Book review: Blanca & Roja, by Anna-Marie McLemore

McLemore, Anna-Marie. Blanca & Roja. Feiwel & Friends. 2018. $17.99. 384p. HC. 9781250162717

I seek out fairy tale retellings the way a truffle hog hunts for fungi – zealously, but not indiscriminately. My favorites tend to be the lesser-told tales – Vasilisa and Baba Yaga have become quite popular in recent years, as has the Six Swans – so I was particularly excited for a retelling of Snow-White and Rose-Red (a lesser-known German tale, a version of which was collected by the Brothers Grimm). And while McLemore’s version adds her own flourishes to several different tales (think Snow-White and Rose-Red meets Swan Lake or the Six Swans, with a dash of the Ugly Duckling), it does so fairly seamlessly.

Fans of fairy tales, whether familiar with the origins of Blanca & Roja, will recognize the tropes immediately: Siblings (Blanca and Roja del Cisne), as different as could be yet full of love for one another, are pitted against each other by an ancestral curse. Two boys (Barclay Holt and Page Ashby), both different than they first appear, wander into the woods and are transformed. And when their storylines cross, all four are changed irrevocably.

While no one is certain of the curse’s origins, del Cisne legend states that a great-great-great (etc.) grandmother wanted a daughter so badly, she was willing to sacrifice anything to the swans who promised her heart’s desire. And so in each generation, two daughters are born – one to keep, and one to give to the swans. Blanca and Roja have fought the curse for their entire lives, making themselves as alike as possible in an attempt to trick the swans who would one day claim them. But Roja’s fifteenth birthday has passed, and soon after come the swans.

At the same time the del Cisne’s attempt to defy their fate, Barclay/Yearling and Page are fighting their own battles. Defined by his wealthy but corrupt family, Barclay wants nothing more than to escape – from the Holts, the town, even his own body. Though Page comes from a loving home, her family still struggles to understand how she can be both a boy and she. So when Barclay disappears into the woods, Page follows.

While Blanca & Roja possesses McLemore’s characteristic style – complete with gorgeous prose and complex, diverse characters – I spent a lot of time flipping back to the beginning of chapters, to make sure I still knew which character I was reading. I don’t necessarily blame McLemore for this issue; it’s hard to create and sustain four entirely distinct voices, especially when their stories are all so tightly interwoven. Still, I often found myself wishing the tale were told from two perspectives rather than four.

That being said, fans of McLemore’s previous books (my favorite of which is When the Moon Was Ours) will fall for the del Cisne sisters, Yearling, and Page – all of whom learn they’re more than the stories people tell about them. Fairy tale aficionados who enjoyed Malinda Lo’s Ash and Brie Spangler’s Beast will also find much to love in McLemore’s retelling.

Kaitlin Frick

New York Public Library

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