Briar Rose: A Rapid Fire Book Review

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen (2015)

Briar RoseRebecca and her sisters were always fascinated by their grandmother’s stories. Especially Sleeping Beauty. Although her sisters eventually lost interest, Rebecca never did. Years later, when Gemma is dying, Rebecca is the one who sits and listens to her tales. Rebecca is the one who hears Gemma claim that she was Briar Rose. And it is Rebecca–now a twenty-three-year-old journalist–who will follow her grandmother’s claims from their home in the US to Poland.

Yolen delivers an unlikely retelling of Sleeping Beauty in this haunting novel that blends fact with fiction. The story of Sleeping Beauty weaves together with details of the Holocaust and the brutality and horrors suffered by so many in Nazi Concentration Camps.

Originally published in 1988, parts of this novel are dated with outmoded technology and pre-Internet research. The tense and tone of Briar Rose build distance into the story as well effectively keeping readers at a remove for most of the novel. Although ultimately a story with a happy ending, Briar Rose is also imbued with sadness from the beginning even as Gemma tells her Sleeping Beauty story in flashbacks.

This isn’t a story for everyone and not a conventional retelling although elements of Sleeping Beauty do come into play with Gemma’s history as Rebecca investigates it. Recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction or are interested in World War II.

“Sir John Mandeville’s Report on the Griffin” and why I love it

Sir John Mandeville’s Report on the Griffin by Jane Yolen

Persia, 12th Century

Hiking in the Scythian hills,
John Mandeville stops for his tea,
Unpacks his hamper, eats his scones,
Surveys the land for a rarity,
Some miracle, some un-nature
To make this trip to Araby
The cause for royalty’s delight,
So that he might become a knight.

The air is heavy, hot, and still,
Yet Mandeville hears overhead
The shuttering of metallic wings.
(In ether are the best dreams bred.)
The hamper holds more than his tea.
He scatters on the ground the bread
That he has brought, the bloody meat
Which predators will find a treat.

Then he sits down, his pen in hand
To wait upon the mythic beast
And capture it upon the page
While it chokes down his proffered feast.
The ink dries up long, long before
Our John’s imaginings have ceased.
The foolscap tells an eerie tale
Of Griffin wing and tooth and nail.

“They have the shape,” he scribbles down,
“Eagle before, lion behind.”
His eager pen invents the form,
Remarks the species, clan, and kind;
Recounts the fierceness of the race
That guards the gold the gods have mined.
His travelogue has just the wit
To make the facts all sort-of fit.

And when the clattering wings depart,
And once again the land is clean,
He finishes his travel notes
And makes quite certain that they mean
A metaphor to please the king,
A parable to tempt the queen.
Ignoring what his eyes behold,
A different tale is what he’s told.

The transformation on the page,
The careful building blocks of diction,
Cause our traveler little pain
Nor cause his heart the slightest friction.
He knows well the audience
For his attempts at science fiction.
His work and home will not be slighted.
And for his travel book he’s knighted.

MORAL:
The moral of this tale is given:
Where you see eagle, there write Griffin.

—————–

I found this poem in a book called The Faery Flag by Jane Yolen. The book is so old that the library has no circulating copies which somehow makes it all the more wonderful that I did find it and get to read it. Much like Here There Be Dragons (which I read around the same time) this collection has always stayed with me.

I always love poems that tell stories, the cadence of this one just adds to its charm. As someone who is always imagining or, frankly, just making things up I enjoyed Sir John’s embellishments. I also liked the idea that sometimes reality needs a little extra help to become something really special.

“The Making of Dragons” by Jane Yolen and why I love it

The Making of Dragons (from Here There Be Dragons)

by Jane Yolen

If only it were still simple,
fire, water, earth, air,
the staples
of the older gods. But modern days
require choice, that modern phrase.
So choose–good dragon, bad dragon, west or east.

We must prioritize your beast.

You buy your myth with hollow coins.
So choose:
fire in the mouth or in the loins.

The Head:
the placement of the jagged teeth,
the poison glands, above, beneath
the forking tongue.
Eyes that spark fire?
The mouth, when open, breathing desire?
The jaw reticulated, viz. the snake.
The voice articulated, viz. the crake.
The tone: a cry, a scream, a roar?
In the making of dragons less is not more.

The Trunk:
the body comes in three basic styles.
One, the sinuous body that goes on for miles
(or meters in our continental design).
That is our Ororoborus line.
Two, the stumpy, humpy dinosaur
which will cost you a bit more
but comes with guarantees in parts replacement.
(We keep a years supply in the basement.)
The third, imported from the east,
well, we recommend that one the least.

The Tail:
caudal vertebrae aside,
a tail can be narrow, or it can be wide,
it can be flexible, or it can be hard,
used for a rudder, a weapon, a guard,
but all tails must be a certain length
to guarantee balance, poise, and strength.
Here is the formula (or as we say in the trade, the key):
Length from nose to sacrum + 2 X  2 1/2 equals tail
or
NSL+2 X 2.5=T

Options:
scales, feathers, skin, or fur.
Sexes: him, it, hermaphro, her.
Nails: oak, teak, ivory, or steel.
Diet preferences: beef, chicken, pork, game, or veal,
vegetarian (this last within reason),
or maidens in or out of season.

Our payment plan is based on need.
We take your house, your soul, your seed.
Please understand:
a dragon is a work of art.
If you prefer installments, we take your heart.
Just initial your preferred design
and here, on the bottom line . . .

sign.

—————–

I found this poem in a book called Here There be Dragons by Jane Yolen and illustrated by David Wilgus. It’s an old book and there are almost no copies in the library now. But somehow, magically, I found it on the shelves. It’s a great collection about dragons (obviously) that’s stayed with me, especially this poem (again obviously I guess).

I always love poems that tell stories, this one doubly so because it tells the story in rhyme.