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Literature / White as Snow

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What did the mirror see?

Once upon a time, there was a mirror.

So begins a dark retelling of Snow White by British fantasy author Tanith Lee. Arpazia is the daughter of a pagan lord who is under attack by the Christian king Draco. Her old nurse tells the girl that her father will give her wings to escape the fighting, which Arpazia doesn't understand... until her father places a knife on the table. Realizing she is going to die if she stays, Arpazia and her maid try to flee, but end up running right into Draco's army. Draco rapes Arpazia, after which she curses him. Fearing the curse, he marries her. Nine months later, Arpazia gives birth to a little girl who is white as snow, black as wood, and red as blood, the curse she had conjured thrown back at her.

As Arpazia loses touch with reality more and more, her daughter Candacis, called Coira, is brought up away from her parents by her uncaring nurse. It is not until the day her father consults an oracle when she is seven years old that she first truly sees her mother and, platonically, falls in love with her. Unfortunately for the girl, the mother's love is in that same instant given to a handsome young hunter with deep ties to the old gods of the land.

Enter the Classical Mythology elements as Coira grows up with one foot in the Christian world and one foot in the land's pagan roots.

White as Snow provides examples of:

  • Adults Are Useless: Coira's parents ignore her, her nurse mostly resents her, and her nurse's replacement fails to explain a few very important things. No wonder Coira isolates herself so much.
  • Arc Number:
    • Two: With the prominence of black and white and the mirror, dualities are common.
    • Three: The maiden, mother, and crone feature heavily.
  • Bastard Bastard: Hadz. He's tyrannical, a murderer, and he shouts his own name during sex.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: A lot of the major characters are Draco's bastard children and issues arise from how well he treated them.
  • Black Eyes of Evil: Arpazia and Coira have "cold water eyes" normally, a color that's not quite blue or gray, but when their pupils dilate, their eyes appear to be black. With Arpazia in particular, this is taken as a sign of witchcraft, or at least insanity.
  • Broken Bird: Arpazia and Coira.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Coira and Hadz are more likely than not half-siblings.
  • The Caligula: Downplayed with Arpazia, who while cruel, temperamental, and given to abusing her personal aides, has no control or interest in the administration of her city. Played straight with Prince Hadz,who rules the mines with an iron fist and whose terrified followers tiptoe around his evil whims.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: As in the original fairy tale, Arpazia is given hot iron "shoes."
  • Crapsack World: There is no joy anywhere in this story. Even before Arpazia marries Draco, her father doesn't seem to be so great himself.
  • Creepy Child: Coira, who scares her nursemaid by refusing to talk for long stretches at a time.
  • Death of the Old Gods: Subverted. While Christianity is spreading, even the priests dance in the woods at full moon.
  • Demoted to Extra: Draco features prominently in the first few chapters and later disappears from the book aside from being mentioned now and then.
  • Disappeared Dad: Draco goes off and creates a new capital city with a new queen who gives him sons and forgets Arpazia and Coira. Subverted in that they don't miss him and soon leave the city themselves.
  • The Dragon: Juprum, Hadz' long-suffering right-hand-man and caretaker (although he loves the boy deeply and takes no issue with his boss's anger issues).
  • Dude, She's Like in a Coma: She really is. It's not death this time.
  • Emotionless Girl: Coira, to the point that she scares people.
  • Fairest of Them All: Arpazia is more interested in her lost youth, which she believes Coira represents. But she does want to be beautiful i.e. find the girlhood that was stolen from her.
  • First Gray Hair: While working a spell that requires three hairs, Arpazia vaguely notices one of them is gray. Subverted in that Arpazia doesn't really have any sense of how old she is anymore, and is so disconnected from reality that she believes she's still a young girl.
  • Fisher King: The king of the wood. When Arpazia hurts him, there's a visible change in the world around her.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Arpazia scares the crap out of everyone, including her giant warlord husband.
  • Greek Mythology: This novel is a retelling of Snow White using the myth of Demeter and Persephone.
  • Grimmification
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Coira dreams that her real mother is a beautiful young blonde woman who is kind and gentle and loving. She imagines that this woman died and Arpazia took her place.
  • The Hecate Sisters: Symbolized in particular by gowns Arpazia wears over the course of the story, one white, one russet, and one black. Arpazia is forced out of her maidenhood too soon because of Coira's birth, and she rejects motherhood, leaving her to become a crone at all of thirty-three. Most notably, when Coira appears in a white gown, Arpazia is wearing a black one.
  • Icy Blue Eyes: Arpazia and Coira.
  • Karma Houdini: Draco bows out of the narrative after abandoning his wife and daughter and moving to his new capital. The next time we get any commentary on him, very late in the story, it seems like he's living the good life with the wife he actually wanted. Downplayed with Prince Hadz, who spends the climax in a bit of a foul mood, but perks right up and leaves the story in a better position than he entered it.
