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Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne Valente

Six-Gun Snow White - Catherynne M. Valente

Valente’s writing can be pretty “out there,” to my mind. The Orphan’s Tales duology is great and Deathless also very good, but I wasn’t able to get past the sample of Radiance. Six-Gun Snow White is deceptively grounded: it’s a retelling of a familiar fairytale, and it’s set in the 19th century American West. Valente shows her extraordinary versatility by writing the book in the language of a western: from other work I know she is capable of lyrical writing heavy on figurative language, but this one is stark, stripped-down and straightforward. Or at least so it appears.

Like any good retelling, this one is told with twists. Valente’s Snow White is a tough young woman of mixed race who is an excellent shot with a pistol and embarks on a journey to find her mother’s Crow tribe. Fairy tale elements appear here in fresh guises: the kiss, for instance, is not a romantic moment (because who kisses a sleeping stranger? A sexual predator, obviously).

But I feel as if much of this book went over my head; many of Valente’s choices left me confused, wondering “but what does this mean? Why is this here?” The chapter titles are perhaps emblematic of my confusion: titles such as “Snow White Juggles Her Own Eyes,” “Snow White Fights a Lump of Pitch,” and “Snow White’s Stepmother Gives Birth to the Sun” neither describe the events of those chapters nor those of pre-existing versions of the tale. In the same way, many of the plot elements and twists confused me because they seemed to have some deeper meaning that was not evident to me. After I finished the book, it was explained to me that many of the references come from Native American folklore, with which I have little familiarity; those with more knowledge of it will surely appreciate this book more.

This is a brief novella – very short chapters, section breaks and a few illustrations make it even shorter than the page count would have you believe – and so I would hardly discourage you from reading it. If nothing else, it’s certainly a well-written book. But although on its face this might appear to be among Valente’s most accessible works, it isn’t the first I’d recommend to a new reader. Three and a half stars.