Bill Willingham (writer), and Charles Vess et al (artists),
Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall (Vertigo, 2006)
As if to make up for the mild disappointment of the previous volume in the series, Arabian Nights (and Days), Willingham has set the eighth Fables' book in the Sultan's lands, involving only Snow White and the Arabic Fables. But this time, there's no let down to Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall, which is, as the discerning reader might guess from the title, Willingham's quite clever take on the Scheherazade story. 1001 Nights is set sometime in the nebulous past, but presumably some time after the Fables have fled their native lands. Snow has been sent from Fabletown to the Sultan to ask for his support against the Adversary. Only he isn't interested in listening to a woman, as he's intent on adhering to his systematic pattern of bedding a virgin a night from his harem, then having her executed the following morning. When Snow forces his Wazir's hand (by throwing tantrums, when good behaviour fails), she ends up switching places with his daughter, and finds herself before the Sultan, facing certain death. And so, she spins tales. Fairy tales. . . .
The first night, Snow White reaches back to her own youth to tell of her early marriage to Prince Charming, and the wedding present she extracted from him: fencing lessons. Those lessons play as a backdrop to a darker story of murder, for it seems someone is killing dwarves above ground, and the Dwarf king below is none too happy. Prince Charming must balance keeping his young bride happy and the ancient king appeased so that war is averted (and his marriage bed pleasant). Clever readers aren't fooled in the least as to who the murderer is, and by the story's end, neither is Prince Charming, though he doesn't push the point too far with Snow. Though in present-day Fabletown, Snow White is all too quick to lay the blame for their failed marriage on Charming's philandering, it's interesting to note she points out to the Sultan that she shoulders some blame for introducing mistrust into the relationship with her misdeeds. Indeed, it's Charming who is portrayed more sympathetically than Snow in this particular tale (though one wonders what transpired with the dwarves that she sought such revenge).
Intrigued by her story-telling skills, the Sultan allows Snow to live for another day, and when the sun sets, she returns for another round of stories, three in all. The first is very short, regaling the cleverness of Reynard as he fools goblins into not only feeding Fables, but allowing them to escape the Adversary. What follows is a sad tale of the frog prince, who could never quite shake his curse in times of stress, and so suffered the horror of watching the Adversary's men torture and kill his family before his froggy eyes. He lives on, a broken man, able only to remember the truth when deep in his cups, something the good folk of Fabletown do their best to prevent. The third story is the most significant, and for Snow, the most dangerous. Through Snow's telling, we learn of Bigby Wolf's birth, that he was the runt of his litter, of the union between the North Wind and a beautiful she wolf. Hatred towards his father, who tired of the she wolf and deserted her (she died of a broken heart) and his siblings, who deserted him to find their wayward father, drove Bigby to grow bigger and stronger than any of his siblings. And so he sought his father. Not for reconciliation. Nor for learning. But to kill his father and to eat him. Appalled by such insubordination, the North Wind expelled Bigby each time he tried, until at last Bigby decided to put both father and mother from his heart and move on with his life.
Snow attempts to sway the Sultan to her cause by pointing out that if even Bigby's crimes could be forgiven and he could be a part of Fabletown, then the same could be true for the Sultan.
Luckily for Snow, the Sultan allows her to live another day for more stories, and so on the third night, she treats him to another four tales. Again, the first is very short -- and very odd -- about a distraught mother hare who loses her son in the war against the Adversary and curses the leader she blames for that loss to be human until he can earn the love of a hare maiden. Alas, the poor lad never does (though he makes a fetching young man).
The next story is again personal for Snow, as it details her and Rose Red's early flight from the Adversary, and their first meeting with the powerful witch known as Totenkinder. Only she's not so powerful right then, as she's just beginning the painful recovery process from being burned alive by Hansel and Gretel. We're treated to a story within a story as she relates her own life's story to the two sisters, including, significantly, her reliance on the sacrifice of children for her continued power. Cleverly, Willingham has tied her to many well-known fairy tales – Beauty & the Beast, the Frog Prince, Rapunzel. At Rose's insistence, they take the witch with them, although they end up separated from her – a story for another day, Snow says. It will be very interesting to see if Willingham explains how Totenkinder came to be as powerful as she was in the last volume without the blood of at least a child or two. . . .
Another short tease of a story follows, about a wandering miss who insists on being turned into a mermaid, that she might travel the seven seas -- only to end up confined to a single lake up at the New York farm after the coming of the Adversary. C'est la vie.
The very last tale we get to witness is that of King Cole, driven to ground in an abandoned mine when the Adversary's men take his lands. Generous to a fault, he ends up delirious from hunger when he gives all the food to the three blind mice, Puss in Boots and the three bears. So a search party must go forth to find food enough to keep the poor man alive. And so they do, at the expense of the tails of the three mice – just as in the nursery rhyme, of course! This is a sweet, heart-warming story, aside from the realization, at the end, that the good king's wife and daughter did not survive the incursion.
The text continues on to say that Snow continues to spin her tales for 1,001 nights, until she has no more stories to tell. At which point the Sultan, distraught that he will hear no more stories, admits that his laws have no dominion over a foreign woman, as Snow had suspected upon that very first night. And he offers her the aid she seeks. At the very last, Snow and Scheherazade meet, the latter offering thanks, and the former offering this sage advice, should the Sultan not yet be reformed of his executing ways, "He likes stories."
1001 Nights is a return to form for Willingham. The stories provide some sharp insight into the personalities and motivation for some of the major movers in the Fables universe -- Snow, Charming and Bigby in particular. And the artwork, by a veritable bevy of artists, including Charles Vess, John Bolton, Jill Thompson, Mark Buckingham and others is top notch. An excellent addition to the Fables series indeed!