Catching her leg in a bear trap proves the least of Sula’s worries. Haunted by an enchanted monster from a past she dare not reveal, and hounded by the perilously perceptive young village doctor, Villem Deere, the headstrong girl of the woods gambles with fate by binding hers to that of Sigmund, the captivating orphan boy with mysterious nightly business of his own.
An enchantress’s curse turns a spoiled royal into a beast; a princess’s pricked finger places her under a hundred-year spell; bales of straw are spun as golden as the singing harp whisked down a giant beanstalk – all within sight of Wilderhark, the forest that’s seen it all. You’ve heard the stories – of young men scaling rope-like braids to assist the tower-bound damsel; of gorgeous gowns appearing just in time for a midnight ball; of frog princes, and swan princes, and princes saved from drowning by maidens of the sea. Tales of magic. Tales of adventure. Most of all, tales of true love. Once upon a time, you knew them as fairytales. Know them now as Wilderhark’s.
Here’s a thing you have to know about me to understand my adoration for Danielle E. Shipley’s Wilderhark Tales series: I grew up to walls and walls of fairy tale books. My mother had the most peculiar and most famous fairy tales alike all in one massive bookshelf, and as a child, it was like a towering wall of wonders and magic to little old me. Now, here’s the thing about Shipley as a writer that you need to know: her stories are re-imaginings of fairy tales a la Brothers Grimm, but what makes them stand out from so many other writers that chose to retell tales as old as time is that Shipley manages to draw you into her world from the very first sentence and won’t let go of you until the very last.
The Swan Prince tells the story of two rather peculiar teenage characters, Sula and Sigmund, two orphans looking for an escape from the magic that binds them. Villem Deere, a young doctor, is positively convinced there’s foul play at work when both of them disappear from the village orphanage, and begins to investigate the fantastical chasms that open up along the way for a rather enchanting and off-the-charts reveal (that I didn’t see coming, even though I knew it was coming, if that even makes sense, ha!)
While the words I’d use to describe Shipley’s writing would be in the likes of wonderful, magical, bewitching and luminescent, her characters – while meeting all those definitions, too – shine. Sula, for one, is an incredible dauntless, fierce, lonely and dainty character all at the same time, and I’m using these in nothing but a positive connotation. What I love about Sula was that she was likeable and unlikable, an arbitrary young girl, a human being. She wasn’t this absolute or that, she was simply real, which made her incredible. While Sigmund started out as the mysteriously charming male opposite, Villem stole the show for me because I had no idea what to expect from him. I didn’t know what kind of fairy tale role he’d eventually take on because he was just so peculiar, and while his point of view was super entertaining to read because I imagined him as this über-curious, weird doctor, I didn’t even notice the moment I fell hopelessly in love with him and began to consider him a friend. Shipley paints real human beings as her characters and writes them in such a way that in spite of their flaws, you begin to immerse yourself in them so much so that you literally whoop! when that off-the-charts reveal takes place by the end. She has an uncanny way to know what you want as a reader, when you don’t even know it yourself. Her characters and world-building make you forget that you know of all the fairy tales, and has you genuinely surprised at all the turns and twists in the story. When I first read The Swan Prince, and I have done so many, many times now, I entirely forgot I knew the stories behind her inspiration. The ending managed to surprise me, even, and it was the most peculiar thing to happen to me in a long time.
Basically, each book of the Wilderhark Tales is an individual pillar in my sanctuary from real-life. Shipley’s words soothe and encourage and paint such a vivid magic that has you escape into her story without much ado other than her terrific writing. Now, I’m not much of a religious person, I’m a very disillusioned-by-the-horrors-of-the-world type of girl, but whenever I pick up The Swan Prince, that part of me disappears and doesn’t come out until I’ve devoured the words cover to cover.
I don’t believe in fate. Not at all. I met Ms. Shipley and her books by way of chance. And every time I pick up a copy for a reread, I can’t help but think that maybe a teeny tiny bit of fate played along anyway, because as a writer, Shipley’s books have saved me countless of times from really bad days with their phantasmal quests and unique action heroes and heroines. They’re little gems in a whole sea of present fairy tale galore, and their magic cannot and shouldn’t be ignored by anyone. They’re escapes from a rather dull and magic-less life, and a book that sucks you in and gives you all the peace in the world for the time you’re reading it is a very powerful book in my opinion. (Danielle, if you’re reading this, please make all your books the length of The Surrogate Sea from now on so that I can bask in them a little bit longer.)