Tanith Lee's White As Snow is a book in a series of fairy tale retellings edited by Terri Windling. The main theme is the relationship between mothers and daughters, and the place of women in a society dominated by men. Lee builds her story around a retelling of the myth of Demeter and Persephone and at the same time a retelling of the fairy tale of Snow White. Lee does a masterful job weaving these two famous tales together. She takes us back to an earlier time when fairy tales were not pretty stories for children. It is a dark and often disturbing tale.
The story begins with the young princess Arpazia, whose home is raided by an invading warlord in a world similar to our medieval era. We see her life before she becomes queen and the loss of innocence that traumatizes her. Arpazia, while deeply depressed, gives birth to Candacis/Coira, but she despises and neglects her child. As the story progresses, we see a very fractured relationship between mother and daughter. Both characters go through many difficulties and changes that arise from the abuse they suffer.
Early in the book, Arpazia is similar to the wicked stepmother in Snow White. As the story progresses, we see more in her that reflects the goddess Demeter. Candacis/Coira also evolves throughout the story, starting as a Snow White character and developing aspects of Persephone. Tanith Lee combines these stories in a very intriguing way, and, by giving a darker version of the tales, she is able to deal with more mature aspects of these stories. The connection between mother and daughter is explored in a more realistic way than many of the versions we are more familiar with. There are issues of love as ownership versus love by choice and love of beauty versus love of a person. This version of these stories shows the horror of men and women who don’t have a choice, or who only have horrific choices.
White as Snow is a beautifully dark novel, filled with many intricate details that mirror issues still relevant today. It is a disturbing and touching story reminiscent of tales that were told prior to the versions of the brothers Grimm. Tanith Lee has woven a story of immense pain and sadness where success in overcoming obstacles does not necessarily make everything happy and sunny. In this, her novel more accurately represents the realities of a life marred by abuse. This is not always an easy read, but it is definitely worthwhile and very skillfully crafted.