Quite Contrary by Richard Roberts

Just finished reading Quite Contrary by Richard Roberts which on the face of it I thought would be a sort of retelling of the fairy story Red Riding Hood but in actual fact turned out to be a journey through a mishmash of many fairy stories.

Mary Stuart is a 12 year old with a lot of attitude.  I wouldn’t say she’s always easy to like but you need to bear with her on that score.  She has her own reasons for being a snarky wise ass.  To be honest Mary doesn’t read like a twelve year old – more like 17/18 but I think this age was probably chosen because it better fit the purposes of the story.

At the beginning Mary is, against the wishes of her mother, making her way to a party on Halloween. Which is quite fitting because she’s going to spend the rest of the story attired for trick or treating.  Basically, Mary, through a dare, crawls into a crawl space under the house where the party is being held – and somebody shuts the hatch.  Well, you just knew that was going to happen!  As she crawls along in the dark she realises she’s moved into a different territory – and how does she reach that conclusion you may ask?  Because she meets a talking rat – Rat in Boots no less (although he hasn’t quite acquired the boots yet).  Shortly after making the acquaintance of Ratty Mary mistakenly dons the outfit of Little Red Riding Hood (I won’t go into the details of the why or where) and inadvertently casts herself into the character from the fairy story which means the big bad wolf will pursue her relentlessly to the ends of the earth.

From hereon-in anything can and will happen.  Mary takes one journey after another dipping her toes into countless tales ranging from the Norse gods to Spider witches, voodoo, tales of fey and even moving into a tale of purgatory – which is here portrayed as the belly of a giant ship with twisty winding corridors and dark creepy places that are inhabited by shadows that try to trick and catch you!  The stories become a little more sinister with each telling until you move almost into urban fantasy with a couple of downright horror stories in the making.

In terms of characters I think people may struggle a little to like Mary, particularly at the start of the story, and I will admit that she’s sometimes her own worst enemy.  However, I didn’t dislike her, I didn’t like her as much as her two companions but I find that quite often I like the characters on the periphery or who are not intended as the key players.  Mary’s two companions are Rat and a wooden animated doll called Scarecrow.  I really liked these two characters – particularly rat – which just feels weird to be saying somehow!

As the story moves forward you begin to realise that in spite of Mary trying to act all tough she’s basically quite a good hearted soul -in fact looking back at the stories she takes a part in she quite often becomes fairly fundamental in helping the other characters, although this doesn’t always end up being the case – at the end of the day she is being chased by a very persistent, huge, wolf and wolves don’t take prisoners.

Basically, for me this is a coming of age novel.  It puts me in mind a little of a cross between The Book of Lost Things and the Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making (with a bit of Alice in Wonderland and Wizard of Oz thrown in for good measure)- and when I say that it seems to be about a young person becoming involved in a series of adventures and trying to come out the other side in one piece, along the way meeting some friends in the strangest places and winding up in some potentially difficult situations.  Then all being wrapped up in a revelation.

Now, criticisms.  Yes, I’ve likened this to a few favourite books here but I will point out that the writing isn’t quite as lyrical as Valente or quite as magical as Connolly and maybe it loses a little bit in provoking the real sense of fairyland somehow, I think probably because it races ahead and also because it moves away from the old fashioned way of telling tales.  I also confess that I found it a little bit sad – even the ending.  But, I did enjoy it and was fairly gripped in wanting to know what would eventually become of Mary.  I think the ending was a bit of a conundrum for me and I probably need to think on it a little longer as I’m not totally sure whether there was a ‘happily ever after’ in there or not.  I understand that Mary realised what she had to do and that she had to stand up for herself and not be the victim and that she could in fact choose not to become dark and twisted.  Maybe that was what all the stories were trying to achieve as by the end she realised she did want to help others and realised she wasn’t a bad person.

I like the fact that there is a message in the story and probably I wouldn’t be so worried about the ending if Mary wasn’t only 12!  But it’s a fantasy story so I shouldn’t become so involved!

I did enjoy Quite Contrary.  It had plenty of intriguing stories, was fast paced and – had a talking rat!  I will definitely try Richard Robert’s next book to see what else he comes up with.

I received a free copy of this from the publishers in return for a honest review.

As this covers fairytale, fantasy and myth I will definitely be submitting this for my Once Upon a Time reading event over at Stainless Steel Droppings.  This also counts to my 100 books in a year reading challenge.

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