A PEA EVER AFTER (ONCE UPON A WINTER) by Adie Hart (BOOK REVIEW)
Nils and I received copies of Once upon a Winter from MacFarlane Lantern Publishing, a collection of folk and fairy tales with a winter theme. Fellow reviewer Asha, writing as Adie Hart, has a story in the anthology that we couldn’t wait to read – A Pea Ever After.
I do intend to read the rest of the anthology and review it as a whole, but this is just a mini review of A Pea Ever After, as Nils and I read it together. Well ish. Nils read it in one sitting!
Nils: I did, didn’t I?! Sorry about that, Once I started though it was pretty hard to put down. Like you, I intend to read the other stories too but having never read any of Hart’s stories before I was eager to begin with hers.
Beth: Ha, you were so eager to jump straight in!
So, A Pea Ever After is a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Princess and the Pea, wherein a queen searches for a suitable bride for her son by testing the sensitivity of a woman (because princesses are so sensitive they could feel a single pea through multiple layers of mattresses).
Nils: Are you telling me you can’t Beth?! I of course can, I’m just so delicate and sensitive.
Beth: I am a brute who will fall asleep anywhere. It’s a different kind of ‘p’ that gives me problems in the night.
Nils: Honestly, same too!!
Beth: I’ve always found it a particularly strange fairy tale, and never really paid it much heed, and so what I loved so much about Hart’s retelling was that she’d seemed to pluck all the issues I had with the original to explore in her retelling.
Nils: I have to admit I’m not particularly familiar with this fairy tale. I know the basic premise of it, but I don’t think I’ve ever read the original story by Anderson. I’m much more familiar with the Brothers Grimms’ collection.
Beth: I don’t think I’ve ever read the original version, but I’ve had various fairy tale collections for children over the years and this was included in one.
Nils: Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve read it in a collection of fairy tales either. However I knew that Hart would put a feminist twist on this tale, which I was eager to see. Having finished the story it’s not just a feminist twist Hart includes, she also shows that the Prince has as little say and very few choices as the Princesses do.
Beth: Exactly! Those were basically my issues with the original. I mean, with fairy tales in general really!
In A Pea Ever After, three princesses are invited to a castle by a fairy godmother looking for the perfect bride for her godson after his mother has taken ill. The fourth princess has yet to turn up, so when our protagonist, a District Witch, seeks shelter at the castle from a snow storm, she’s mistaken as the fourth princess. Now trapped at the castle by the storm, the fairy godmother runs a series of tests for the “princesses”, blind to the fact that none of them are interested in the prince, the prince isn’t interested in them, and none of the people involved believe this a normal or healthy way to find a marital partner.
Nils: What did you think of the opening Beth, when we meet District Witch, Elsie?
Beth: It’s up there as one of my favourite openings! I absolutely loved the opening line:
“I’ve seen a lot of strange things in my time as a District Witch…”
I mean, not even the whole line. Just that first half. Immediately I was like ooooh what’s a District Witch?? and what strange things?? I need to remember to ask Hart if she has more stories about Elsie and what her role usually entails.
Nils: That would be so great to read more stories about Elsie, from what was hinted it sounds like she’s been on some interesting adventures.
I was immediately pulled into the story by the fact that the door is opened by a peacock! As Elsie felt a touch taken aback, so did I. Then we get to the famous bed with its layers of mattresses and inviting plump pillows and I expected this to be the main focus of the story but as Elsie doesn’t feel the pea, the narrative moves on quite quickly.
Beth: Ha, I loved that. Immediately I was like OH, I know what’s going on here, and I fully expected her to have a rough night where she couldn’t sleep. So I’m quite glad Hart didn’t go down that more obvious route (sorry spoilers), as I loved how we were treated to the fairy godmother’s disappointment in the morning.
Nils: Haha, that was quite funny. As for when Elsie meets the other princesses, Intisar, Harriett and Arrianora, shortened to Nora, that’s when the story really picks up. I was glad to see these characters were not at odds with each other, there was no competition or rivalry between them, instead we see their cooperation and growing bond to escape the fate the fairy has set upon them.
Beth: That’s actually an excellent point Nils. Again, the typical set up here would be for rivalry and alienating the protagonist, so it was so refreshing when that didn’t happen. Instead, they turned to each other and helped each other, befriended each other and found ways to work through their problems together. It was such a positive message, but aside from that, it was just fun to read. It was nice to read something with that much warmth, that didn’t work at eliciting concern or worry from me.
Nils: Oh yes Beth I completely agree, the way they all worked together made the story so much fun, and often whimsical. Remember the dragon?
Beth: See now that was another great point in which Hart inverts things. I mean yes, the dragon was super cute and omg I’d love to have my own little dragon. But also, princesses are always surrounded by cute fluffy little bunnies and chirpy little blue birds, but no, this one has a dragon.
Nils: And what princess would say no to a pet dragon!
Prince Percival also subverts the trope of being an unlikeable tyrant trying to force a princess to marry him. As I’ve mentioned before he quite aptly states that he has very little choices in life, as much as the princesses are trapped in the castle, so is he and so we feel some sympathy for him.
Beth: I can’t think of a version I’ve ever read where he’s a tyrant, in all the ones I’ve read he’s just… absent. Like the princess is expected to marry someone we can’t see, who doesn’t even seem to have a voice. Just some nameless shadowy figure in the background, a Husband Prop. So like you say, I love that we do get to hear from him now, that his feelings are very much given a sense of validation.
Nils: Ah I see what you mean, he’s more of a token character, rather than an agent in the story. He even mentions to Elsie that the fairy Prudence hadn’t even asked if he was attracted to men or women, and this is a sentiment I feel Anderson would have appreciated the inclusion of.
I really liked this line from the Prince:
“My happily ever after doesn’t look like being forced into marriage with whichever random princess passes your tests, no offence, girls. That might be the traditional path, but I’d rather find my own way.”
Beth: Such a fantastic quote to include Nils! This story was only fifteen pages long, and on the face of it a light, fluffy and fun retelling of an overlooked classic. But Hart really packed in such a lot, she put an individualistic stamp on the story, addressing the questionable conventions in a way that, whilst thought-provoking, still made for an enjoyable story rather than a moralistic lesson. It’s a perfect story for curling up with a hot chocolate on a cold day (something the characters themselves do). I’m looking forward to returning to the rest of the collection, ideal for getting you in the festive mood!
Nils: Absolutely agree here Beth!
Once Upon a Winter is available today from Macfarlane Lantern Publishing and also features stories by Josie Jaffrey, Bharat Krishnan, Katherine Shaw, A. J. Van Belle, and many more.
Find out more about the collection and order your copy HERE