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PFS2012 ARC Review: The Sweetest Spell by Suzanne Selfors

Title: The Sweetest Spell
Story Arc: Standalone
Publication: August 7, 2012 by Bloomsbury
Hardcover: 416 pages
Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tale Retellings
Age Group: Teen, Young Adult
Source: Bloomsbury via Publicist
Excerpt(s): from beginning of ARC
Content: Harassment, Murder, Slavery, Kissing

I was born a dirt-scratcher's daughter...

Emmeline Thistle, a dirt-scratcher's daughter, has escaped death twice-first, on the night she was born, and second, on the day her entire village was swept away by flood. Left with nothing and no one, Emmeline discovers her rare and mysterious ability-she can churn milk into chocolate, a delicacy more precious than gold.

Suddenly, the most unwanted girl in Anglund finds herself desired by all. But Emmeline only wants one-Owen Oak, a dairyman's son, whose slow smiles and lingering glances once tempted her to believe she might someday be loved for herself. But others will stop at nothing to use her gift for their own gains-no matter what the cost to Emmeline.

Magic and romance entwine in this fantastical world where true love and chocolate conquer all.
The day Emmeline Thistle was born, and was left to die, she was saved thanks to a ring of cows that were drawn into the forest and stayed to guard the infant as the predators awoke. The next day, the milkman wandered in search of his cows and walked back with baby Emmeline in his arms, returning her to the care of her parents. Her father hasn’t been able to look at her since. The townspeople haven’t treated her with a kind word or offered a helping hand since. And, ever after, Emmeline has lived with the knowledge she was born unwanted, and the reason for her abandonment is obvious to everyone when they witness her lopsided gait.

For me, the classic fairy tales—those which I’ve read or the retellings I’ve watched—contain an emotional pattern: it begins with sorrow as a result of loss or a deprivation of some kind or both, then it flip flops between happy and serious before ending with a big joyous splash that never fails to conjure smiles on the faces of the stories’ recipients. The Sweetest Spell by Suzanne Selfors follows that well-charted routed, which lends the story a comfortable familiarity as Suzanne simultaneously whips up a fairly unique story. Now, I’ve never read or heard much about The Ugly Duckling fairy tale and don’t know much except the obvious, so I’m afraid I missed out on any nods to the original story. However, that didn’t take away my enjoyment of the book. In fact, I want to say that it added a kind of freshness to my reading palette and helped me enjoy the The Sweetest Spell by Suzanne Selfors even more.

Dual narratives generally make me leery, because I find that most times one voice, when both are well-written and distinct, can overpower the other, so that you’re more inclined to be actively interested in one more than the second, which then causes you to want to half-dismiss some of the story because you’re so eager to get back to the more preferred narrator’s side of things. I didn’t find that to be a problem with Emmeline Thistle and Owen Oak, the two main characters. At times, it even felt like they almost blended into one voice, which sometimes made it difficult to discern who exactly was telling the story until some jarring detail helped me identify the current narrator. This didn’t shake me out of my focus in the story—it was fairly easy to go with a flow, kind of like when you find a ditch in the road, and instead of stumbling you simply walk around it without a hitch in your stride. Though, some, I imagine, will stumble despite the warning.

Because I had such a smooth time with the pace and the switch in perspectives, I had no trouble at all avoiding logical reasoning as the story unfolded. The world Suzanne’s built for her fairy tale reimagining has a ton of quirks and a few holes that will make the more disbelieving, skeptical sort work harder to suspend disbelief. I’m someone who’s really easily convinced, and has no trouble at all immersing myself in the most unbelievable story lines—though, that doesn’t always mean I’ll enjoy them anyway. This one I did like. I found the weirdness of the story to be very fairytale-esque and quite charming. Emmeline’s odd and mysterious connection with cows saves her life not just the one time, but twice, and her bond with them persists during the tale, cropping up in useful, even lucrative ways. And I loved how it goes on to have an important link-up with the enforced segregation between Emmeline’s people and the outside world in Anglund.

The Sweetest Spell by Suzanne Selfors reminded me a little of The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy. The story neither debunks any faulty elements in fairy tales nor does it live up to the caliber of humor in his story portrayed by the omniscient narrator and other characters. But, the quirky, fun feel and the way in which Owen’s rescue attempts to retrieve the damsel go awry vaguely reminded me of one of my favorite books of the year! An added bonus, of course. Not to mention the way in which the overall plot kind of veers off in many engrossing directions, not only due to the dual perspectives but also all that’s happening within the story and how it’s intertwined. You’ve got the politics in Anglund, the suspicious exportation of Emmeline’s fellow “dirt-scratchers” to the dreaded mineral fields, the legend of chocolate and, inadvertently, that of the two peoples residing in Auglund, and Emmeline’s mysterious involvement in all of it.

