Today, I’d like to welcome a good friend of mine on the blog. Lynn O’Connacht has just published The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion, a retelling of King Thrushbeard (one of the fairytales collected by the Brothers Grimm). Lynn is a wonderful author and I especially adore her verse novels – as those of you who have followed me for a long time will know, I have a soft spot for verse novels, and love how much emotion they can convey and how dance scenes translate into verse. The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion is a verse novel, so I am terribly excited to read it!
Several books of Lynn’s have been reviewed on this blog: Sea Foam and Silence, A Harmony of Water and Weald, and A Promise Broken. She also participated in a wonderful free-verse character interview: Character interview: The Little Mermaid from Sea Foam and Silence!
The following post is an essay analysing how the title for her newest book was chosen. Please enjoy her guest post.
Sometimes coming up with titles is easy. Stars align, muses sing, and your title just unfolds in your head and you know, just know, that this is the right title for your story. The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion was not one of those stories.
It makes sense, in a way. The original German fairytale this retells is called König Drosselbart or, in English, King Thrushbeard and naming it Thrushmane or even Queen Thrushmane after the insult Marian devises for Edel specifically is a perfectly reasonable echo in keeping with the fairytale feel and the relative closeness of the narrative to the original tale. Even though there are a lot of differences, you’ll have no trouble telling that this is a retelling of that story, except queerer and with fewer awful men in starring roles.
But, because the original story is what it is, that’s exactly the kind of parallel that I didn’t want to invoke. The original fairytale of King Thrushbeard goes roughly like this: Once upon a time there was a proud and haughty princess who didn’t think anyone was good enough to marry her. One day she insulted a handsome king by calling him Thrushbeard because his beard was massive and like a thrush’s nest. Her father had had enough and declared that she’d have to marry the first beggar to arrive at the gate. Unbeknownst to everyone, Thrushbeard was so enamoured with the princess’s looks that he disguised himself as a penniless fiddler and decided he would marry the princess, punish her for her arrogance and teach her humility all at the same time. He succeeded and the story’s happily ever after pretty much ends on that note.
No, really, that’s how the fairytale goes. There are some other bits in between, such as him insulting her every attempt to do domestic work, then sending her out to sell pottery and disguising himself (again) to go smash all the pots to smithereens just to upset her, and, well, basically Thrushbeard is a bit of a jerk is all I’m saying.
Anyway, The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion has a very different approach to the plot. Edel, rather than setting out to bully someone else into loving her because she’s just that sexually attracted to said someone, explicitly and deliberately wants to protect Marian from exactly the kind of person who would do that.
More than that, though, The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion isn’t Edel’s story. If you asked me to pick either Edel or Marian as the protagonist of the tale, it would be Marian. Marian’s desire to never have sex is what drives the story. Marian’s decision to present herself as haughty and even outright cruel is what sends her father to throw a public tantrum and declare that she’s to marry the first beggar who arrives at the palace gates. Recognising Marian’s behaviour as being that of a potentially sex-repulsed asexual and making an educated guess, Edel decides to try and rescue Marian. It’s Marian’s desire that ultimately drives Edel to action.
So I needed a title that reflected Marian and her journey far more than I needed one that reflected Edel’s. After pouring over some of my poetry collections – a great source of title ideas – I finally settled on The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion. I sat on it for a few days. I hesitated. I worried.
Variations on ‘frigid’, such as ‘ice princess’, are insults often hurled at asexuals, especially ones perceived as girls and women, outside of fiction. Did I want to invoke those insults in the title? Should I? I’ve seen similar negative stereotyping used in exactly one story before and every one I know, including myself, hated it. Was I going down the same route?
Obviously, I decided that I wasn’t, and that’s largely down to the way the title’s meaning is layered. ‘The Ice Princess’ is a clear reference to Marian and her desire not to have sex at all ever, but it also acknowledges that this is a term Marian attempts to claim for her own and weaponise it against the people who would use it to hurt her. In Marian’s case, she’s presenting the world with a lie that costs her dearly and the title proceeds to reflect that when we realise she’s the one setting up a ‘fair illusion’. As uncomfortable as using the term ‘ice princess’ in the title of an explicitly asexual and aromantic book may be, it’s an incredibly important and acknowledged aspect of Marian’s identity. Using it in the title this way, further, helps suggest that it is okay for aces and aros who may fall into an stereotype to take it back and own it.
The layers of meaning don’t end there, however. ‘Fair illusion’ is layered as well. On the surface, it hearkens back to the original fairytale’s moral not to judge people on their looks because Edel engages in visual deception to convince everyone she’s a beggar just like Thrushbeard did in the original tale. Yet, alongside that, it captures the suggestion that Marian’s own carefully constructed persona as an ice princess is nothing more than an illusion and that seeing her solely as an arrogant, even cruel, individual because she isn’t interested in sex is wrong. As such, the title actually begins as the narrative continues, by calling out harmful stereotypes and ideas about asexuality and aromanticism. Even if the latter isn’t done as strongly as it could because Marian is homoromantic instead of aro-spec.
As such, after sitting on the title for a while and weighting my options, I decided that this was, indeed, what I wanted to go with. It links up to Marian both directly and indirectly and it gives readers a rough idea what to expect. For me, it’s perfect because it encapsules the most important aspect of the verse novel: the way it calls out tropes and ideas and shows how harmful they can be. That said, I’m certain that it’s not a title that will work for everyone, and that’s okay. But if you saw the title and wanted to know what on earth I was thinking when I decided to use an insult in it, this is it. I was thinking along the same lines Marian does in the story: I was going to take that insult and own it instead of letting it own me.
I hope readers will enjoy the other ways the title can be interpreted as this only covers a few of the layers the title has!
Lynn O’Connacht has an MA in English literature and creative writing, but wouldn’t call herself an authority on either. She currently resides on the European continent and her idiom and spelling are, despite her best efforts, geographically confused, poor things. Her tastes are equally eclectic, though fantasy will always be her first love. She has been chasing stories one way or another since she was old enough to follow a narrative.