A collection of 21 stories inspired by fairy tales, Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears can be hard to describe. Yes, generally, the collection favors dark, “mature” takes on fairy tales (sexuality and violence are prevalent here). Yes, there’s a nice feminist undercurrent here, with passive women characters being given more agency. But really, the biggest weakness of Ruby Slippers is also its biggest strength: its diversity in approach. Some stories modernize the fairy tales, while others retell classic ones from a different perspective. Some are funny, some are horrific, some are dramatic. And while that leads to a more variety-filled and surprising experience, it also keeps the collection from feeling as cohesive or unified as it feels like it should, and leads to a bumpy reading experience as we jump from genre to genre and tone to tone.
That shouldn’t be taken to mean that there aren’t some fantastic stories here. John Brunner’s “The Emperor Who Had Never Seen a Dragon” dives into (what I assume is) Chinese folklore to tell the story of a demanding, arrogant emperor and his quest for glory, while Ellen Steiber’s “The Fox Wife” takes on the Japanese trickster fox. Gahan Wilson brings his usual dark humor to “Hansel and Grettel,” turning the iconic orphans into cocky social climbers who always feel the need to outdo everyone else. Roberta Lannes’s “Roach in Loafers” brings Puss in Boots (despite the anthology’s comment that this is “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” this is a fairly obvious “Puss in Boots” homage) to modern-day society with a great twist and a sense of humor. “Billy Fearless,” by Nancy Collins, creates a rural fairy tale with a wonderful voice, and Delia Sherman’s “The Printer’s Daughter” ends the collection on a surprisingly sweet and funny note, following a printer that’s made his daughter half out of sermons and half out of, shall we say, “adult” material.
That sounds like a lot of great material, and to be fair, the collection feels generally strong. There aren’t any pure misfires that I can think of, and a decent percentage of good ones. But the problem comes in how vague many of the stories go, feeling as though referring to fairy tales or just telling them in a new way should be appeal enough. That’s preferable to the cavalcade of “grimdark” stories, which mainly find ways to tell the fairy tales with added emphasis on brutality and violence. “The Princess and the Pea” becomes about a sadistic ruler and his mutilated servant who just wants to see women die. The updated “Match Girl” becomes a tour of rape and prostitution. “Beauty and the Beast” becomes about the pursuit of happiness and the desire to take it by force. And so on and so forth. It’s not that any of them are ever quite bad, per se, but it so often feels violent for its own sake, and without as much interesting to say as you would hope, other than “oh, I reimagined this fairy tale and now it’s for adults.”
The thing is, there are some great stories in Ruby Slippers, and a few that will no doubt stick with me. But it’s the rare case where some more focus and editorial control might help the collection – it would help it feel more focused, perhaps, but it could also cut down on the “fairy tales after dark” vibe that the collection falls into sometimes. It’s a decent collection, with some strong highlights, but I can’t say I’d recommend reading it all of a piece.