Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer

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Welcome back to Fairy Tale Friday!  Today we’re looking at a retelling of “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” which was a runner-up in July’s poll.  While we have looked at a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling and the two tales are closely linked, this is the first actual “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” story for this feature.  Let’s get started!

My Rating: 5 stars

Warning: Contains spoilers

As a Retelling:

Most versions of this tale focus on the youngest daughter out of many children.  At the very least, she is the youngest of three daughters.  However, our title character, Echo, is one of only two children and the only daughter.  In another deviation from the original tale, Echo’s mother is dead.  In the most well-known version of the tale, it is the heroine’s mother who convinces her to light the candle.  Echo’s father remarries a woman named Donia early on in the story, and this provides the story with some “Cinderella” undertones.  Donia is awful to Echo and ends up driving the family to poverty with her reckless spending.  Part of Donia’s cruelty toward Echo is her nastiness about injuries Echo received as a child.  While the heroine of “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” is described as beautiful, Echo is the opposite.  When she was young, the wolf attacked her and permanently scarred her face.  There is also a major difference in how Echo comes to live with the wolf.  In the fairy tale, the bear comes to the house and asks for the heroine in exchange for wealth.  The situation in the book is more similar to “Beauty and the Beast.”  Echo’s father goes on a trip and doesn’t return when expected.  After a fight with her stepmother, Echo runs away in a snow storm and comes across her father lying unconscious in the woods.  The wolf offers to ensure he is rescued if Echo comes to live with him, and she agrees.

At first the enchanted man appearing as a wolf might seem like a large deviation from the original tale.  The white bear has become the iconic symbol of “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.”  However, while the bear is the most well-known, many other animals appear in variations of the tale, including: a bull, a snake, a dog, a pig, and a wolf.  I couldn’t find a country of origin for the tale “The White Wolf,” but Andrew Lang collected it in The Gray Fairy Book.  Our wolf is named Hal when in his human form, and we actually get to meet him and see Echo interact with him.  Though he can only take his human form at night when he is asleep, a part of him resides in the library’s mirror-books.  Echo gets to know him and falls in love with him in the world of stories.  This is reminiscent of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original The Beauty and the Beast, in which Beauty gets to know the prince through her dreams.  As with the most well-known versions of the tale, the wolf sleeps in Echo’s bed each night.  However, Meyer does make this a little less creepy.  Instead of entering her room and climbing into her bed without permission, the wolf is upfront about it and originally sleeps on the floor.  It is only after she’s gotten to know him that Echo invites him into the bed since it is so cold out.

While “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” features a troll queen who enchants the prince, Echo North has the Wolf Queen, who is half wolf, half human and has powerful magic powers.  In the fairy tale, the troll queen is the prince’s stepmother and wants him to marry her daughter.  In other variants, including the English “Black Bull of Norroway,” the woman is of no relation and sometimes isn’t even involved in cursing him.  In the earliest known version of the tale, “Cupid and Psyche,” it is actually Cupid’s mother, Venus, keeping the lovers apart.  Meyer does not place the Wolf Queen in a maternal role to Hal; instead, she is his former lover. He fell in love with her and she tricked him into agreeing to be a wolf by day and a man by night for a century.  The way out of the curse follows what we know well from the fairy tale: a human girl must live with him for a year without seeing his human form at night.  If he succeeds, he is free; if not, he must marry her daughter, Mokosh.  However, Meyer does include a twist on this that I’m actually not going to reveal here because I don’t want to ruin the surprise.

In most versions of the fairy tale, it is a member of the heroine’s family that convinces her to light the lamp or candle.  In “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” it is her mother, and in “Cupid and Psyche” it is her sisters.  This is not the case in Echo North.  In fact, unlike most tales of this type, Echo does not return home until the very end of the story.  Instead, it is Mokosh, the Wolf Queen’s daughter, who convinces her.  Echo also meets Mokosh in the mirror-books, and the two become friends without Echo realizing who she is.  I’m really glad that Meyer chose to flesh out the character of the troll queen’s daughter.  Mokosh’s motivations are complicated; on one hand, she genuinely like Echo, but she has also made a deal with her mother.  If she marries Hal, the Wolf Queen will make her entirely human; this is why she tells Echo to light the lamp.  However, she also believes Echo has the power to defeat the Wolf Queen and even says so to her mother’s face.  Meyer could have chosen to boil it all down to a love triangle, and it’s great that she didn’t.  What she has done creates deeper characters and a more meaningful story.

