Title: A Curse Dark as Gold
Author: Elizabeth C. Bunce
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
Why did I read this book: This one caught my eye when I was browsing through amazon; then when I saw it up on Angie‘s GoodReads, I decided to pick it up for a read. (Plus, it doesn’t hurt that the likes of Tamora Pierce and Peter S. Beagle reviewed the book with high praise!)
Summary: (from ElizabethCBunce.com)
As Charlotte struggles to manage the difficulties she inherits along with Stirwaters Woollen Mill, she discovers a shadow world at the fringes of the familiar: Dark magic, restless spirits, a mysterious Helper. A wicked uncle, an age-old curse…. How can Charlotte prevail with such forces allied against her? In this novel inspired by “Rumpelstiltskin,” the miller’s daughter of the fairy tale comes to life as a young woman determined to save her family and her mill–whatever the cost.
Charlotte Miller and her younger sister Rosie are left alone in the world when their father passes away. The two sisters are the last of the long Miller line and they inherit the family mill, named Stirwaters. Charlotte, as the eldest, assumes the role as head of the household and needs to find a way to keep Stirwaters in operation–for not only is the long standing family business at stake, but every soul in the small village of Shearing depends on the mill to earn their livelihoods.
Undaunted by the lack of success Stirwaters has had with her kind but irresponsible father as Master, Charlotte assumes the role and does her darndest to shoulder the burden of providing for the town, and desperately tries to overcome all the obstacles in her path. First, there is the mortgage that Charlotte’s father had take on the mill, unbeknownst to Charlotte and her sister. She strikes a deal with the banker, and they settle on a repayment schedule. In order to make the payments, Charlotte and the good people of Shearing double their efforts at the mill to produce the beautiful cloth Stirwaters is famous for. However, more trouble is afoot–a rival mill (that has made repeated efforts to buy Stirwaters from Charlotte and her sister) orchestrates the mill’s expulsion from the wool guild, and Charlotte finds herself with a beautiful product…and nowhere to sell it. Matters are even more complicated by the arrival of the girls’ flamboyant, lilac-scented Uncle Wheeler–whom they have never met before in their lives, but who says he is their late mother’s brother. He lavishes gifts upon his nieces, and provides them with some extra income, but is intent on them becoming “ladies” and selling the mill.
And, there is The Curse.
Shearing is a small rural village, and–in small village fashion–everyone is highly superstitious. Since the building of the mill many ancestors back, it has been said that Stirwaters is cursed, and tragedy befalls every Miller that has ever headed the mill. What’s more, not a one of any first born sons have ever lived long enough to inherit the mill–it passes from cousins, to younger siblings, to daughters, and so on; but never from father to first son. Charlotte, a level-headed and practical sort of girl, ignores the superstitions of the villagers and of her sister. Each mishap that has befallen the Millers of Stirwaters has a logical explanation, and blaming a curse for their misfortune is not in Charlotte’s stubborn nature.
When defaulting on their bank loan becomes imminent (after a string of unfortunate events), however, Rosie–brash, impulsive, and superstitious as Charlotte is pragmatic–resorts to “magic” to summon anything that might help them keep the mill.
And he appears to them. Jack Spinner. He tells Charlotte he will help her and her sister, just as he has helped every other Miller, by spinning straw into gold thread…in return for something important to Charlotte. Jack Spinner demands the ring Charlotte wears–it was her mother’s–and while she is reluctant to give it up, she does without too much regret. And Jack Spinner, true to his word, spins spools and spools worth of fine gold thread overnight. Charlotte and Rosie are able to sell the gold and make their current mortgage payment, and all seems fine and well. Unfortunately for the Miller girls, things are never quite what they seem. Acts of sabotage, double dealing characters, all with an atmosphere of supernatural intrigue haunt Charlotte at every turn, and she is forced to confront the legacy of her family curse in order to save her family and her home.
This story marks Elizabeth C. Bunce’s first (and thus far her only) novel–and what a debut it is! This is a beautifully written dark fantasy, and a retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale. In of itself this was a sell for me–usually retellings stick with the classic pretty princess tales, and Rumpelstiltskin is truly scary at its core. Ms. Bunce manages to create a highly original, dark and complex story from the fable. A Curse Dark as Gold is, beyond a doubt, the best fairy tale retelling I have ever had the pleasure of reading. This is one of those books that are classified as ‘Young Adult’, but can (SHOULD) be read by all ages.
The setting of the story is ingenious–juxtaposed precariously between new and old as it takes place in England at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. The troubles that befall Charlotte and Rosie are not just because of an inherited debt from a non-business minded father, but rather also a reflection on the times they live in. The rival mill of Pinchfields is beating Stirwaters down with its mechanized looms–which result in lower quality cloth, but produced at very low cost, and in higher quantities (ah, the economic historian in me is giddy!). Meanwhile, Stirwaters faces the growing pressures of a changing time as any modifications they try to make to their own processes are met with failure, and all must be done by hand. Still, Stirwaters Mill is known for its beautiful quality dyes and textiles, so even in this difficult changing marketplace, the Millers quality seal is good. This dynamic is at the very heart of the tale; like when the great water wheel that powers the mill gets jammed and encrusted in ice, the cursed Stirwaters is mired in its haunted past while the rest of the world moves forward.