  • Kick the Dog: Arpazia rejects Coira's declaration of love.
  • Lady in Red: At the height of her beauty and power, Arpazia is seen wearing a particular red gown. This is the period of her life where she gets to explore her sexuality. The gown also symbolizes the mother. A man remembers Coira wearing a red dress, symbolic of a stage in life she hasn't reached yet. She corrects him, saying it was green.
  • Light Feminine and Dark Feminine: The two sides of the princess, the part of her that is Candacis and the part of her that is Coira. To highlight the dichotemy she is sometimes called Coira-Candacis.
  • Madonna-Whore Complex: How men in the story view Coira and Arpazia in particular, but women in general.
  • Magic Mirror: Subverted. The mirror is only "magic" because Arpazia is losing her mind and treats it as such, combined with the superstitions of the people.
  • Mandatory Motherhood: Arpazia doesn't want to be a mother, but between her rape and Draco needing an heir, she must be.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Particularly everything regarding the mirror. Is it actually talking to Arpazia, or is it all in her head?
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Both of the princess's names, as well as others.
    • Candacis is stated to mean something to do with "fiery whiteness." (Actually Candacis is a a variant of Candace, which means "Mother Queen".)
    • Coira refers to Kore, or Persephone.
    • Draco, the dragon.
    • Orion, Arpazia's lover, a hunter, and king of the wood. It's implied that this isn't his real name, but it is used for the mythological connections.
      • Another name of his is Klymeno, referring to Clymenus, one of Hades's names.
    • Hephaestion: Stormy's real name. His mother threw him to his supposed death as a child, ruining his legs.
    • Hadz, ruler of a subterranean realm, was given the name specifically for his similar circumstance to the god Hades.
  • Mirrored Confrontation Shot: Arpazia and Coira have a moment like this, in text not in artwork. Though they look so alike as to nearly be identical, at Scorpion Moon the two of them meet with mirroring movements during a dance. Coira is wearing white as she has pure black hair while Arpazia is wearing black and the emerging white in her hair stands out.
  • Missing Mom:
    • Arpazia's mother died, they tell the girl, at Arpazia's birth.
    • Arpazia herself is such a non-presence in Coira's life that Coira thinks her real mother is dead and Arpazia is a stepmother.
  • Near-Rape Experience: Draco almost rapes Arpazia a second time, but her complete refusal to respond reminds him of a corpse and he's too disgusted to continue.
  • Offing the Offspring: Played entirely straight. Arpazia is Coira's mother, not her stepmother.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname:
    • The princess's Christian name is Candacis. Everyone calls her Coira, a pagan name, that her nurse gave her.
    • Arpazia's lover is known as Klymeno and as Orion. His real name is never disclosed, even to Arpazia.
  • Prince Charmless: Prince Hadz, a sexual sadist who rapes Coira while unconscious and is noted to have have taken lovers as young as 7. Thankfully, his unorthodox taste and personal childishness allows Hephaestion to play him like a fiddle, buying Coira's freedom in return for him having sex with the prince.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin/Eerie Pale-Skinned Brunette: Arpazia and Coira, depending on how creepy they are at the moment. Both women are acknowledged to be very beautiful—Arpazia before she somehow becomes a thirty-year-old crone and Coira after she turns eighteen and comes into her own—but the mother's flares of temper and the daughter's talent for complete stillness and silence frighten people to the point that their beauty almost isn't worth it.
  • Real Women Have Curves: Invoked. When Arpazia's pregnancy shows (barely) at her wedding, it is assumed to be her natural shape.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Kaya and Julah.
  • Sanity Slippage: Arpazia slips further and further from reality over the years.
  • Secret Other Family: Subverted. Draco's other queen and children aren't secret at all.
  • Seven Deadly Sins: The seven dwarves put on a play where each of them plays a sin.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Coira.
  • Tell Me About My Father: Subverted with Coira's father, whom she has no interest in. Played straight with her mother.
  • That Thing Is Not My Child!: Arpazia's reaction to her baby.
  • Those Two Girls: Coira's maids Kaya and Julah, who happen to be her bastard half-sisters.
  • Uncanny Family Resemblance: Coira looks exactly like Arpazia to the point that she is almost a symbol for her lost childhood.
  • Undying Loyalty: Juprum to Hadz.
  • Vague Age:
    • Weirdly deliberately invoked in the text when the nurse forgets Coira is eight, not seven. Coira keeps this up over time, making the wrong age her princess age similar to how Candacis is her princess name.
    • Arpazia's age, in her own mind, is also vague as she can't seem to remember if she's a teenager, in her twenties, or in her thirties.
  • Vain Sorceress: Everyone calls Arpazia "the witch" and takes note of how much she decorates herself before going to her mirror. Subverted in that she doesn't actually have magic.
  • Victorian Novel Disease: Coira becomes violently ill after Arpazia refuses to have anything to do with her.
  • Villain Protagonist: Arpazia.