In “The Fairest Beauty,” a gorgeous retelling of the Snow White tale, Melanie Dickerson proves again her consistent knack for transposing classic stories to different historical periods, with a faith-inspired twist.
Like the Snow White of the original tale, Sophie wants to get away from her jealous and abusive stepmother, the Duchess Ermengard—not to mention the advances of Lorencz, a brash and forward young man in the Duchess’ employ—while finding her own place, life, and love. Escape seems the only way out until the unlikely arrival of a young man named Gabe, posing as a minstrel, opens up a path to a different destiny: one that shockingly begins with long-withheld information regarding Sophie’s past and true identity.
Readers will enjoy the dark forests and glittering castles, the threat of the dank dungeon and the promise of a high-born marriage. Sophie’s past—whispered by the unlikeliest of allies—is related with reverence for the bravery and goodness of her father, whose humble nature and purity of heart are reflected in his daughter. Mostly, readers will revel in the sweet, innocent love story of Gabe and Sophie: a perfect fairytale couple, yet rife with realism, who are rewarded with love and happiness due to their steadfast faith in God and each other.
Though set centuries ago and told with pitch-perfect verisimilitude, this story showcases Dickerson’s ability to lend a retold fairytale a contemporary flair: not so much in setting and situation, as in the common human experiences young readers will find easy to relate to. Sophie, like Dickerson’s previous heroines in “The Merchant’s Daughter” and “The Healer’s Apprentice” is a strong and intelligent heroine capable of thinking and acting for herself, yet gracious enough to admit when she needs the guidance of God and of her stalwart companions. Many of the insecurities plaguing Sophie—about her attractiveness to boys, her habits, and her appearance—will be easily identifiable to teenage readers living in a culture obsessed with looks. Gabe’s complicated relationship with his family and his rivalry with his brother will also prove relatable.
Later on, when Gabe finds himself falling for Sophie despite her being chosen for marriage to his brother Valten, Gabe is forced to confront the nature and consequences of his hasty actions. “Instead of giving her a chance to choose,” his conscience reprimands him, “you tried to confuse her with kisses and premature declarations of love.” The responsibility incurred in physical action, as well as Gabe’s recognition that his attraction to Sophie is not something to be toyed with, is admirable.
As with all fairytales, moral lessons are inherent, in hopes of inspiring self-reflection and building character. The story champions honesty, bravery, and selflessness along with the value of self-confidence and the destructive nature of jealousy. Small groups and book clubs might find interesting fodder for discussion in Dickerson’s handling of faith in a fantastical setting. While the Christian themes are subtly woven in a manner that will appeal to non-Christian and Christian readers alike, the faith elements are strongest in Sophie and Gabe’s continual dependence on God.
Further, parents, teachers, and discussion groups would do well to talk about the idea of women as commodities in a culture where marriage was used to further advancement. Without even knowing he exists, Sophie is betrothed to Valten in hopes of binding together two regal family names. In the same way, Duchess Ermengard uses Lorencz’s fascination with Sophie’s physical beauty to lure him into a devious plan. While Gabe certainly acknowledges Sophie’s beauty, he is painted as the real hero of the tale for valuing far more than her physicality.
“The Fairest Beauty” is an appealing tale, delightfully reverent to its source material, and filled with danger and mystery and suspense. Again, Dickerson places the novel deftly in the context of modern teenage problems, identifying, with a keen eye, the facets of fairytale still so recognizable and relevant today. At the core, yes, is the classic battle of good and evil, but the author embroiders this theme with a flourish, putting her characters in imagined but familiar situations as they cross barriers and learn about themselves and each other, on their way to a happily-ever-after.
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