SERIES REVIEW: Tales from the Kingdoms by Sarah Pinborough

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At less than 200 pages each, I thought it would be a lot easier to combine all three of these books into one review – there’s not really enough to say about them individually!
‘Poison’ – 2 stars

“I want to take his power. Men take it so much for granted. You need to learn that the only way to wield it in the kingdoms is by making a great match.” 

I really enjoyed the first half of ‘Poison’.
The beginning is quite repetitive: Snow White’s father goes off to war, and her stepmother repeatedly states that she’s going to make people fear her, she’s going to rule them with fear, everyone will fear her, blah, blah, blah… But once you get through that, the pace picks up. Everyone knows the story of Snow White so the approaching events are obvious, but the way that Sarah Pinborough gets to them is unique, bringing in other fairytale characters including Aladdin and the witch from Hansel and Gretel.
‘Poison’ is a very feminist retelling. Lilith, the evil queen, uses the male gaze to get her own way, and isn’t afraid of manipulating men with her beauty. Forced to marry the king despite being only four years older than his daughter, she’s making the best of it.
In her own twisted way she tries to teach Snow to be stronger before it’s too late, but their relationship is too strained. Snow doesn’t have any interest in marriage, and openly mocks the men that she thinks might propose to her, and Lilith is bitter about this because she didn’t have a choice. Snow also wakes up after the apple in her throat is dislodged, not needing true love’s kiss at all.
But then it all goes downhill. The previously independent Snow is proposed to by the prince who has fallen in love with her unconscious body, and her reply is “Why not?”. For someone who was so adamantly against marriage a few pages ago, this is a bit of a twist! Snow’s not a virgin – having slept with the huntsman earlier in the story – which disgusts the prince. She apologises profusely for concealing the truth from him. She was so strong-willed before eating the apple, but quickly shrivels into a meek and mild character. It makes no sense.
There’s a nice twist: the prince gets the cursed apple made into juice, so that when Snow drinks it the apple can’t be easily dislodged from her throat. It’s certainly the most evil ending to a retelling that I’ve read!
Bonus points for the fact that Snow performs oral sex on the prince and then makes him reciprocate it before they can consummate their marriage – female pleasure definitely needs to be normalised.

‘Charm’ – 3 stars

“Princes are just men. Mainly not very good ones. And a castle can’t give a girl like you what the woman inside will want.” 

This is a rather brutal Cinderella retelling, with scenes of self-mutilation and near rape: not for the faint of heart.
Lilith’s back, masquerading as the fairy godmother. She allows Cinderella to go to the ball, on one condition: she has to search every inch of the castle once she’s won the prince’s heart. Working with the huntsman, who has received a brief reprieve from life as a mouse, Lilith is desperate to track down the missing Snow.
Cinderella charms the prince by wearing her enchanted diamond shoes, but life in the palace isn’t all fun and games. The prince is quickly disinterested by her, her step-sister Rose has to walk with a cane after attempting to cut off one of her toes, and she can’t find anything that could be of interest to the fairy godmother.
Passing information on to the huntsman every night is probably the worst chore. He’s arrogant and abrasive, and Cinderella hates the way he’s constantly laughing at her. She wants her life to go back to normal, and wishes she’d never wished to go to the ball in the first place.
Surprisingly, this book had a happy ending.
Cinderella is the girl of the huntsman’s dreams, and she realises she was annoyed at him because she was falling in love.
Rose gets the prince, and starts to change the kingdom for the better.
The new power couple find Snow and get her back to Lilith, before walking off into the sunset for their happily ever after (making love a couple of times in the forest for good measure).
I thought this was going to be the moment when Lilith would murder Snow and all of the warm and fuzzy feelings would be destroyed, but that wasn’t the case. Instead of killing her, she kisses her… And true love’s kiss wakes her from the curse.
A LESBIAN ROMANCE IN A FAIRYTALE RETELLING?
FINALLY!
(Well, other than the fact that they both have heterosexual marriages and multiple sexual relationships in ‘Poison’ and this only happens in the epilogue, making it feel more like a last minute aside than a planned plot…)
The attempts at diversity bumped this book up to a three star, but the fact that there’s a lesbian romance that feels like an afterthought and a disabled character who has special shoes crafted to make her limp non-visible both make me too apprehensive to bump it any higher.
Cinderella also annoys me with her attitude towards Buttons (Robin Hood). He has a crush on her but she isn’t interested, and she states that she’s not going to lead him on or encourage him. Within a couple of pages, she’s got his hand up her skirt and she’s letting him get her off… Good for female empowerment, not so good at sticking to her word and not using him.

‘Beauty’ – 4 stars

“I should kiss her,” he murmured. 

“No, you really shouldn’t.” Petra glared at him. “That would be all manner of wrong. If someone kissed me without my permission – handsome travelling prince or not – I’d punch them.”

This is the most satisfying of the three installments.
Set before the start of ‘Poison’, the events of ‘Beauty’ tie up all of the loose ends. The prince’s father sends him on an adventure and hires the huntsman to keep his son safe. The end of their quest puts them in the forest where we meet them in the first book, effectively looping the trilogy in an endless cycle.
This story introduces us to more fairytales, meeting Beauty (who is both Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Beast) and Petra (who is Red Riding Hood and a gender-swapped version of Peter from Peter and the Wolf). Petra is the most realistic character in the entire series, and I loved her dry humour and witty comments (even if she did get far too soppy when she met her true love).
There are no random masturbation scenes in this novel, which is something I’m grateful for. I was pleased to see it included in the first book because it’s not something that’s regularly featured in novels, but Sarah seemed to be using it whenever the plot slowed down, making the previous stories move even slower.
This is certainly the most daring of the three. The violence isn’t gratuitous because it adds to the plot, but if you’re offended by people getting brutally murdered, or don’t want to read a book that launches you right into the middle of an orgy, it might be worth leaving this one alone.

Overall, this series gets three stars.
I was interested by the storytelling choices that Sarah made while attempting to make her mark on the classic fairytales, but I wasn’t too impressed with the execution. Not much seemed to happen, and I think I’m going to have forgotten about the events of all of these by the end of the month…