Review and Analysis: The Petrified Flesh (Reckless book 1) by Cornelia Funke

I originally thought that the Reckless series wasn’t for me – they were apparently children’s books, which I haven’t been able to get into for years. They were based on fairy tales, which I’d read a million times before. But I picked them up because I went to an event with Cornelia Funke, and after hearing her talk about them, I was intrigued. And then I thought way too much about everything that’s going on in this book, and wrote something which probably can’t even be called a review any more. But there we go. I have a lot of feelings, especially about fairy tales and their tropes.

Will and Jacob Reckless grew up with an absent father, and a mother unable to cope. When Jacob discovers the hidden world behind the mirror in their father’s locked study, he disappears for longer and longer periods of time, disregarding his younger brother’s loneliness and his mother’s declining health. And then one day Jacob makes a mistake, and his brother follows him into Mirrorworld. When Will is infected by one of the Goyl, the stone men currently waging war against the human-ruled Austry, and his skin begins to turn to stone, the race is on. Because Will’s new stone skin is jade, the colour of the mythical saviour of the King of the Goyl. And as the stone creeps across Will’s soft, human skin, Jacob races to find something to bring his brother back from the cold, stone edge. With the help of his long-time Mirrorworld companion, Fox, Will’s girlfriend and nurse Clara, and the greedy Dwarf Valiant, he must break the Dark Fairy’s curse over his brother before the stone consumes him.

Mirrorworld is so clear and concrete, which is presumably the result of Cornelia’s revision of The Petrified Flesh after she’d finished the first three books of the Reckless series. The fairy tale objects and characters are enchanting, but they feel real, and dangerous. The Tailor is terrifying. The Dark Fairy is mesmerising. And all those glimpses at fairy tale objects – the Glass Slipper, a Rapunzel Hair, the Wishing Table – were tantalising, hinting at a multitude of stories to be told in this wonderous, deadly world.

An odd structural thing to begin with, is that the provoking moment of the entire plot – Will being attacked and infected by the Goyl – happens off-screen (as it were), between the ‘prologue’ section and the main story. We only see what actually happened in a flashback later on, and it makes the story feel oddly untethered. As if it’s a convenient reason to prompt the journey through Mirrorworld, rather than a significant moment in itself. While I was fascinated by the set pieces, characters and world, the book never really recovered, and the plot felt insubstantial.

What’s interesting about the premise of this series – and I’m curious to see how this pans out – is that, while the book itself doesn’t seem to offer a critique of these tales, it provides a platform from which to see them with a new lens. As a particularly complex example, I found myself analysing the portrayal of the Dwarves, traditionally a heavily racialised fictional species. While a few things are different about them in this representation (a love of top hats, for example), Valiant’s fascination with money and profit – specifically gold, for which he will do almost anything – combined with his co-operation with the Goyl, a people made of stone (evocative of the Golem), creates an overt Jewish coding which, given Valiant’s moral code, is problematic at best. His desire to possess human women evokes the racist narrative that the ‘other’ is a threat because its men will steal ‘our’ women. The fact that Dwarves traditionally keep human servants, who they brand with their owner’s initial, only serves to highlight this level of threat to human-kind – and thus, ‘ordinary people’. Valiant is the only member of his species that we encounter to such a full extent, though we do also meet Auberon, a member of the Queen’s guard known for his loyalty, strength and steadfastness. But this one other, fleeting, occurrence, is not enough to subvert all the assumptions the reader is invited to make about Dwarves as a species through Valiant’s representation, and these tropes are never challenged as being either problematic or incorrect.

And a more subtle fascination was the use of non-human characteristics in humans. The men who have characteristics of other species (Man-Swans, Man-Goyls) are disturbing, without emotion in their non-humanness. But the women who have non-human characteristics (namely Fox, but also the Fairies, born from water and heartless) are beautiful, a desirable other rather than a threat. I’m not really sure where I’m going with this one – I suppose it’ll depend on how the rest of the series plays out – but it’s something I want to keep an eye on. What these examples would imply to me is that male threat is expressed through lack of emotion, strength, and the grotesque which, in the case of the Man-Swans, we’re almost invited to laugh at. And then female threat comes from an ensnaring desire. The man-creatures are a threat to everyone, but the woman-creatures only really seem to be a threat to men. But, as I said, there’s not really enough in this book to make a case for this, so I might change my mind as the series progresses.

I’m not overly-enamoured with this book. While Cornelia Funke is a skilled weaver of stories, I’m concerned by some of the tropes she’s relying on to tell this one. Rather than take the opportunity to subvert existing fairy tale tropes, this book seems to reinforce them, which is nothing that hasn’t been done before. I am going to read the next two, because I do love the world-building, as well as the complex relationships between the four main characters. The motif of the moth, and the way that she really gets into how the stone changes Will on the inside as well as the outside, is really lovely. The sinister opening, with the gingerbread house and the Tailor (snip-snip), is delicious to read. And pretty much every character has a complexity to them, an inner landscape which is, to varying degrees, shared with the reader, so that you can’t help but feel sympathy for the cruel and cunning Dark Fairy. But I think I want to reserve final judgement on the goals of the series as a whole until I’ve read a little further.

-Rachel


The Petrified Flesh (Reckless book 1) by Cornelia Funke
Published by Pushkin Children’s Books in September 2016 (revised edition)
Buy from the Book Depository here.

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2 thoughts on “Review and Analysis: The Petrified Flesh (Reckless book 1) by Cornelia Funke

  1. Pingback: Review: Living Shadows (Reckless book 2) by Cornelia Funke | Rustling Reads

  2. Pingback: Reckless by Cornelia Funke | Writing Follies

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