Review: SIX-GUN SNOW WHITE by Catherynne M. Valente

(If you aren’t familiar with my template, I’m sharing my thoughts from my writer, editor, and reader brains, because sometimes they feel very differently about the same book. No spoilers, I promise!)

SixGunSnowWhiteSagaSix-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente
(Fantasy; Subterranean Press, 2013; Saga Press, 2015)

5/5 Stars

This retelling of the Grimm fairy tale set in the Wild West. Valente’s revolver-brandishing Snow White is half-white, half-Crow, and her heritage factors into the story in many layers. Written in a period vernacular, the narration is as gritty as the subject matter. Expect to be awe-struck and unsettled.

Writer Brain: 5/5. Diverse cast. Dark commentary on womanhood, personal power, and dominance of more than one kind. Layers upon layers of meaning and intention that I don’t feel qualified to dissect without careful research and deep reading. Valente pulls it all off with such ease. It’s the same careful handiwork that made my jaw drop when I read Deathless. I aspire to this level of craftsmanship.

Editor Brain: 5/5. Among her many other feats in this novella, Valente pulls off two things with which other writers often struggle: dialect and chapter headings. I know: two very different things, but both can make or break the reader’s experience. First, the narration is definitely crafted in the period/regional dialect of the Wild West. I wasn’t out of the first paragraph without hearing Snow White’s voice instead of my own. But as you’ll see recommended by so many writers, editors, and reviewers, Valente doesn’t rely on terrible spelling, dropped letters, and apostrophes to convey this: it’s done with sentence structure, word choice, and carefully affected grammar. I was also a fan of her part and chapter headings. I’ve edited many book projects where the authors are deeply tied to punny or highly specific chapter names that end up being entirely uninspiring for the reader. Valente’s system, on the other hand, had me engaging more deeply with the text. Headings like “Snow White Secures Fire” and “Snow White is Instructed by Heron and Lizard” gave context to actions and characters that weren’t explicitly written in that manner. I would love to know which of the characters named in these headings also play roles in Crow religion/lore/legend. The system left breadcrumbs to follow in my next read and that is an impressive feat. More straightforward and less meaningful headings wouldn’t have inspired the same interest and might have gone so far as detracting from an otherwise brilliant story. And knowing the difference between “interesting to you as a writer” and “interesting to your readers” is important to any book in any genre.

Reader Brain: 5/5. Good lord the reading experience was wonderful and unsettling. Valente’s Snow White is not the passive object of Grimm’s telling, and I was rooting for her from the start. She does not get to have an easy time of it, but the determined spirit that drives her kept me reading through the tough spots. Just like my Writer Brain,  my Reader Brain wanted an annotated edition to understand the connections I couldn’t draw simply because I wasn’t familiar with Crow stories that Valente was using as reference. But, again, it’s a meaning and depth I can uncover in my next read. And knowing I’m going to come back to a book may be my strongest recommendation to my fellow readers.

Et cetera: I only found one review written by an American Indian reader, and it was not flattering. As much as I loved the book, I’d be interested in hearing the perspectives from the American Indian community on Valente’s handling of Snow’s heritage, the violence that seemed typical of the era, and the underlying connections to Crow/American Indian lore. If you know of reviews, please share them in the comments. Or if you can speak to these aspects as a member of the American Indian community, I’d love to signal-boost your response somehow.