For those of you who aren't aware, the Grimm brothers wrote a fairytale called "The Fisherman's Wife". This fantastic little story - which I remember reading retellings of when I was as young as six years old - is about a fisherman who, as fortune would have it, catches a magical fish by mistake. The fish promises to grant the fisherman a wish, if only he would throw him back into the sea. The fisherman is so surprised that he wishes for nothing and lets the fish go free. When he returns home, his discontented wife calls him a fool and commands him to go back to the fish and wish for a new house. That done, the wife finds more and more reasons to be dissatisfied with her lot. Her wishes grow increasingly demanding until one day she requests the most outrageous and sacrilegious thing of all...
The Prince of Fishes opens in ancient Byzantium. Michael and his son Eugenius are visited by a miracle, which kicks off the story's action - except in this book, it would appear that Eudokia, the fisherman's wife, is not the only one behind his wishes. Michael himself waxes ambitious throughout the story, to the point where he schemes to become emperor and plays word games to gain the support of the count of the guard, Exarzenus. Meanwhile, Eudokia's desire to restore the holy icons to the people drives her to desperate and even underhand measures. The story climaxes when Michael realises that his quest to gain everything has left him with nothing. Can things ever go back to the way they were?
This book shows a number of Suzannah's strengths as an author. Suzannah is well-versed in history (far better than I ever will be), and this story demonstrates the breadth of her knowledge. Thoroughly committed to the planning aspect of writing, Suzannah has succeeded in executing a tight plot which is complimented by rich descriptions and satisfying little twists from the original story. For instance, Eudokia is far more of a nag in Michael's mind than she is in reality. Michael himself pushes for a better life at points in the story, and his wife, of course, takes his journey with him. By the time he understands he's had enough, Eudokia feels like she is only just beginning. He himself is responsible for the radical change in his wife. The ending of the story - which I will not give away - emphasizes the reality that all our actions have consequences. It shows that a sacrifice must be made in order to escape the due rewards for our sins. This was definitely the best and most powerful part of the novella - it is an "aha" moment for the reader and leaves them with a strong impression as they resurface from the book.
There were a couple of things that I picked up along the way. One of these is that there are points where the story naturally offers dramatic content that Suzannah seemed to prefer not to write. I happen to be the sort of reader that craves this kind of connection - and this is probably because, as Suzannah notes in her review of my book, I lean toward the melodramatic! A fair comment. Hence, when a couple of people died in this book - an innocent nun and someone else, much higher ranking - and these events were only mentioned in passing, I made a mental note. These are often the opportunities an author has to strengthen the reader's commitment to the book. Put more simply, we have a chance to hook. If these scenes are shown directly - and they don't need to be gory, but merely given an apt and striking description - they increase the tension for the reader and make them want to go on. Another example would be the crowning scene later in the book. Our two main characters are taking part in a ceremony that they would never have come to without supernatural aid. It is a sacred and awe-inspiring affair, and both of them got there through a little bit of "dirty work", even if it was merely a wish. However, the whole scene is told from the "outside". The characters pass through various areas. The people sing them a hymn. But at no point do we get to see what is going on in Michael's and Eudokia's heads. This sort of thing happens a number of times in the book, which is why I felt it was worth commenting on. That said, Suzannah may have done this intentionally, preferring to create a more academic and theological feel for the book and likewise preferring to avoid the dangers of drama. So in the end, this is merely my opinion. The second thing that I noticed was that sometimes the debate regarding the icons weighed the story and characters down. At times, it felt like theology was allowed the upper hand in the retelling of something which seemed to be, when it was originally written, intended as firstly a story, and then a moral tale. Again: merely my opinion. I am guilty of first telling a story (i.e., letting the characters have their heads) and then carving out themes as I see fit. However, the characters at times did appear to be driven by the plot and the author's intentions more than their own motivations.
Overall, I enjoyed this book and found it revealing. It gave me a chance to once again visit one of my favorite fairy tales of all time (this trumps Cinderella any day!), and it certainly extended my literary horizons, showing more of the ancient world and its theological tempests. I admire Suzannah's stringent plotting, particularly because this is where my writing is often weakest. Lastly, her writing style, as always, is fluid and musical, making for a very pleasant sojourn out of the mundane.
Suzannah blogs at http://www.vintagenovels.com/. Her book The Prince of Fishes is available for sale on Amazon.
Happy reading and writing!