A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce


I've also found it fascinating that in "Rumplestiltskin," the heroine is known only as "the miller's daughter" or "the queen," while Rumpelstiltskin's name becomes a magical talisman. In a story about the potency of names, the heroine is anonymous. Charlotte Miller's story began here.

That's a quote from the author's note at the end of A Curse Dark as Gold, and I think it perfectly captures the magic of this novel. It's a feminist retelling of Rumplestiltskin, focusing on the Miller's Daughter and the question of why she would respond to Rumplestiltskin the way she does.

When Charlotte Miller's father dies, Charlotte is the only family member left to run the mill that supports her entire community. The mill is falling apart, traders are dismissive of the teenage Charlotte, and people whisper of a curse around the business, but Charlotte is determined to keep the mill running. Then she learns that her father took out a two thousand pound loan before he died, and the bankers are unwilling to trust a single woman to repay it. She needs to find the money, now, or else she will lose her home, her business, and the one place holding her community together.

Charlotte is a fantastic protagonist. Hardworking, stubborn and determined, she fights endless opposition to keep the mill running. She's kind-hearted and incredibly loyal to her village and her mill, and her pragmatic, level-headed approach to life and work keeps her hunting for logical explanations as the "curse" seems to hit her again and again. And these character strengths are also her weaknesses, allowing her to keep going when many others would quit, but also gradually ensnaring her in Rumplestiltskin's trap.

The novel is a slow build, but its gorgeous writing and compelling characters make it enjoyable from the start. Bunce perfectly balances Charlotte's emotional growth and the development of the plot at the mill with a gothic atmosphere, lurking in the background and coloring everything. The novel has a strong undertone of wrongness running through it, an unsettling feeling that you just can't shake, and this grows and grows, until the undefined tension is almost too much to bear. The final chapters are terrifying, and I kind of regretted reading them at 1am, but I couldn't put the book down to wait for comforting sunlight.

If you enjoy fairy tale retellings or historical fantasy, then this is definitely one to read.