Warning: This review contains spoilers.
For as many of them as there are, it seems like there’s no such thing as fairytale retellings becoming “overdone.” Even as such retellings remain popular, there always seems to be a new angle from which they can be explored. Melissa de la Cruz’s Snow & Poison is an example of that. Similar to de la Cruz’s previous Cinder & Glass, there’s nothing that feels original or extraordinary about this rendition of the Snow White tale. For fans of retellings that stick closely to the plot, however, there’s just enough tribute to the Snow White story and interesting elements to give Snow & Poison the entertainment it demands.
The story follows Sophie, a young debutante and the daughter of a duke, as she makes her entrance in society. Immediately, she falls in love with the young prince of Spain, Prince Philip, and vice versa. Philip’s father, the king, however isn’t too pleased with their relationship and thus begins multiple repetitive attempts to ensure a marriage between the two never occurs, including the announcement of Philip’s engagement to the princess of England — a development that leaves Sophie feeling both broken-hearted and betrayed.
Interspersed with this romantic storyline is the plot of the original Snow White. Sophie’s new stepmother, Claudia, is widely stigmatized by those at the palace as many perceive her to be odd and a witch. Sophie herself is suspicious of Claudia, but soon finds that her stepmother may not be as wicked as she initially thought. Sophie, along with her stepmother and a mysterious witch, must uncover what — or who — is behind the attempts on Sophie’s life and the greater issues facing the kingdom of Bavaria.
For her part, de la Cruz conveys the romance in a very appealing way for fans of swoonworthy storybook princes. Philip is very much like a Prince Charming — his single-minded devotion to Sophie and his willingness to hold her above all else feels like it’s out of a true fairytale. (And it is.)
The fast-paced nature of the book also maintains the story’s momentum and nearly every part feels purposeful. Snow & Poison is a great story, and de la Cruz is a great storyteller. Every moment is packed with dramatic action, and like the original fairytale, there’s tremendous stakes outlined for each character. There’s an author’s note at the end where de la Cruz expresses that the arc when the king attempts to sabotage Philip and Sophie is based on the real-life inspirations behind the original Snow White tale. One has to laud Snow & Poison for paying homage to the tale’s origins while also approaching the story from the intersection of European history and fantasy.
Despite the different plots going on here, though, there aren’t too many layers to it. Although there’s some interesting swaps from the original Snow White, like the seven dwarves of the original story being seven young children here and the poisonous apple being a means for Sophie to fake her own death instead of a purposeful sabotage attempt, these changes all feel mostly superficial. It’s as if they’re only present so that Snow & Poison isn’t too much like the original fairytale, but they’re not particularly meaningful to the core of the story.
Perhaps de la Cruz didn’t want to take too many liberties with the Snow White plot, which is understandable given that it’s the selling point of this novel. Yet there could still have been some more creative reinventions that were more embedded in the very essence of the story. Many elements feel just a rehashing of the original; if that was the point, there’s no arguing that de la Cruz has succeeded. If the goal was to elevate Snow White’s depth as a story, however, there’s not much that stands out.
The most nuanced aspect of the story is the attention it pays to Claudia, Sophie’s stepmother. While it seems like de la Cruz could have easily written her to be a wicked and cliché stepmother, Claudia is more complicated than she seems, and even though her behavior might seem unacceptable to those around her, de la Cruz renders more of her interiority than a traditional fairytale might allow. There’s some implicit social messaging about the burden of being a woman in a patriarchal fairytale society, where one’s purpose is to provide an heir. This theme feels naturally inserted and serves as a welcome deviation from the “evil stepmother” trope.
On the other hand, Sophie is very much like the typical heroine, with not too many complications to her character. Her immediate attraction to Philip seems also based on superficiality. Likewise, with the constant repetition of Sophie’s beauty and the fact that Philip falls in deep love with Sophie after dancing together reinforces the idea that Philip is in love with Sophie because she’s so incredibly beautiful. Maybe that’s not entirely unrealistic, but that physical attraction takes precedence over any kind of concrete development in their relationship.
Snow & Poison is a well-crafted story even if it leans towards simplicity. It might not be the go-to book for a comprehensive critique of fairytales, nor is it quite imaginative enough to stand as a pioneer of the fairytale retelling on its own. Once you take a bite, though, it’s too difficult to resist.