In my recent purge, one of the books that I had intended to get rid of was Fair Peril by Nancy Springer. I had no idea what it was, and the front cover quote was by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which made me a bit nervous. I was persuaded to keep it when I was told that it was light, humorous fantasy; and, looking for light, humorous fantasy recently (this is a pretty noticeable pattern in my reading, isn't it?), I decided to pick it up and read it.
I should have gotten rid of it.
The one thing that irritates me more than just about anything else is an unearned belief in one's own moral superiority. This bugs me in Connie Willis books (where the protagonist is always portrayed as being smarter, wittier, deeper, and just plain better than the lumpenproles around her); it bugs me in Greg Egan books (where the protagonists are more rational, intelligent, and sensible than the superstitious idiots around them); and it bugs me here.
Our main character is an overweight, poor, middle-aged hippy woman who works as a "storyteller" (which has a lot to do with the poverty). And she's divorced, a fact which pops up prominently in the very beginning. This divorce is the first example of the kind of lazy moral smugness that the rest of the book delivers. Her ex-husband, see, is a rich and successful man running for prominent political office; and he divorced her.
Now, the thought of anyone living in the real world is: Well, no kidding. These are two people who, if they ever had anything in common (and the book never attempts to show that they did), no longer do; their lives have diverged greatly, and they're simply not right for each other. Of course they divorced.
The book, however, would have it instead that his divorce was a morally reprehensible act, that he "dumped" her cruelly. And the reader is obviously supposed to go along with this "you go, girlfriend!" cheerleading against her ex, even though to an objective eye, it hardly appears as if he's done anything wrong. Just to make sure that the reader doesn't get confused, the book employs all the lazy moral shorthand in its disposal to make the guy look bad: he's rich (gasp!), successful (horrors!), a politican (good lord!), and I think also a lawyer (why, I never!). Just in case that didn't get the job done, he's also now shacking up with a blonde bimbo trophy wife.
This isn't a character; it's a punching bag.
Now, this is all just background (though important background, with plot and thematic elements that run through the book), but it's a good example of the moral laziness and unearned smugness that run through the book. What's worse is that the book is one of those modern fairy tale things that wants to be all deep about the Nature of Story, and prattle on about how dark and psychosexual fairy tales really are, and blah blah, etc., etc.
There's nothing wrong with those themes (other than that perhaps I've read a few too many books using them), but they need to be handled by a writer who can write with an eye for truth and authentic morality -- like Terry Pratchett, in his Discworld books; Gaiman in Stardust; Goldman in The Princess Bride; or even many of the writers in those Yolen and Datlow anthologies. Springer obviously thinks she's got that eye, and that her story is a piercing and honest look, but she doesn't and it's not.
This is a book designed to appeal to the preconceptions and stereotypes of a certain subset of reader (mainly middle-aged Wicca-type women). It may please them, but even if it does, it is still lazy, dishonest, and morally bankrupt.
Oh, and it's not funny at all.