Magic for Unlucky Girls
By A.A. Balaskovits
SFWP, April 2017
226 pages, $14.95
Reviewed by Ashley Miller
Fairy tales and folklore, birthed in pre-text society and tumbled through time as fireside ghost stories, printed books, and animated films, have largely been bred with the same intentions. Tales should entertain, but most importantly impose lessons on a rapt audience. How better to teach children not to be little piggies than to threaten them with a witch who will eat their fattened bones? Magic for Unlucky Girls, A.A. Balaskovits’ collection of fourteen stories, is steeped in this historical intent. Balaskovits has built these stories from lore, urban legend, and fairy tale and she relishes the capacity for strange that the fantastical genre allows. Balaskovits even thanks her mentors in the acknowledgments section for supporting her infatuation with “weird stories” and she flaunts this infatuation with ease. But her stories go beyond mere “weird story” and while they tend to defy easy moral, a moral is still there and it is strong.
In each story Balaskovits, artfully cannibalizes familiar characters or situations from lore—we get tastes of Rapunzel, the Little Mermaid, King Midas, and Eve—and chews and regurgitates them into new, unexpected stories. Her flawed characters search for the magic of redemption only to meet raw, chopped endings that fester like open wounds compared to blasé happily-ever-afters.
The stories themselves are so weird and chopped (and entertaining) that the collection may easily be thought of as just weird stories; fun revamped fairy tales for a modern reader. The autonomous nature of each story, set in their own disparate worlds with their own laws and time and independent characters, assists this sort of thinking. Settings jump from modern, like a city built on fault lines and a middle-America farm town, to ancient castles, rural, pre-electricity hamlets, and then back to a more familiar, contemporary suburbia. While a pulsing vein of magic ties the collection together, the promise of theme, purpose, or lesson is so subtle at times that there seems to be little that encourages a reader to dig deeper.
This is far from reason to pass on Magic for Unlucky Girls. Balaskovits’ stories are spectacularly entertaining and artfully executed. But why play with fairy tale, such a loaded genre, if not to play with the ideas of lesson and moral? Where is the moral? The bloodline this book springs from demands that readers peel back the oddity of plot to expose this ancient moral heart.
These stories twist recognizable princesses and heroines into stronger, sharper, sometimes villainous things—one fair maiden craves blood more than books, Balaskovits’ Red Riding Hood enslaves the Wolf, her Rapunzel snips her husband’s eyes from his skull—and sometimes paint beasts with sharp teeth as victims. Gore and violence are twisted as well; in easily grotesque prose, Balaskovits describes tearing flesh with teeth as “a strange, un-soft thing… all spice and sorrow” and makes feeding a rotting loved one’s corpse to a wolf as perfunctory as a grocery list. These grisly reiterations of familiar tales are stylish and gory enough to keep little piggies entertained, but the ancient moral heart thrums in these, the only predictable elements of the collection; the presence of magic and the understanding that the world is unpredictably harsh, but you must be harsher to survive.
Be tough or perish is the moral within the stories that press women to be harder than any beast, ghost, or person that crosses their path. The crown jewels of the collection, “Food My Father Feeds Me, Love My Husband Shows Me,” “Bloody Mary,” and “Let Down Your Long Hair and Then Yourself” with characters who are anything but frail maidens, embody this lesson the fullest. These three stories center on women who unexpectedly blossom into stronger or more cunning versions of their adversaries and deliver some of the clearest understandings of what it means to be a woman, or a girl, in a hard, cruel world.
While male characters throughout the collection strive for similar growth, only women seem able to fully embody their potential, as if by some intrinsic magic in womanhood. “All girls…” Balaskovits spells out in “Bloody Mary,” “[know] from the moment they hit the outside air that they [are] in for a heavy dose of unfairness and pain” which makes that intrinsic magic spark in every girl who is unlucky enough to exist.
Like the outside air, Magic for Unlucky Girls is unapologetically violent, more in tune with dark Germanic fairy tales than inoculated Disney versions, and is served rare. Rape, murder, neglect, all the sad, dark things imaginable—it’s just a day in Balaskovits’ Magic Kingdom—but don’t look away too quickly, there is heart and magic here as well.