as others, and expanded it into a full-length fantasy novel. In doing so, McKiernan successfully retains the old world feel of the original tale while adding many new elements. The basic story tells of Camille, a young farmer's daughter, who has captured the attention of a prince of fairy, Alain, with her beautiful singing voice. Although Camille loves her family, she is convinced to go off with the prince's ursine emissary by her greedy mother who sees a chance to raise the family's fortunes by possibly sacrificing one of her many daughter to an unknown prince. As luck would have it, following a not entirely peaceful journey into the lands of fairy, Camille meets her prince and falls in love with him. The only concern she has is the mask he always wears. Despite that, Camille creates a happy life as the lady of the manor and she and Alain begin to get to know each other as individuals, despite his injunction that she may never see his face. Naturally, curiosity, and her mother's wheedling, mean that Camille eventually pulls Alain's mask away, and both he and the fairy kingdom Camille is living in vanish. Camille finds herself alone in this strange world in which nothing is exactly as it seems and she goes on a quest to find Alain in the legendary land East of the Moon and West of the Sun. Much of the remainder of the story is an episodic quest as Camille is passed from one denizen of fairy to another in her search for people who know the way to find Alain in the limited amount of time she has. While the individual encounters are frequently interesting, McKiernan does little to tie them all together into a coherent narrative and each can stand on its own as a vignette. Despite the nature of the piece, McKiernan's Camille does not come across as two dimensional, in spite of her occasional laments asking how she is supposed to succeed. She is depicted as a competent woman who has a goal and understands how to go about achieving that goal no matter what stumbling blocks fate puts in her way. McKiernan, however, does put a stumbling block in the path of the reader, not all of whom will be willing to wrestle through it. Camille, and most of the other characters, speak in a dialect which is intentionally archaic in both structure and vocabulary. It isn't difficult to understand, but it can be somewhat annoying, even as it helps create the setting of the fairy tale. Once Upon a Winter's Night would fit in quite well with the long-running fairy tale series edited by Terri Windling. McKiernan manages to capture the sense and moral of traditional fairy tales while also creating a work of fantasy which feels fresh and innovative. Even as the reader can guess how some of the tropes will be used, McKiernan manages to surprise the reader in his way of revealing information to Camille.
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