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This book recently hopped in front of me and reminded me that I’d wanted to read it when it first came out a couple years ago.

Toads and DiamondsToads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson.
The original Toads and Diamonds tale by Perrault was in the big pale yellow book of fairy tales that I had growing up, and I remember it being one of my favorites. Thinking back, I wonder why – who would really want either flowers and jewels or toads and snakes falling out of her mouth? This novelization sets the story in a place very like India during the Mughal Empire, when the newcomers were not the English but monotheists. Diribani lives with her stepmother and stepsister Tana, in a house that is empty of servants and furniture since the death of Diribani’s merchant father. They’re a tight-knit family, despite not being blood relatives. One day at the well, the beautiful but clumsy Diribani prays to the Serpent Goddess and is granted a wish. She wishes for beauty, and finds herself with jewels and flowers dropping out of her mouth when she speaks. Tana, plain but kind, goes next and wishes for security for her family. She is given the gift of sacred snakes and lucky toads falling out when she talks. The gifts throw their lives into chaos. The governor of their town follows the new religion, which considers all magic evil witchcraft, has placed a bounty on snakes, formerly kept as rat catchers in every house, and wants to take Diribani hostage for the jewels. Perhaps luckily for Diribani, the prince is passing through and decides to take her instead. Meanwhile, Tana must flee for her life, taking temporary oaths at a monastery despite an unexpected offer of marriage from the boy she’s always secretly admired. Now separated from everyone they know and trust, both sisters must work out on their own what the goddess meant for them to do with their gifts. Neither of them doubts that they are gifts, not curses, meant for the good of all those around them – but how best to use them, and stay alive in the meantime? Woven through is the struggle to forge some sort of understanding between the rival religions, as well as the culture of the ancient stepwells of India. These I had never heard of before, and am now quite curious about. The ending might be a little easily romantic, but overall, I found this a beautiful retelling, faithful to the original while adding new depth to plot, characters and setting.

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October 2012

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