During the June Bloggiesta, one of the tasks I assigned myself was to tally up how I was doing with the various reading challenges I'd signed up for during the first Bloggiesta back in January. To my surprise, I was already almost finished with one - and reading Toads and Diamonds means I've now read the 5 fairy tale re-tellings I signed up for with the Once Upon a Time challenge! Of course, the challenge was for "at least" five books, so I'll continue to keep track of what re-tellings I read, but Toads and Diamonds will certainly remain one of the highlights of this challenge!
Based upon the Perrault story The Fairies, Toads and Diamonds is set in a fictional India, where society is sharply divided between the ruling class of the Believers and the native followers of the twelve. Diribani and Tana are stepsisters, living with Tana's mother after Diribani's father, a successful jewel merchant, has died. The family is living in poverty, having already sold most of their valuable possessions to keep even the cheapest rice on the table.
Everything changes one day when, after a long and tiring trip to the local well, Diribani meets a poor beggar woman who requests a drink of water. Diribani kindly gives the poor woman a drink, who then reveals herself to be one of the goddesses the Believers worship. She bestows upon Diribani a gift - that whenever the girl speaks precious jewels and beautiful flowers fall from her lips. Diribani rushes home to share her gift with her family. When Tana is sent back out to the well, she stumbles upon the goddess who this time presents herself as rich and beautiful. When Tana hesitates before answering the goddess' question, she is given the gift of speaking snakes and toads. While not as glamorous as the jewels, snakes are revered by the Believers, so Tana is mostly unconcerned - until she realizes that deadly cobras are among the snakes she may make appear.
It doesn't take long for the girls' talents to be discovered. A prince is drawn in by Diribani's beauty and jewels, and offers her refuge in his palace from the local governor who considers her a witch. The governor, who has set a bounty to encourage the locals to kill all of the snakes in the land, also wants Tana killed, but the prince intervenes as well, proposing that Tana live outside of town near the temple, where the snakes will harmlessly slither into the forest.
But even with the protections of royalty and solitude, respectively, the sisters aren't entirely safe. Political intrigue is afoot as different factions jockey for power, and a powerful plague is waylaying much of the population, causing widespread death and famine. As Tana witnesses the cruelty people are capable of, Diribani finds herself isolated in the Believers palace, constricted by customs and morals she doesn't subscribe to, even as she's lulled into a false sense of security about her safety. Did the goddess truly bless the sisters with gifts? Or were they cursed?
The fictional India Tomlinson has created is extremely rich in culture and mythology. Setting up a society that reveres snakes definitely puts a twist on Perrault's tale (where originally it was the arrogant sister cursed with snakes and frogs). She includes an author's note at the end that makes it clear that the two religions she created are fictional, though she did draw from the wide variety of faiths that are celebrated in India today.
The story is told through alternating chapters, as Tana and Diribani spend most of the book apart. Tana's half is more of an adventure story, as she travels the countryside and discovers the extent of the local governor's greed and the results of his shortsightedness. Diribani spends most of her story sequestered away with the rest of the women of the royal court, as the Believers keep women separated from men whenever possible and veiled when the genders must mix. These scenes with the court women gave several examples of the book passing the Bechdel test as Diribani and the court women, including a princess, learn about each other's cultures - including Diribani teaching them the fascinating court dancing that combines dancing with self-defense.
It was wonderful to read a fairy tale story set outside of the traditional European style, that also wasn't focused on romance. While each sister does have a love interest, they are a small part of the story, and the romances blossom in an organic, well-developed way. There is no fairy tale "love at first sight" here - the relationships are built on mutual respect and interests.