The Seventh Bride is, loosely, a retelling of “Bluebeard,” which is a nice change from the more common fairy tale retellings that populate most shelves. I don’t see “Bluebeard” pop up that often in the vast sea of princess stories that seem to get almost obligatorily reimagined on a perennial basis, so right out of the gate I was predisposed to love this story because it was so obviously a fresh perspective. It turns out to be much more than just a simple retelling of an old tale, however. The Seventh Bride is a beautiful, clever, funny story about power, abuse, revenge, and—above all—the ties of shared experiences that bind women together and the vital importance of women loving and supporting each other.
Rhea is the fifteen-year-old daughter of a miller in a small town, and while she always did expect to be married someday, she didn’t expect to find herself engaged so young and rather against her will to the wealthy (and sinister) Lord Crevan. Although Rhea’s parents are good, loving people who want their daughter to be happy, there’s very little they can do to prevent the marriage. The marriage to the much older, more powerful, and creepy man isn’t ideal, but peasants don’t say no to lords. When Rhea goes to live at Crevan’s house before the actual wedding takes place, however, she finds out that things are much worse than she thought they were. Not only has Crevan been married before, but his previous wives aren’t dead. Well, mostly.
Perhaps what I love best about Rhea is that she’s such a refreshingly ordinary girl. This is characteristic of much of T. Kingfisher’s (Ursula Vernon in disguise) work, and so far I have never not been delighted by the total lack of exceptionalism among her heroines. It’s not that her girls and women don’t have any exceptional qualities; Rhea, for example, is exceptionally tenacious, brave, kind, and principled. It’s just that there’s nothing about a T. Kingfisher heroine that is ever framed as “not like other girls.” I feel like this shouldn’t be noteworthy, but “not like other girls” is sadly too often the shorthand authors use in order to create “strong female characters” so I’m always happy—especially in work about and for teenage girls—to see girl characters who are allowed to exist without being shown as constantly in competition with other girls and women.
Instead of just one exceptional girl, Ursula Vernon creates a whole cast of diverse and compelling women who, ultimately, have to work together in order to defeat the man who has harmed them all and fight back against a system that gives them little recourse to address the injustices they’ve been subjected to. It’s a powerfully feminist message that resonates with a deep and abiding truth that many women will relate to and all girls need to hear. At the same time, it’s a story that isn’t preachy and never gets bogged down in messaging. Rather, it’s a fast-paced tale that utilizes some familiar fairytale tropes and subverts others, all while taking place in a well-drawn and richly detailed fantasy world that is steeped in whimsy but never overly precious.
With The Seventh Bride, Vernon continues to prove herself as a consistent producer of marvelously enchanting fairy tale stories. She knows her genre and audience well enough to perfectly walk the line between comfortingly familiar and delightfully fresh and subversive.