Not only is the setting marvelously portrayed, but Ms. Bunce’s characters are also fully realized. The book is narrated in the first person by our protagonist, Charlotte Miller. As characters go, Charlotte is fully fleshed out and believable as a young woman trying to make sense of the world has been plunged into. She is incredibly stubborn and unreliable as a narrator (at some of the latter portions of the book I wanted to throttle her), but it is because of this that her character comes to life. Her ineffable passion to keep the Stirwaters in the Miller name, and the lengths she and her sister will go to in order to protect their own comes across as intensely real. I loved the contrast between both sisters–Charlotte being level-headed and stubborn to a fault, and Rosie with her own brand of stubborn impulsiveness and vivacity. I also have to applaud Ms. Bunce for her creation of characters that are neither wicked nor pure–even the villains in this book have surprising depth. We sense from his first appearance that Uncle Wheeler is not trustworthy, but his story–revealed gradually through the book–challenge our initial judgements and perceptions. The character of Jack Spinner, Rumpelstiltskin himself, is not reduced to some maniacal goblin intent on stealing little children for the fun of it–instead, he too is given a past and a story.
Everything about this book worked–the plot was evenly paced and came together beautifully, the characters were fully drawn out against a rich setting, and the writing flowed effortlessly. I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone–it is one of the best books I have read this year.
Notable Quotes/Parts: Here’s an excerpt where Charlotte and Rosie first meet the mysterious Jack Spinner:
“If you’ll allow me to demonstrate, I do think I could be of some help to you here.”
I smiled tightly. “You’d have to be able to make gold appear from thin air to be much help to us now, I’m afraid.”
“Gold, you say?” he said quietly. “Well, not out of the air, maybe, but–” He reached toward Rosie and drew a length of straw free from her hat. From out of a pocket in his jacket appeared an old-fashioned handheld drop spindle, the kind no one uses anymore, and he sent it spinning with a turn of his hand. Slowly, as we watched, he drew out the straw and spun it–spun it! As if it were a roving of wool! Rosie and I stood there and watched him, moment by moment, as the spindle bobbed and twirled. Something pulled out from the brown straw and through his knobby fingers, and where it should have gone onto the spindle, the finest strands of gleaming gold threads appeared. Round and round the spindle went, and the gleaming of gold turned with it. I don’t know how long we watched it, turning and turning, flashing gold with every revolution. I could not take my eyes away.
Additional Thoughts: For those not familiar with the story of Rumpelstiltskin as related by the Brothers Grimm, it goes something like this.
An ambitious miller boasts that his daughter can spin straw into gold, which the king of the land hears. He takes the miller’s daughter and locks her in a room filled with straw and a spinning wheel, and orders her to spin all the straw into gold by morning or her life is forfeit. The poor girl of course cannot transmute straw to gold, and despairs that she will meet some horrible fate come dawn…but then a strange dwarf appears in her dungeon room. He agrees to spin all the straw into gold for her, provided she give him her necklace. The miller’s daughter agrees, and the dwarf holds to his word.
When dawn breaks, the King inspects the gold with wonder–and then he locks the girl in with even more straw, and orders her to spin it all or else she will be executed in the morning. The little man appears again, and takes another trinket from her as payment. When morning comes, the King orders the girl to perform her miracle again one last night–and the dwarf appears to her once more. The miller’s daughter cries and tells the dwarf she has nothing else to offer him in return for his service, but the dwarf tells her he will complete his task for her once more…in exchange for her first-born son. As the girl is stuck in a dungeon with imminent death, and no husband or children to speak of, she agrees to his terms. When dawn comes on the third morning, the King inspects the girl’s work again and is thoroughly impressed–so much so, that he permits his son to marry the talented miller’s daughter. Soon enough, the young king and queen have a baby boy, and the dwarf appears to the former miller’s daughter and demands his payment. The girl refuses, and offers him anything else in return–but the little man refuses her. Finally he relents and tells the Queen that if she can guess his true name in 3 days, she can keep her child. Thus, the Queen and King scour the kingdom and try every name they can think of, but to no avail. On the eve of the third day, however, one of the Queen’s messengers spies the little man, dancing around a fire in glee, singing:
To-day do I bake, to-morrow I brew,
The day after that the queen’s child comes in;
And oh! I am glad that nobody knew
That the name I am called is Rumpelstiltskin!”
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)
On that final day, the Queen correctly guesses Rumpelstiltskin’s name, and the little man becomes so enraged, he stomps up and down and through the ground, and disappears, never to bother the kingdom again. (At least, this is the story I know)
A Curse Dark as Gold is a great deal more complex and goes in a different direction, while still preserving the essence of the fairy tale.
Verdict: I loved A Curse Dark as Gold, and cannot recommend it enough. If you are a fan of fantasy, of fairy tales, of just a well written book, give this one a try. It is a gorgeous, dark tale worth reading and rereading.
Rating: 9 Damn Near Perfection
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