Review of DARK SHIMMER by DONNA JO NAPOLI
(review based on an advance reading copy)
With DARK SHIMMER, Napoli twists a familiar fairy tale. She introduces depth to usually simplistically motivated characters and presents less fantastical explanations for well-known plot developments. The story follows a young girl in renaissance Venice, a girl ostracized due to her appearance. I’m being vague on purpose, since the blurb on the back of this book deliberately avoids much detail - including which tale this story retells. If you want more detail, see the next paragraph. If you think laying out which story this retells and some of specific twists are spoilers, skip the next paragraph.
Dolce grows up thinking of herself as an ugly monster. She lives on a small, isolated island and she looks so different from everyone there. Deformed, she thinks. She finds solace and purpose learning the trade of mirror making from a local expert. When tragedy strikes, she flees her home and finds herself in what feels like a different world. Everyone looks more like her and most everyone prattles on about her remarkable beauty. At first she thinks they mock her until she learns that her build is average, she grew up among dwarves, and her loveliness is nothing close to average. If you haven’t caught on, DARK SHIMMER retells “Snow White.” In this version, Dolce has good intentions, but she works with quicksilver when making mirrors and it’s the quicksilver, not anything evil in her nature, that turns her mind paranoid and sinister.
I occasionally wanted a slower development before major transitions, primarily when Dolce abruptly runs away from home and when she first tries to rid herself of her stepdaughter. For the most part, though, I admired the gradual shift in mindset. I enjoyed following Dolce’s decent from affectionate new mother to vain madwoman.
The trouble with fairy tale retellings is always the same: the story can be familiar but it needs to be new, too. It needs to be retold enough. At times the plot didn’t twist as much as I hoped in DARK SHIMMER. The differences mostly revolve around the historical setting and the detailed mirror making addition. That being said, Napoli brings characters that often strike me as flat and boring in “Snow White” to life with very basic, human motivations but complex, layered personalities. I also adored that she made this more a tale about madness than magic.