When I heard that Zoë Marriott had a new book coming out, I was excited. Then I discovered that this book was a retelling of the fairy tale ‘Beauty & the Beast,’ set in a fictional, magical version of feudal Japan. Then I started reading it, & realised it involved Yuki-Onna, one of the most fearsome and seductive creatures from Japanese folklore.
So, Beauty & the Beast plus Yuki-Onna. At first my brain was like ‘huh…?!’ But it works. Zoë’s creative imagination and expressive writing have created a retelling which holds together very neatly, and stays true to its sources as well as reworking them into something beautiful and original.
Hana’s isolated mountain village is plagued by a monster which lives in the forest. Every dark of the moon, it calls people into the trees and they are never seen again. Until Hana’s father is taken, and makes it back alive. Seeking answers and a way to free her people from the monster’s curse, Hana ventures into the forest armed with her bow and arrows. But what she finds is unexpected, and she soon realises that what she came to slay might be a different monster to the one she originally set out after…
In writing Barefoot on the Wind, Zoë wanted to reconcile ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ As she explains on her website, this story has a few issues. Mostly that the beast is manipulative and inconsiderate. He keeps the protagonist prisoner, and guilt trips her into marrying him by setting her free only to say he will die if she doesn’t return. Not a great basis for a relationship! I too have always felt that ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is rather lacking. The reasons for the beast’s curse are weak, and his behaviour doesn’t show that he has entirely changed. It’s down to the girl to come to terms with loving a beast, not for him to come to terms with being a nicer person. His motivation to marry her is because she’s the only chance to break the curse – not because he loves her, just because she’s there. Many analyses of the story focus on how the girl is rewarded for learning to see past his appearance, and the message that beauty is on the inside, but there’s more to it than that. Zoë’s version of events do a fabulous job of fixing these problems. Her reworkings are simple yet effective, and make the story more satisfying. I also love that Zoë’s beast is tiger-like. This reminds me of Angela Carter’s story ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ (found in her fairy tale anthology The Bloody Chamber), which is also based on ‘Beauty and the Beast.’
As for Yuki-Onna, OH WOWI was not expecting to encounter her in this book! As soon as she was mentioned my brain was like ‘pihfdo chhdhc hkd fhlk h dihl!!’ Yuki-Onna legends both terrify and fascinate me, so I was ecstatic to find this new side to her story.
In Japanese folklore, a Yuki-Onna is a malevolent type of demon or spirit, often said to be restless souls of women who die in the snow. She appears during snowstorms, and is very beautiful and usually dressed in white with black hair. Occasionally she will guide people to safety, but more likely she will freeze them to death. A common Yuki-Onna story tells of how a young man sees her, and promises not to tell anyone. Later in life, he marries a beautiful woman (often she is called ‘Oyuki’ which means ‘snow’) and they have children. But he breaks his promise, and tells his wife about his sighting of Yuki-Onna. His wife then reveals that she was the Yuki-Onna he met. She tells him she should kill him for breaking his promise, but will spare his life because of their children (or in less happy versions she kills them all…) Yuki-Onna is definitely not a creature to be messed with, and Zoë has done a fantastic job of depicting her wild, fearsome nature as well as her humane origins.
I definitely recommend Barefoot on the Wind for fans of fairy tales and Japanese folklore. Zoë has also written excellent retellings of ‘Cinderella‘ and ‘The Wild Swans,’ which I also recommend. The former is called Shadows on the Moon and is set in the same world as Barefoot on the Wind. It was recently re-released with a gorgeous new cover, too – and who isn’t a sucker for a pretty book?!