Midway through T. Kingfisher’s fleet fairy tale The Seventh Bride, 15-year-old protagonist Rhea is shocked to learn how terrible her betrothed really is. She seeks solace with another woman, who sympathizes, but doesn’t stop mixing dough. “You’re making biscuits,” Rhea wails. “Yes,” the other woman says, “I am. We could both sit down at the table and cry together. But in a few hours … there will still be no one we can tell, and the only thing that will be different is that we will be hungry. And there will be no biscuits.”
This in a nutshell is the voice of T. Kingfisher, a.k.a. children’s author, comics artist, and podcaster Ursula Vernon, the most practical, down-to-earth author writing about ninja frogs and feminist hamster princesses today. Vernon’s protagonists — often young, usually female, and generally in way over their heads — are sometimes terrified and sometimes angry. Some, like Sarah in the recent story “Wooden Feathers,” are just finding their identities. Others, like Grandma Harken in the Nebula-winning “Jackalope Wives,” or Digger in the Hugo-winning webcomic Digger, have survived long lifetimes of putting their heads down and muddling through problems as best they can. But like Rhea, they’re almost always homey people who at heart just want to get the laundry done, the pets fed, and the biscuits made. Adventure comes to them whether they want it or not, and it’s up to them to figure out how simple, grounded skills like gardening and kindness can keep them alive.
In that sense, Vernon’s adult fantasies (self-published under the Kingfisher pseudonym, to distinguish them from her middle-grade fantasies like the Dragonbreath series) fit perfectly within centuries of fairy-tale tradition, where charity and politeness always pay off, and rudeness or cruelty have serious consequences. And her deeper horror elements recall the darkest aspects of the Grimm brothers’ collected stories as well. But The Seventh Bride, which Amazon’s 47 North imprint picked up for publication after its success as a self-published e-book, has a subtly modern sense of surreal humor amid the traditional trappings. This is a world where magic sometimes gets into the land, making the hollyhocks plaid and turning potatoes into sulky vagabonds.
Rhea, like other Vernon heroes, is a worried but stolid focal point amid unpredictable weirdness. Forced to accept a marriage proposal from the nobleman Lord Crevan, she travels to his castle — where she learns she isn’t his first wife, and that his interest in her is predatory. There’s a little bit of Bluebeard in his DNA, but the story echoes other classics, as he sets her impossible tasks and she finds help in unlikely places.
Stylistically, Seventh Bride is stripped-down and straightforward, wasting little space on elaborate scene-setting. That bluntness is appropriate to Rhea’s perspective as an uneducated peasant whose most significant experience of the world involves fighting a bullying swan for her daily lunch. So it’s a surprise that Bride most closely resembles Peter Beagle’s elegant, poetic novel The Last Unicorn, with its phantasmagoria of witches, nobles, sorcerers, and great powers. (The two books even share a key image, in the form of a magical and not entirely physical clock.) Vernon has Beagle’s knack for creating colorful, instantly memorable characters, and inhuman creatures capable of inspiring awe and wonder. For that matter, Vernon sometimes feels like Diana Wynne Jones’ heir, with her stories of aggrieved heroes trying to bull their way through comic magical chaos. (One terrific example: her recent children’s book Castle Hangnail, which Disney recently optioned.)
But the constant delight with all of Vernon’s work is how distinctive and unexpected it is, in part because of that focus on tough-minded, distinctive women who are more interested in pounding out the biscuits than in waiting for rescue. Half of Seventh Bride is caught up in Rhea’s mixture of terror of Crevan, and fierce determination to face him for her family. The other half is the simultaneously lovely and horrifying detail: The creepy golem birds, the shock of Crevan’s first bride, the assigned task Rhea knows she has to fail. Like any good fairy tale, Seventh Bride accesses a lizard-brain sense of justice, and of what makes a story symmetrical and satisfying. But in a way that’s specific to Vernon’s writing, it also makes old tropes feel new again, with a little ingenuity, a lot of personality, and a dogged determination to see that the biscuits get made, no matter how implausible and impossible the world becomes.