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Review: Poison, By Sarah Pinborough

Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to bed we go

Fairy tales are having something of a big-screen revival at the moment. The past year has seen the release of the big-budget films Snow White and the Huntsman, Jack the Giant Slayer, and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. The old stories have been given a generally darker tone, which makes them closer to the cautionary tales that they began life as, than the glossy Disneyfied versions many people think of.

Which brings us to Sarah Pinborough's Poison, the first in a three-book series of retellings of fairy stories, to be followed by Charm (based on Cinderella) and Beauty (Sleeping Beauty). Poison is Pinborough's take on Snow White, and while all the recognisable furniture is there, she takes the story in directions that would have Walt Disney's (apocryphally) frozen head spinning in its cryogenic chamber.

It might have been subtitled "Fifty Shades of White". Or perhaps it could bear Mae West's classic line as a cover quote: "I used to be Snow White, but I drifted." It's a slim, undemanding read, but loads of fun and very saucy with it.

The retelling follows the traditional tale, painting Snow as a somewhat earthy young woman who refuses to be hidebound by convention. She rides her horse astride, rather than side-saddle, and spends a lot of time in the woods at the home of her dwarfish friends, who work the mines that keep the kingdom in riches.

Naturally, the wicked stepmother plots to do away with Snow, and dispatches a huntsman to off her. As in the Brothers Grimm version of the story, the huntsman takes pity on his intended victim and instead presents a stag's heart to the queen as evidence that he's fulfilled his murderous mission. What the Grimm or Disney versions never showed you, though, was Snow getting a sexual education at the hands of the huntsman in the deep, dark woods.

As is traditional, Snow's Prince Charming eventually finds and saves her from the queen's evil machinations, but there's no happily ever after. Pinborough repositions Snow White as a feminist icon who takes the lead in bed with her stunned Prince (she had a very thorough grounding, as it were, from the huntsman) and eventually exposes the patriarchal, oppressive and sexist fairytale world order which we take for granted in the old yarns.

This series is a bit of a departure for Pinborough, whose supernatural-detective Dog-Faced Gods series has many fans, and whose forthcoming novel Mayhem is a gory serial-killer horror set in Jack the Ripper's London. Her publishers, Gollancz, might well be anticipating that this beautifully designed book ropes in the "Fifty Shades" crowd, and encourages them to explore Pinborough's other writings, and the world of horror and suspense in general. Which is a deliciously wicked plot worthy of any fairy tale.

Gollancz £9.99