Erin Larson: Book Reviews & Essays

“Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower” by Tamsyn Muir

Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower

By Tamsyn Muir

 

I received an ARC of Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower from Subterranean Press in exchange for an honest review.

 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

A princess is locked in a tower. The tower is guarded by a dragon. A prince slays the dragon and rescues—no, wait, that’s wrong. The dragon crunches up the prince. Another prince comes; the dragon crunches him up too. (The unidentified first-person narrator of Princess Floralina and the Forty-Flight Tower always uses that particular phrase, “crunched up,” which is at once both discomfortingly visceral and charmingly euphemistic.) Twenty-four princes get crunched up, and Floralinda is still stuck in the tower, each of the thirty-nine flights below her occupied by a monster—and the witch who set it all up didn’t provide insulation. “Winter is coming,” as the Starks say, but it won’t take thousands of pages to arrive in the world of Tamsyn Muir.

Princess Floralinda will have to save herself.

There are a lot of these stories on bookshelves these days, mythology and fairy tales turned subversive and feminist. Most authors are content to gender-swap. Women are strong and brave and have agency, and that’s all great. But it’s also boring. Strong female characters don’t (necessarily) make for strong female characters; give me women who are complex and dynamic and complicated; give me women who change and develop; give me women who are heroes, and give me women who make the most monstrous men look like garden-variety pests. I asked…

And on the twelfth day of Christmas, Tamsyn Muir gave to me: Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower. (Christmas is actually relevant to the plot of this book; it’s not beyond me, but please be assured that I’m not pulling in random references just because I feel like it.)

This novella rocks. Princess Floralinda is everything I described above and then some, and the only other major character, a genderless fairy named Cobweb who reluctantly helps her defeat the monsters and descend the tower, is her perfect complement: sometimes they are friends and more often they are enemies literally trapped together by circumstance, but the sparks of great storytelling fly in every scene they share. Readers of Muir’s debut Gideon the Ninth will have a hard time not imagining Cobweb and Floralinda as the result of some mad experiment in which Gideon and Harrow wandered into a different genre, which may be a pro or a con depending on how badly you’re craving more of that relationship. (Emotionally, I love that dynamic and didn’t mind the similarities; intellectually, I would have preferred Muir branch out a bit more.)

Muir’s prose is, expectedly, both precise and playful. The syntactical dream-logic and horrifying humor of fairy tales pairs perfectly with her eye for technical detail, creating a world which feels simultaneously absurd and textured with the complex systems of everything from chemistry to economics. Witches and fairies and dragons abound, but wounds get infected, weapons are cleverly crafted from everyday items, and the encroaching cold of winter is as real a threat as the giant spider (the size of three beds) on the thirty-eighth floor of the tower. I didn’t notice any non-diegetic jokes, but Muir still manages some true laugh-out-loud moments, and the narrator flavors dramatic irony throughout by bending and compressing the chronology of the story.

Like Gideon the Ninth (and its mind-melting sequel, Harrow the Ninth, which came out only a few months prior to Floralinda), this is a book soaked through with pain, abuse, and trauma. If you read the Three Crows Magazine interview with Tamsyn Muir that was published in February 2020, you will find many echoes of the personal experiences she unpacked in that piece also in these pages. I prefer not to apply autobiographical readings to fiction, so I won’t say any more about that. But those who have had similar experiences will identify deeply, as I did, with Cobweb and Floralinda. This book might be even angrier than Gideon, but it is also more hopeful: it is fierce and transformative, bloody and funny and powerful. On second thought, “hopeful” isn’t the right word. That word isn’t interesting enough to describe how this book made me feel. You know when you’re physically or emotionally raw and every sensation is turned up to eleven? It’s not that feeling, but the feeling of falling in love with that feeling.

This is a Tamsyn Muir book. If you loved Gideon the Ninth, you’ll love this. If you didn’t love Gideon the Ninth, you won’t love this, and I don’t know how to help you. If you haven’t read Gideon the Ninth, Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower is the perfect place to start with Muir: it hits many of Gideon’s beats, but the shorter length of Floralinda means it hits them faster and harder. I always imagine Tamsyn cackling while she writes. I don’t know if she does, although that would be absolutely delightful, but I do know that I always finish her books grinning and hungry for more. Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower is no exception.

 

Review by Erin Larson

Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower will be published November 30th, 2020.

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