Date read: 10.7.12
Read online at Strange Horizons Fiction.
“Huntswoman,” a Snow White retelling, is a quietly moving and thoughtfully constructed puzzle-story – the kind that invites you to read it again from the start once you’ve finished, reexamining each piece of language and dialogue for new significance. It works very effectively with dream-symbols and -logic to create a sense of wordlessly uneasy compulsion and claustrophobia. Ultimately, Haskell subverts the original story’s subtext of female jealousy and competition for male attention (which Angela Carter placed at center stage and heightened to grotesque effect in “The Snow Child”), turning it instead into an argument for healing within a specifically female community.
Looking at readers’ responses online, there seems to be some confusion as to interpretation of the story. The following is to me the most straightforward (spoilers follow, naturally): The huntswoman is the embodiment of Snow White’s dissociated and wandering consciousness during her poisoned sleep; there is an implication of previous abuse by her father, the king, who repeatedly and brutishly breaks things, and refers with desperately insistent imperiousness to Snow White as “my girl.” The stepmother queen, by contrast, is a repairer and healer, but conditioned by the canonical Snow White framework, we regard her magic at first with suspicion and incomprehension. (After all, she does keep asking for Snow White’s heart and hands.)
The bone china and pastry offered by the queen turn to humbler items in the huntswoman’s hands because she reflexively rejects knowledge of her true (royal) self. When she finally achieves synthesis and reawakening, it is overseen by her witch-stepmother, whom we now understand to be nurturing and benevolent, and contingent on her own efforts, rather than those of “a thousand princes.”