Poison, by Sarah Pinborough


Edition: Hardcover

Publisher: Gollancz

Published: April 2013

Rating: 4/5 

Poison is a retelling of the fairy tale of Snow White, but far from being a modern one, this retelling is what you might call … more realistic. For one thing (and if you’ve read or heard of it, this may well not surprise you) there’s plenty of sex involved. What might, in fact, surprise you is the author’s take on the relationships involved, particularly that of Snow White and the Queen. The stepmother-stepdaughter relationship is, understandably, a strained one here. The Queen married Snow’s father for what are very logical, if not exactly good, reasons. Snow is convinced that one shouldn’t have to marry unless it’s for love. Cue much estrangement – and resentment on the part of the Queen. As it happens, however, we only ever learned a small part of how that story goes from the original fairy tale …


Right from the outset, this is clearly as much a story about the Queen as it is about Snow White – if not more so. In fact, we don’t get a first-person perspective on Snow at all here – point of view shifts between the Queen, the Huntsman, one of the dwarves whom Snow befriends, and the prince who finds and falls in love with her following That Apple Incident. We get an opinion on Snow from each of them, and each one is very different. What they all agree on is her innate purity and how unique she is, despite that she’s clearly not a typically well-behaved princess. Where their opinions differ is over what they each make of Snow’s approach to life. The Prince and Dreamy, the dwarf, both revere her for it (in their own very different ways). The Huntsman is fascinated by it – in a very, ahem, particular way. The Queen … Well. That much hasn’t changed from the original tale, and we all know how that goes.

The key relationship here, regardless of the multiple perspectives, is always that of Snow to her stepmother. The Queen is the driving force behind Snow’s ultimate fate, after all, and so it’s natural that the author focuses on this. The light that Ms Pinborough shines on the why of what the Queen does is as refreshing in itself as the realistic approach she takes to the story in general. Without spoiling the story here, she turns the wicked queen of the original tale into a much more sympathetic figure than I had expected to get. And there’s no contrived, ‘pity me’ back story here – the Queen nurses her bitterness and her resentment of Snow White’s popularity in her kingdom. One can’t very well be a wicked queen if one lacks conviction, after all.

However, there’s no cackling over her success in the end; she does what she does for what she feels are justifiable reasons, but this version of the Queen isn’t entirely heartless. Her real reasons for doing what she does are what make her so sympathetic. This approach, and the end result, are deftly handled, never overdone or melodramatic despite the fairytale-esque narrative. This alone is enough to convince me I should be reading more of Ms Pinborough’s work – not least the follow-up fairy tales she has in the pipeline. 

Another thing about this story that stuck with me is the ending. Again, I won’t spoil anything, but let’s just say that there is far more to Snow’s handsome prince than meets the eye. After all, we are being realistic here, and what kind of man decides he’s fallen in love with a young woman he meets while she’s effectively in a coma…?

The ending that Ms Pinborough gives us is seriously creepy, but it fits perfectly with the tone of the rest of the story. If I had any complaints (to use that word very loosely) I felt like the story was over a bit too quickly. It is a short book, so I was prepared for a ‘short’ story, but in the end I couldn’t help wanting more. Though maybe that’s a good thing, rather than a criticism…

So! To sum up, this was a tightly-written, short and … nasty piece of work. Believable characters, a fascinating mother-daughter (kind of…) relationship, and a shocking, if cynically fitting, ending. Excellence all round!

This was read as part of the Once Upon A Time VII Challenge at Stainless Steel Droppings. 

2 thoughts on “Poison, by Sarah Pinborough

  1. I haven’t read many fairy tale retellings. But this book sounds wicked and I love the cover. If it really is as realistic and cynical as you’ve described it, I’d like to read it! Great review 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *