As a few of my friends have observed, there seems to be a dearth of good reading available for girls in their early teens. At this point, girls are usually intellectually ready to move on from children's books, but might not yet have the emotional maturity to handle more intense, adult-oriented works. Unfortunately, most of the books targeted to this age range are insubstantial, fluffy teen romances—exactly the kind of thing that will make it all the more difficult for their readers to cultivate maturity.
That’s why reading—and reviewing—Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s books for Vintage Novels is such a delight. Although readers of every age should be able to read them with equal enjoyment, The Tales of Goldstone Wood stand squarely in this breach. They are well written. They are intricately plotted. They are beautifully imagined. They are touching. They are clear-headed. They are encouraging. They are just what we need.
The first book in the series introduces us to Princess Una of Parumvir, who daydreams about being swept off her feet by a handsome lover—but none of the men who come to “pay their respects”, from the disappointingly ordinary and responsible Prince Aethelbald of Farthestshore, to the downright creepy and terrifying Duke of Shippening, are exactly what she imagined.
Neither is Leonard, the wandering jester in exile from the dragon-ravaged land of Southlands, but Una gives him her heart anyway—and so, when the Dragon comes to Parumvir, he finds Una ready to succumb to his deadly purpose.
For a while, although friends recommended them, I wasn’t sure if the Tales of Goldstone Wood were going to be my cup of tea. To begin with, the bright sparkly covers. To go on with, the characters with names like Lionheart and Daylily. To finish up with, the publisher, Bethany House, that purveyor of inspirational romance novels.
Despite my low expectations, Heartless came as a sharp breath of fresh air. The worst I can say of it is that while the first half is fairly light and comedic, the second half changes tone as the Dragon arrives, and the two halves don’t fit together awfully well. Otherwise, it’s very good—a sweet, enjoyable story with a hard core of good sense that lays bare the heroine’s bad decisions under the kind of pointed and merciless scrutiny that Jane Austen wielded to such good effect. Take this, for example:
“Yes, I trust him,” Una said. “And without proof! That’s what trust is, isn’t it? Believing without seeing?”This is a book that walks you through many of the foolishnesses teenage girls are likely to commit, and demonstrates quite unflinchingly the heartbreak and even the captivity to which they are likely to lead. Its romance is common-sensical almost to a fault—and it’s all capped off with a lovely but unobtrusive allegory of salvation.
“Wrong,” her father growled. “That isn’t trust; that’s foolishness! If a man has to ask for your trust, it's a sure sign that you should not give it. Trust should be earned inherently, without any verbal demands. Trust is knowing a man's character, knowing truth, and relying on that character and truth even when the odds seem against you.”
Book two introduces us to Lionheart, Prince of the Southlands, and two young women who come to love him. There’s Rose Red, Lionheart’s childhood best friend, who lives in the mountains shrouded with veils, with no one but an old gardener and a pet goat for company. Then there’s Daylily, cold and fiercely ambitious, who is sent by her father the Baron of Middlecrescent to tempt the young prince into marriage—but loses her own heart in the process.
Then a monster from Rose Red’s worst nightmares comes to life, and Lionheart drives a terrible bargain with a woman who claims to have won him in a game of dice with Death itself.
While Veiled Rose shows better craftsmanship than Heartless, its dependance on that book for an important part of its plot, plus its broader scope—this is only the first half of a story completed in Moonblood—make it a little messy. All the same, the world and characters have visibly grown: the symbolism is more subtle and multi-layered and the characters, never flat, have additional levels of complexity. I need not have worried about the names: Lionheart and Daylily may sound sugary, but they are weak, flawed, antiheroic characters in desperate need of repentance and salvation.
Just as in Heartless, the book is thoroughly edifying. I always love books where parental authority, justly wielded, is a good thing. When was the last time you read a book where a main character is advised, “Your father loves you. Trust him. Obey him”? Or where the deadly villainess reveals her dastardly plan—“to get him on the path to self-discovery”?
