I was familiar with this classic fairy tale, but author Suzannah Rowntree gave it both some eery twists and some captivating background-color.
She sets it in Constantinople, when emperors ruled the city of Holy Wisdom and Muslim invaders were an ever-present shadow. While the presence of a wish-granting flounder is an obvious fantastical element, the historical setting itself was one so foreign to our modern world as to render it fantastic. It stirred my dormant appreciation for fantasy literature, as I experienced a world of icons and eunuchs, refuse in the streets and gold-plated palaces, Greek fire and Saracen attacks, mutilations and theological discussions. Harsh “medieval”-style punishments mixed with limitless social mobility: a mere fisherman (albeit with magical assistance) goes from a hovel in an alley to the emperor’s palace, and on… Ms. Rowntree painted the society such that these dichotomies that would shock us in our “egalitarian” modern world are easily accepted by the Greek citizens.
With a wink at steam-punk, the city is also littered with intricate clockwork objects and robots which, according to the Author’s Note, have their basis in historical fact. Feel driven to go research the imperial age of Constantinople? Good.
(One little note: although Apple Dictionary gives the origin of “kudos” as 18th century Greek, it had a modern flavor to me when I read it. Goes to show that even a strictly appropriate word can have different connotations for some readers.)
As in the original fairy tale, however, getting your every wish granted doesn’t solve life’s problems. In fact, the eery undertone hints that the family’s wishes cost something – something they might not have wanted to pay. The story is also artfully woven into plausible historical conflicts that ramp up the tension, pile on problems, and prompt the fisherman and his wife to wish for “one more little thing.”
Again, while I knew the end of the original fable, the twists and turns brought on the family both by circumstances and by their own wishes kept me turning virtual pages, eager to see how Ms. Rowntree would end the story.
In the end…of course I’m not going to say how it ends. But I’ll say this: the story vaulted to more than a kid’s morality lesson (“Don’t feed your ambition lest it grow too much”) and became a tense, thought-provoking examination of what unlimited wishes do to our characters, how situations quickly get out of control, and what the real costs of our ambitions could be.
If you’re considering sharing this book with a child, bear in mind that the pre-modern eras were not as squeamish as we are. The actions and discussions are suited to the earthy time-period — though on the other hand what your kid’s grade-school teacher assigned them to read is probably more graphic.
An engrossing experience, lit with the magic of a time and culture not our own…
Disclaimer: I received a free ebook copy of Prince of Fishes when I signed up for Suzannah Rowntree’s mailing list. I was not required to write a review, positive or otherwise.