Knowing Ms. Valentine has a heavy duty speculative fiction background, her short stories appearing in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, and Apex, I expected a strong speculative fiction element in this novel. But there wasn’t one. Not really.
The story was based on a fairy tale, but it was brought into a real world full of very real situations, and while it had a very lyrical, magical voice the characters and plot stayed grounded in the real. The twelve princesses in the Kingfisher are not quite as malevolent as in the fairy tale, and the ending is a bit happier, though hard won.
The story is told primarily from the point of view of the oldest sister, Jo, whom her eleven sisters call the “General”. The girls’ father keeps them captive in their New York townhouse out of shame for his failure to produce a son and out of a general cold indifference. When some of the girls threaten to run away, rather than endure imprisonment any longer, Jo relieves the tension by arranging for the girls to go out at night, dancing in the underground speakeasies of New York during the prohibition era. The book spans an era of about eight years, and as the girls age, the threat of pending pre-arranged marriages makes their appetite for freedom even more desperate and sympathetic.
The conflicts they must meet and overcome will change them all, and Jo especially. Throughout the book she balances on the thin line of being the girls’ protector, leader, mother, and negotiator on their behalf before a cold and cruel father. She often criticizes herself for not being motherly enough, but like a General in a subtle cold war, Jo serves her sisters best with her stern discipline and leadership, although they hate her for it sometimes. In the end, Jo will have to decide who she is without them and how to serve them best as independent women in their own rights. Will she hold on, or will she be able to trust she raised them well and let them go?
The point of view shifts from time to time to fill in information in places where Jo’s perspective is too limited. And while I feel this was necessary, I also felt it was a little bit of a shortcut. Those cut away scenes often took on a strong fairy tale “tell” voice, like the Brothers Grimm had stepped in and taken over for a few pages, until Ms. Valentine regained control and turned the story back to Jo. As a device to keep the fairy tale tone prevalent throughout the story, it was successful. However, I would have enjoyed a longer book that spent more time inside the heads of the other sisters, especially Lou (the rebel) and Doris (equally pragmatic and romantic. Also a great sense of humor, see the “I like boats” scene).
The description of the music, the glamour, and dazzle also heightened the magical feel of the book. Ms. Valentine has a way with atmosphere and this book was full of it.
After reading so many books that are part of a series, it was refreshing to read something that stood solidly on its own. And while I thoroughly enjoyed Kingfisher, it was satisfying in a way that leaves me with no need to revisit the characters or story again. And I mean that as a compliment.