Monday, March 30, 2015


I'm bingeing on Bard-related books this month. First, I finished The Serpent of Venice, Christopher Moore's fabulous follow-up to Fool (pardon me while I alliterate), which gleefully mashes up plots and characters from King Lear, Othello and The Merchant Of Venice.

And now I've segued into Kate Danley's Queen Mab, a fairy fantasy woven in and out of Romeo and Juliet. Danley had me at the first hint of turning Mercutio—one of the most lamented of all the Bard's untimely deaths—into the hero of her story.

In tales of the Fae, death need never be final if an author has the chutzpah and imagination to rewrite a story we think we already know. Fortunately, Danley has both.

Queen Mab is a figure from ancient Celtic folklore, the Fairy Queen known as the Bringer of Dreams. In Danley's story, three generations after the Roman demi-god, Faunus, tricks beautiful Mab and breaks her heart, the two immortals enter into a wager for sport—a chess game in which two mighty houses of Verona are pitted against each other: the Capulets and the Montagues.
Mab brings dreams to sleeping mortals.

But the game has scarcely begun when Mab finds herself bewitched by Mercutio. A witty, compassionate mortal man allied with neither house, he sees beyond Mab's magical aspect to the complex and beautiful soul beneath. She and Mercutio become lovers, but the stakes of the game rise fearfully as Faunus secretly plots to steal Mab's power and banish her from the world.

In Danley's view, all the events in Shakepeare's play—sudden brawls, reversals of fortune, changes of heart—are chalked up to fairy interference. This allows Danley to use large sections of dialogue from the play (not scary: written as prose) in the unfolding of her story.

In one clever invention, Mercutio's show-stopping "Queen Mab speech" becomes his desperate attempt to hold onto her memory, fading like a dream, after she charms him into forgetting her for his own safety.
An untimely end, but only in the Bard's version

Using so much of Shakespeare's text might feel like cheating. But the original material that Danley's weaves in—the love story of Mab and Mercutio, appearances by Faunus, and the Old Gods—is such a great idea, and so well-integrated into the plot of the play, that it draws us in. (Mab and Mercutio even get their own balcony scene!)

The formatting of this self-published book can be a bit wonky from page to page, with the expected typos sprinkled in here and there. Of more concern to me was overuse of the word "upon"—sometimes twice in the same sentence—when "on" would serve just as well.

But this is a pet peeve of mine; so many authors seem to believe that "upon" makes their prose sound more historical.

It also feels as if the book were written very fast. A little more time spent on building resonance, particularly in the closing chapters, to appreciate the plot twists, would have been nice. But Queen Mab is also a fast read (due in part to its enormous print), and the sheer audacity of Danley's premise kept me happily engaged.
Another guest appearance by Mab.

Rewriting the fates of classic literary characters has become its own sub-genre in recent fiction. (Hey, I did it in Alias Hook!) Moore and Danley cheerfully rewrite Shakespearean plays the way we wish they had all turned out. Still, one of my favorites of the bunch reimagines the lives of the playwrights themselves, not the plays.

In Elizabeth Bear's outstanding Ink and Steel, Christopher Marlowe (Kit Marly) is resurrected in the Court of the Fairy Queen after that unfortunate incident at Deptford. There, he becomes the innamorato of several important fairies while helping to train his successor, Will Shakespeare, in the art of weaving magical fairy spells into the gorgeous texts of his plays to protect the mortal realm of Elizabeth.

Every idea on every page of this two-book tale (including the sequel, Hell and Earth) is rich, complex, and literally beguiling.

Gee, I think I'll go read it again...

(Above: Queen Mab by Gustav Dore.)
(Above: The Death of Mercutio by Edwin Austin Abbey)

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