book reviews / fairy tale / sci fi

Book review: Fairest: Levana’s Story

The Lunar Chronicles bk 4

Marissa Meyer

Growing up I never thought of Snow White’s stepmother as one of the big baddies in fairy tale literature. Top 50, sure, but not one to win the Oscar for Best Villain.

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

With new versions of her in the TV show Once Upon a Time and the book, Fairest, I’m beginning to reconsider.

Today I’m going to talk about Levana, Marissa Meyer’s version of Snow White’s stepmom. Fairest is the 4th book published in one of my favorite series, The Lunar Chronicles. But it takes place before the other books. We track the rise to power and moral downfall of Levana, the tyrannical Queen of Luna. She is a MAJOR baddie in Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress.

Let’s create a Baddie Checklist for the first three books:

 

  • Wage biological warfare
  • Create a mutant wolf-man army that ravages several Earthen cities
  • Manipulate people with mind power
  • Set niece on fire in an assassination attempt
  • Hunt our heroine cyborg Cinder to try to kill her
  • Steal or kill any of her own people who are born without mind powers (the Lunar gift)
  • Force young Prince Kai into a marriage treaty with plans to kill him after the wedding and take over Earth
Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Check, check, check. On the badness scale, Levana already cleans the clock of the 1930s Disney version, or anything the Grimm Bros. did.

So how on Earth or Luna can you make such a villain understandable? Or if you make her understandable, do you remove the fangs of one of the best baddies going in fiction right now?

Marissa Meyer makes it happen.

We pick up the story when Levana is 15, a physically scarred, insecure, friendless princess, tormented by her flighty and cruel older sister, Channary. Just how terrible Channary is is not fully revealed until the final pages, but from the first we see her delight in wielding power over Levana. Levana has no influence on political affairs, though she understands them much better than her shallow older sister.

The book opens on the day of the funeral of their parents, who have just been assassinated. So immediately we want to root for Levana as an underdog, but Meyer brings us up short. Because it turns out Levana is indifferent to her parents’ deaths. She’s bored to tears at their funeral. Indeed, she cares for no one, except the older palace guard, Evret Hayle, a complex character in his own right.

What makes us empathize with Levana is also her tragic flaw. She yearns to be loved. But only the love of one human being will do. She’s obsessed with winning the love of Evret, no matter what it takes. (Love is a conquest is a theme repeated many times.)

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The reader alternately feels the ache Levana does, the gut human need to be loved, to matter to someone. And then the reader is repulsed at the lengths Levana goes to get it. Her methods would be illegal by today’s standards.

And yet, every decision Levana makes is understandable, even if it is inexcusable. Meyer keeps the reader on an uncomfortable knife’s edge. We completely believe what’s driving Levana’s decisions, even when we deplore them. And at times we want to cheer for her. She’s politically brilliant, and does more for her people than royals have in generations. Does that justify her methods?

When it comes to tracking the slow fall of a major space opera villain, Meyer kicks George Lucas’s butt.

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

And unlike Gregory MacGuire’s book Wicked, which I also admire, Meyer lets the reader get close.

I won’t go into the specific of what she does, because they might be considered spoilers, other than to say we meet several younger versions of characters we know and love (or hate) in the rest of the series. We also see the beginning of several scientific and political projects that are key plot points later.

There is a scene at the end of Act I in the Broadway musical, Wicked, when the misunderstood heroine, Elphaba finally embraces her destiny as empowered outsider. Elphaba rises with props she has acquired through the first act, a hat, a cloak, a flying broom, and the audience gasps in recognition. Here stands the Wicked Witch of the West. We knew she would turn into her, but we’re shocked to see her in full form.

The end of Fairest is like that. Levana stands before her mirror, and every trait and accoutrement coalesces into the villain we’ve been waiting for. It’s a powerful moment.

In the future, I wonder whether readers will continue to start the series with Cinder or go in chronological order, starting with Fairest. It’s the same dilemma faced by Narnia fans. C. S. Lewis wrote The Magician’s Nephew as the 6th book of his series, but chronically it is first. We even go so far as to have an “American order” and a “British order” for his books, and it does affect your interpretation of the series. For instance, the first we see of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a lamppost in the middle of a snowy forest. In The Magician’s Nephew, we see how the lamppost got there. You can either be delighted to have a mystery finally solved, or read the other way, be delighted to see a minor point became an important icon.

Image courtesy of byjeng at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of byjeng at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I think Fairest is the same way. You can read it in chronological order, but I think what made it enjoyable for me was knowing Levana would fall, and seeing how she fell. The brief appearances of characters who become important in later books take on more significance. I especially enjoyed learning more about young Jacin Clay and Princess Winter. They are slated to be the main couple in the 5th and final book of the series, Winter¸ which comes out in November 2015.

I listened to the audiobook version, read by Rebecca Soler. She is again an excellent choice for the material, though Fairest provides few chances to Soler’s comic timing to shine as it did in Cress.

Fairest is shorter than the other books in the series, but comes with a preview of the first chapters of Winter, which promises to be a rousing conclusion to the series.

A fair warning to readers – if the other books in this series would earn a PG rating, Fairest probably gets a PG 13.

But 5 stars nonetheless. Well done, Marissa Meyer. Fairest is a fine tragedy with well-drawn characters.

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