As in the fairy tale, the Four Winds play a significant role in the story.  In “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” the heroine rides to the castle on the North Wind.  Echo is also brought to the Wolf Queen’s domain by the North Wind, but Meyer puts a twist on this as well.  Early on in the story, we are introduced to the story of the Four Winds.  The North Wind was the most powerful of all, but he gave up his power to the Wolf Queen for mortality so he could be with the woman he loved.  After Hal is taken by the Wolf Queen, Echo seeks out a storyteller named Ivan for more information.  Ivan agrees to travel with her in exchange for her story.  At the end of the journey, he reveals that he is the North Wind and some of his powers are returning.  Ivan and his three brothers play a vital role in the climax.  It is with their help that Echo is able to free Hal from his curse, and they are ultimately the ones who defeat the Wolf Queen by stripping her of her powers and turning her into a normal wolf.

The way in which Echo frees Hal is probably Meyer’s biggest deviation from the fairy tale.  In “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” the heroine trades items to the troll princess in exchange for sitting in with the prince at night so she might speak to him.  The first two times he is kept asleep by a drink given by the princess, but he does not drink it the third night and the two come up with a plan.  When the girl lights the candle, a few drops of tallow fall on the prince’s shirt, and only she can wash it out.  Before wedding, the prince requests that his bride-to-be wash the shirt, but she, her mother, and all the other trolls are unable to.  The heroine comes in and washes it, and the troll queen destroys herself and all the other trolls in her rage.  Both the shirt washing and the three nights are seen in many variants of the tale.  Also common is the heroine completing several impossible tasks such as sorting a huge pile of mixed grain, which is one of Psyche’s tasks set by Venus.  Meyer doesn’t use any of this, instead drawing on another story: the Scottish ballad “Tam Lin.”  Though this is not considered a variation of the “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” type tales, it does have some similarities.  Tam Lin is taken by the Queen of the Fairies and his true love sets out to rescue him.  She saves him by holding on to him even as he is transformed into all kinds of beasts.  This is how Echo saves Hal.  She makes a bargain with the Wolf Queen: if she can hold onto Hal for three days, the curse is broken, and if she fails, both of them will belong to the queen.  During the three days, the Wolf Queen does turns him into all kinds of ferocious creatures, but she also makes Hal reveal something that hurts Echo terribly.  Again, I won’t say it here because it’s a great twist.  Despite it all, and with some help from the Four Winds, Echo prevails and saves Hal.

My Thoughts:

There are some truly amazing concepts in this book and they were all executed really well.  The mirror-books…I want them!  Why are these not real?!  Basically, Echo is able to enter these books and live out the story beside the characters.  Or, if she wants, she can go off and do something else in the world of the book while the story goes on elsewhere.  It’s so cool!  I also really liked how Meyer uses the house.  As in the fairy tale, Echo only needs to ask for things and they will appear.  But as Hal’s curse nears it’s end, pieces of the house start to fall away.  He and Echo try to save what they can by using magic to bind the rooms.  This makes for some really great action scenes, and it’s just a really interesting use of the magical house from the original.

As I mentioned, Meyer uses some great twists throughout this book.  My mind was absolutely blown by the big reveal in the climax.  Again, I’m not going to say what these twists are because that’s just more spoilers than I’m willing to give.  But I think Meyer handles all of them well.  Even though they caught me off-guard, looking back I can see where she added hints right from the start of the story.  I always appreciate when a book can surprise me, especially a retelling since I obviously already know the story.  These twists are what made the book a 5 star read for me.

While I did love the relationship between Echo and Mokosh, I wish we had seen more of it.  A lot of their time together in the mirror-books is glossed over.  Even though we know they spend time together, we don’t get to see their friendship develop as much as I would have liked.  I think it would have been nice if some of their adventures were fleshed out a little more.  This is probably a minor nitpick since their relationship isn’t at the center of the story.  However, I was actually more interested in their friendship than I was in the romance between Echo and Hal.  And Mokosh is such a complicated and intriguing character!  But this is my only complaint with the whole book, so that is pretty good!

Other Reading Recommendations:

The starred titles are ones I have read myself.  The others are ones I want to read and may end up being future Fairy Tale Friday books.  To keep the list from getting too long, I’m limiting it to three that I’ve read and five that I haven’t.

Other Retellings of “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”:

More Books by Joanna Ruth Meyer:

About the Fairy Tale:

This review is also posted on aliteraryprincess.tumblr.com

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