Fair Peril
by Nancy Springer
Avon Books, 1996

Okay, I admit it. Despite (or perhaps even because of) the glowing review blurbs that decorate the frontispage of Nancy Springer's 30th novel like so many medals on a general's chest, I was skeptical that this book would be half as good as everybody seemed to be saying. I mean, come on, a light fantasy novel centered on the Frog Prince myth? We've seen this trope played out again and again in books, cartoons, comics, TV shows, movies, plays, heck, even greeting cards. Hasn't this myth been beaten half to death?

Well, no. Springer proves that there is plenty of rich material left and she takes us right into the enchanted forest to show us. This deftly-written novel (usually) takes a light tone, but is by no means lightweight. In this twist on the old tale, we meet Buffy, a disenchanted forty-something divorcee who finds a talking frog in the forest. She takes him home unkissed, whereupon her rebellious teenage daughter Emily delivers the smooch and flees with the buff Prince Adamus to a fairyland (aka Fair Peril) that lies hidden beneath the plastic veneer of Mall Tifarious. I won't say much more about the plot, because I dislike spoilers, but the arrival of the young lovers at Fair Peril (a realm where you'd better be damn careful what you wish for) is just where things start to get really interesting.

This book goes a lot deeper than most light fantasy you'll find on the shelves these days; it's a good, fast read, but it will leave you thinking. Springer explores the physical and symbolic ramifications of being turned into a frog ("To be a frog was to be loved by no one. To be a frog was to be cold. Always afraid."), turning someone else into frog ("Apparently turning a guy into a frog is kind of a hands-on way of calling him a prick."), and of being a storyteller (" ... only in story is there life.") She really comes up with some interesting "what-ifs" here: what if the Wicked Stepmother and the Fairy Godmother are the same person? How does the search for a kiss change when the ensorcelled frog is gay? What if the happily-ever-after marriage is really a soul-destroying bondage worse than being enfrogged?

This book is clearly being marketed to women: on top of a demure, arty cover (which amused me since this book really does contain a bimbo, discussion of male genitalia, and several scenes where an ensorcelled frog rides around in the heroine's cleavage), we're treated to several review blurbs which herald this is as a feminist fantasy. Well, I suppose so, but I'd prefer to think of this as a humanist fantasy. After all, this book is about men just as much as it is women. My favorite character is, in fact, LeeVon, a gay children's librarian, storyteller, and Buffy's assistant in the quest to rescue Emily and Prince Adamus from their magic bondage in Fair Peril. LeeVon wears black leather, sports facial piercings and tattoos of Peter Rabbit and Mr. MacGregor, and has the power to turn blank notebooks into magical tomes for library patrons. Prince Adamus is likewise a highly sympathetic character. It would be a shame if the packaging and marketing of this book discouraged men from picking it up.

The only thing I can find to criticize about this book is that the section where Buffy is put in a mental institution (after a misadventure with the police at the Mall) rang false with me. I don't think Springer has any real knowledge of mental health facilities, and it shows. Furthermore, Buffy breaks herself out of the nuthouse; after that the police certainly would be looking for her, but aside from dodging the cops at the Mall a few more times, this thread is never picked up again and is left untied at the end of the book.

Aside from that, though, this is an excellent little book. It kind of reminds me of a big slice of strawberry pie: sweet, tart, delicious, and surprise, it's good for you, too. Definitely a dessert book, but a dessert for what? If you're like me, you like horror, and (if you have the time) you're a binge reader. I've done silly things like stay up all night and part of the next day reading Clive Barker's The Hellbound Heart followed by every last bit of Weaveworld (I mean, hey, how I supposed to sleep after THH?) On another occasion, I read all the The Sandman graphic novels from start to finish, and felt, well, a little skewed afterward. Fair Peril would have been an excellent finish to either of those binges, something twisty and intelligent enough to keep my saturated mind focused but light enough to let it decompress properly.

But don't wait for a binge. Life is perilous; read your dessert first.

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