Having read this shortly after "Snow White, Blood Red," I was pleasantly surprised to note a definite improvement. Though the first collection did boast a number of strong stories, overall, I thought that those in "Black Thorn, White Rose" were more consistently effective, meaningful, and well-written. A key improvement was the avoidance of the previous volume's reliance on sex and gore for shock value, the overall effect of which was to create the impression that the authors were trying too hard. Mature elements alone do not necessarily constitute an "adult" story - the authors here instead work largely with emotional texture and maturity, without losing the simple pleasure of innovation and recreation (or of a good sex scene, as needed!).
Although all the stories that I enjoyed are too numerous to list, a few of my favorites were the following:
- Daniel Quinn's "The Frog King, or Iron Henry." Though confusing at first (I had to read half the story before I could begin to understood it at all), the cumulative effect of its repetition and circular dialogue is deeply tragic. It would be wonderful to read it in complement with Gahan Wilson's "The Frog Prince" from the first collection - both elusive, ambiguous portraits of lost and lonely frog princes.
- M. E. Beckett's "Near-Beauty." Hilarious, quirky, and wistful. A wonderfully bizarre sci-fi Frog Prince (another good counterpoint to the previous story), featuring a talking cane toad.
- Isabel Cole's "The Brown Bear of Norway." A frustrated and lonely young girl finds, loses, and remakes a connection with her enigmatic Norwegian penpal. Not only one of my favorite slightly-obscure fairy tales, but beautifully and eerily told in language that is both personal and mythically poetic.
- Jane Yolen's "Granny Rumple." Definitely packs a punch - an exceedingly sharp Rumpelstiltskin retelling set in a Russian Jewish ghetto, with an edge I haven't seen in many other Yolen stories. It only falters when it unnecessarily pounds in the theme of Jewish victimization.
Of course, this volume still had its down notes - Ann Elizabeth Downer's "Somnus's Fair Maid," which had the enormous detraction of its ineffective and poorly-written (at least for a staunch Austen and Susanna Clarke fan) veneer of Regency language; Midori Snyder's predictable and frothily, forcedly romantic "Tattercoats;" and Howard Waldrop's "The Sawing Boys," which, though sustaining a fantastically funny hick-town resetting of the Bremen Town Musicians, eventually gets lost in its own conceit, rendering its melancholy ending somewhat sudden and awkward.
Overall, though, I much more consistently enjoyed this collection, and hope to continue reading the series; I'll be very interested to see developments in later collections.