Book three of this series resolves—if it doesn’t perfectly tie off—the story begun in Veiled Rose. Moonblood is the best of the series yet: a stunning multi-stranded story of despair, enchantment, illusion, love, trust, treachery, forgiveness, and redemption.
The Lady Life-In-Death has promised Lionheart that he shall have his dream: the kingdom of Southlands. For that he has sacrificed the heart of his one true love. For that he is about to marry the well-connected beauty Daylily. And for that, once the people of Southlands blame his servant Rose Red for their sufferings under the Dragon, he banishes his most faithful friend to the Wilderlands where a fallen star, enslaved to the goblin king of illusion-woven Arpiar, lies in wait.
When the Prince of Farthestshore deprives Lionheart of Life-In-Death’s protection and guidance, Lionheart loses everything. Everything except one last journey to find and rescue Rose Red from an otherworldly kingdom which no one has seen for five hundred years. Will Lionheart finally let go of his excuses, and find the courage to lay down his life for another?
I loved this book—as if the author, having worked through two books’ worth of set-up, suddenly found her groove and ran with it. Characters and places formerly only dimly perceived on the borders of these stories are suddenly pulled into them. Finally, we get the opportunity to adventure through the mysterious Wood Between to other worlds. Finally, we see the Knights of Farthestshore adventuring side by side.
There’s a huge amount of richness in the worlds that Anne Elisabeth Stengl has conjured up. The imagery is deep with allusions to and reminders of other stories, from the rose-wrought palace of Arpiar that is something like Beauty and the Beast in reverse, to the stone princes at the table of Ragniprava that remind one of the sleepers in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The Wood itself, and the Knights of Farthestshore that journey in it, each of them with his or her own backstory, are strongly reminiscent of The Faerie Queene.
Then, as I’ve come to expect, Anne Elisabeth Stengl enriches her lovely story with echoes of wisdom and eternal truth. I loved that when redemption came to the characters, it did not come cheap: even the fallen star had to die.
Finally, although there are three love stories in this novel, every single one of them was handled in ways you wouldn’t expect. Sir Oeric’s was the most conventional, in that it actually resolved at the end (in a scene that had me misting up). All of them were very poignant and tender, but none of them took over the main point of the plot, which was the need for redemption, a greater love and a greater service. Not only did this keep the romantic subplots in perspective; it also, I believe, allowed for more unconventional plot development within the romances themselves.
To conclude, The Tales of Goldstone Wood are so far a rich, satisfying, and evocative fantasy series with roots in the folklore and fantasy of all Christendom. While I’m most excited to recommend them to younger audiences who have so little of this quality to read, I think they should appeal to every age: they are quite simply, good stories, told well.
So, do I have your interest yet? One of the exciting things about featuring contemporary fiction on my blog is the opportunity to invite the author to come and talk about her books! Anne Elisabeth Stengl was kind enough to answer a few questions for us. Stick with us, because she’s also offering a giveaway—the winner’s choice of any of the first 6 books in the series!
Hello and welcome to Vintage Novels, Anne Elisabeth! I’ve really been enjoying your Goldstone Woods books. They feel like they were grown in a rich soil of other stories. What are some of the other stories that the Tales of Goldstone Wood grew from?
The Tales of Goldstone Wood sprang from many sources, probably more than I can name. Off the top of my head, direct sources I can think of include Book I of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” by Robert Browning, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and Photogen and Nycteris, by George MacDonald. Oh, and the “Ballad of Tam Lin.” And various legends of St. Patrick. And snippets of Shakespeare . . . And readers don’t have to delve far into my series before noting many classic fairy tale themes harkening back to “Beauty and the Beast,” “Cinderella,” “King Thrushbeard,” and more.
Seriously, I don’t think I can list all of my sources. Many of them are unconscious sources as well. For instance, when re-reading my sophomore novel, Veiled Rose, a year ago, I noticed subtle influences from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which were never overtly intended. And, of course, many readers have drawn parallels to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, particularly Eustace’s draconian transformation featured in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (though my own interpretation of the dragon-transformation side of things stemmed more from Bram Stoker than from Lewis).
