I first encountered Stephanie Dray’s work in "The Year of Ravens: A Novel of Boudica's Rebellion", where I much enjoyed her contribution to the anthology. I subscribed to her newsletter, which includes information about her novels and those by other historical fiction authors (my favourite genre!), frequent chances to win books – and, along with the latest one, a gift from the author: a free novella, titled “The Gingerbread Princess”. If that’s not generous, I don’t know what is! Since the story was free, I thought the least I could do was to write a few words.
The story, told by Elise, a kitchen girl and king’s bastard who desires to be acknowledged by her father, is a sort of prequel to one of the classic fairy tales (you can guess which one from the title). Although it does resemble historical fantasy, it is told in a traditional folk tale fashion: we have princes, knights, castles; even the trial/test/challenge of three. The writing is evocative – the description of various dishes created by Elise’s mother, a cook with a magical ability to guess exactly what a person desires to eat, had my mouth watering (until it disgusted me, which sounds awful but is actually brilliant, but I can’t tell you why for that would be a huge spoiler).
What begins as an innocent enough fairly tale turns out to be dark and no less grim than those collected by the Grimms. After a somewhat slow start, the story quickly spirals from one horrific event to another, and even worse. I love stories where the characters face impossible choices, and this... this is all about such choices and their consequences. In a short, fairly simple tale, Dray reveals so much about human nature; cruelty, corruption, how terrible deeds – even when your intentions are good to begin with – can poison everything. Yet, underneath it all, there is heart-breaking sacrifice.
The only problem I had with the story was that it is so short... but this is my problem with most short stories. I’m used to longer stories and it’s hard (I’d say impossible, but who knows?) to achieve the kind of deep emotional involvement that I crave from a story when you only have a few dozen pages to tell it. Still, the premise here is fairly simple, and a novella is probably the right form for such a story. And even though I felt I did not know the characters well enough to truly suffer with them (that is such a weird thing to wish for!) I will have to say that, unlike some short stories, "The Gingerbread Princess" did not leave me thinking, "So that was it?"