Emmeline as a character is a deeply vulnerable one which she wards off with her strength, steadiness, smarts, and light sarcasm. The loneliness and the shame and embarrassment that go hand in hand with her deformity are almost unbearably sad, and I was brought uncomfortably near to full-on crying because I was so genuinely affected by the unfortunateness of her life. And as I grew to like her, and appreciate her more for her admirable qualities, that sadness just deepened. Her loyalty, hard work, and gentleness finally pay off when it paves her a way into the Oak family’s hearts—the mother still bearing unused love as a result of the loss of her daughter and eldest child, the solemn father who is a good, honorable, understanding man, and the son reluctant to fall in love for fear of losing his independence, of having his nature tamed, who enjoys a good barefist fight and sampling milkmaids too much.

None of the characters are one-dimensional—including the many villain-ish ones—and I appreciated that. However, the main highlight of The Sweetest Spell by Suzanne Selfors is definitely the romance. Although it happens somewhat quickly, it still retains a sense of believability, and any doubt you might have is quickly shooed away by the sweetness you don’t want to question. Because it’s so happy, and Emmeline is in desperate need of happiness and the chance to experience love and to be loved by someone else. It’s soft and subtle, and though he refuses to admit he’s falling quickly, you’re rooting for Owen the whole way. I was their own personal cheering gallery within the confines of my cave bedroom, and couldn’t quite contain my shout of joy when all the doubts and missteps are shoved aside for a happy, satisfying ending.

I don’t know what it is about this week, and my reading about sad and even sadder characters, but I’m too pleased to express in mere words my general sense of bliss after finishing this book. Which is what I think fairy tales should ultimately accomplish—it should gift you with a pleasant feeling to retain and fortify your belief in happily ever after. The Sweetest Spell by Suzanne Selfors is a questing fantasy, a half-lighthearted half-sober story, that, while it won’t be perfect for everyone, quenched my thirst for cheer and turned out to be more enjoyable than Selfors's MAD LOVE from last year.

So, things you’ll need to enjoy this book:
  • capability of tolerating dual first person narration
  • a strong suspension of disbelief
  • an agreeable approach to the gist and pattern of classic fairy tales
"Owen Oak, you leave that girl alone," Nan had scolded. "That rib of yours is never going to heal if you keep following her around."
Even Nan had noticed. A knot formed in my stomach as I pushed the embarrassment away. "It's not what you think," I told my father. "She's pretty. That's all it is. I just like looking at her."
"Well, that I do understand. A pretty girl is hard to ignore." Father walked over to me and placed his hand on my shoulder. "Look, Son, Emmeline will have to go back to her own people one day. Dirt-scratchers belong in the Flatlands. I don't want you getting attached."
"I'm not getting attached. I don't even know what you mean by that." I trudged up the stairs and out of the cellars.
So what if I helped Emmeline with the chores? I'm the one who found her, after all. Well, the cow found her, but I carried her to safety. It was good manners to help her. That was all.
And there she was, standing inside the front door, a feather duster in her hand. "Hello, Owen," she said as I waked into the house. "There's something I wanted to ask you."
"I don't have much time," I grumbled, moving quickly past her. Too much time spent with one girl was not good. If Father had gotten the wrong idea, then maybe Emmeline had the wrong idea as well. I need to put an end to that.
Who was I kidding? I was lying to myself. At night, I could still feel my arm around her tiny waist, holding her as the horse galloped across the pasture.
I was attached.
Rating: Perfect Bed Partner

IN LESS WORDS: Frankly, more people should be interested and begin reading this book. It’s about acceptance, forgiveness, true love, and the importance of doing the right thing even when fear is escalating. The Sweetest Spell by Suzanne Selfors is both lighthearted and heavy, a quest for acceptance and truth, and full of situations gone awry—both comically so and otherwise. If you’re into fairy tales and can enjoy the charming ridiculousness they entail, and have a healthy interest in happily ever afters, as well as a fairly mild curiosity about cows—pertaining to their milk-giving prowess and magical effects—then you’re sure to dig The Sweetest Spell by Suzanne Selfors.

  1. The Book Rat

  1. The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy

Got something specific in mind? Dare I believe I might NOT have covered something you wish to know? If so, let me know down in the comments section. Comment down below if you're crushing on the dairyman or have can tolerably live while bereft of chocolate. Also, are you a US citizen? Then, don't forget to enter this giveaway for a copy of THE SWEETEST SPELL!


Sam @ Realm of Fiction said...

This is the first review I've read for this book. I have to say, the gorgeous cover was the sole reason I added this to my list, but now that I actually know what it's about, I'm even more excited! It sounds like a very sweet read. :) Brilliant review, Asher!

Kelsey @ The Lost Book Reports said...

Great Review! I have been curious about this book

Asheley Tart said...

This sounds so good! I laughed about the connection with cows. Also, I like dual narratives - when they're done well. Great review! This sounds as lovely as the cover.