My goal when I set out to write this series was to create a world that gave readers a strong sense of familiarity. I wanted them to feel as though they had somehow encountered this world before, though the stories themselves are brand new. A solid grounding in classic literature and mythology serves to make the world of Goldstone Wood feel more real. At least, that’s the hope!
I love the very wise and edifying way you handle the romance subplots in your stories. In including romantic elements in your plots, how and where do you draw the line between the helpful and the unhelpful?
Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever stopped to consider whether or not a romantic thread is “helpful” or “unhelpful.” My intention has always been to write authentic stories, including authentic romances. If the resulting storylines are a blessing to my readers, so much the better. I do hope that authentic characters dealing with authentic (if sometimes rather fantastical!) situations will serve to inspire and encourage those who read my work, but I don’t write with an agenda. Or rather, I don’t write with an agenda beyond writing the truth. And the truth is, people are flawed and they will hurt one another; but grace is always beautiful.
Fantasy has long been a traditional Christian playing-field, and that was even before the Inklings. Do you think fantasy as a genre is particularly apt to conveying Christian truth? If so, why?
Fantasy is the ideal form for writers of every faith and creed to try to make sense of the world around them, for the fantasy genre is by nature symbolic. From the “Epic of Gilgamesh” on, storytellers have used fantastical characters and inventions to express difficult ideas to their fellow man. It is only natural for Christian writers to continue in this tradition. And the symbolic nature of the genre opens convenient doorways for allegorical themes to be slipped into compelling narrative without harming the integrity of the story being told. It really is a wonderful genre when you think about it . . .
From what I hear, you were home educated by an award-winning writer mother! Were there any things that your mother did with you growing up to develop and hone your writing skills?
My mother demonstrated a passion for storytelling that was always inspiring. She modelled dedication to her craft and a willingness to grow and develop over the years. She always encouraged me to write. . . but she didn’t give me writing assignments. She didn’t edit my work or even read it unless I specifically asked her to. She remained hands-off, allowing me to develop my own voice and style quite apart from hers.
I remember the first time I let her read one of the Goldstone Wood stories, a short work titled “The Lady of Aiven,” which I wrote when I was seventeen. I hadn’t let her see any of my work for years up until that particular story. And when at last I let her look over that one, she didn’t critique it. She didn’t edit it. She just read it. And when she finished, she turned to me and said, “Wow. That was incredible.”
It was the most inspiring thing she could possibly have said to me.
These days she is my first reader for everything and sees absolutely every single draft of every book, even those drafts I would die before I let anyone else read. She is my primary brainstorming partner, encourager, and editor. But when I was younger, she did for me the very best that she possibly could—she left me alone to become the writer I was meant to be.
And finally, what would you say are the main things you hope to cultivate in your readers through your books?
Ultimately, every one of the Tales of Goldstone Wood is a story of undeserved grace. If the saying is true, and every writer really only has one story to tell in as many different ways as she can, this is my story: People are fallen, broken, and more often than not their own worst enemies; but grace is sufficient, extending even to the most unworthy. Every character I write, both “good” and “bad,” reflects this same message. If my readers can walk away from a Tale of Goldstone Wood with a deeper understanding of this grace and its marvellous beauty, I am satisfied.
Thanks so much for talking to us, Anne Elisabeth! I’ve been so excited to discover your books and I look forward to watching them do good work for the Kingdom in the future.
ANNE ELISABETH STENGL makes her home in North Carolina, where she lives with her husband, Rohan, a kindle of kitties, and one long-suffering dog. When she’s not writing, she enjoys Shakespeare, opera, and tea, and practices piano, painting, and pastry baking. Her novel Starflower was awarded the 2013 Clive Staples Award, and her novels Heartless, Veiled Rose, and Dragonwitch have each been honored with a Christy Award.
To learn more about Anne Elisabeth Stengl and her books visit: www.AnneElisabethStengl.blogspot.com
Win a signed copy of one of the Tales of Goldstone Wood!
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