Title: Toads and Diamonds
Author: Heather Tomlinson
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Fairy Tale, Retelling
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.
Publication Date: March 2010
Hardcover: 288 Pages
Diribani has come to the village well to get water for her family’s scant meal of curry and rice. She never expected to meet a goddess there. Yet she is granted a remarkable gift: Flowers and precious jewels drop from her lips whenever she speaks.
It seems only right to Tana that the goddess judged her kind, lovely stepsister worthy of such riches. And when she encounters the goddess, she is not surprised to find herself speaking snakes and toads as a reward.
Blessings and curses are never so clear as they might seem, however. Diribani’s newfound wealth brings her a prince—and an attempt on her life. Tana is chased out of the village because the province’s governor fears snakes, yet thousands are dying of a plague spread by rats. As the sisters’ fates hang in the balance, each struggles to understand her gift. Will it bring her wisdom, good fortune, love . . . or death?
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: I was taken completely by surprise with Heather Tomlinson’s first novel, The Swan Maiden, and after devouring that book I immediately bought Toads and Diamonds.
Following the death of their jewel merchant father, stepsisters Diribani and Tana face a change of lifestyle, with only themselves and (step)mother to rely on. Although their family was once prosperous, the sisters accept their new place in life with grace, and do what they can to survive. For the beautiful and selfless Diribani, this means she must accustom herself to fetching water from the well outside the village and performing other daily chores – an act she accepts with grace. For the plain but cunningly intelligent Tana, she must find secret ways to continue with her jewel trader apprenticeship, and find a way to help her family survive. One fateful day when Diribani heads to the well to fetch a pitcher of water to cook the family’s single meager meal, she comes across a gnarled old woman, who begs for a sip of water and aid. Ever polite and generous as is her nature, Diribani puts aside her chores to help the elderly woman who turns out to be the wise goddess Naghali-ji. Rewarding Diribani for her kind and generous actions, the goddess grants Diribani her heart’s desire for beauty; every time Diribani speaks, a shower of jewels and beautiful flowers fall from her lips. Her stepmother, overcome with the blessing that has been bestowed upon her stepdaughter (and the fortune this will bring to the family) immediately sends Tana to the well to see if the goddess is still there. When Tana returns from the well, however, her gift is something less beautiful; every time Tana speaks, toads, frogs, and serpents fall from her mouth.
Though both gifts are seen as blessings from the wise goddess (toads and snakes are symbols of good luck and practicality), it is Diribani’s gift that catches the eye of the prince Zahid, and she is immediately swept away from her family and taken to the royal city. Meanwhile, Tana’s ability though seen as a gift for those believers in the Twelve Gods is seen as an abomination by those that follow the religion of the new emperor, meat-eaters that believe in the One God. Though Tana has received protection from the Prince, she must flee her home as she is set after by soldiers and the cruel governor of her village, who cares not for imperial decrees. As both sisters are thrust into danger, they struggle to figure out what their “blessings” truly mean and what goddess Naghali-ji meant for them to learn from their singular gifts.
The third novel from Heather Tomlinson, Toads and Diamonds is a retelling of Charles Perrault’s French fairy tale, told in alternate point of view chapters from the two sisters and set in an alternate version of pre-colonial India, at a time when two religions – the polytheistic beliefs of old and the monotheistic beliefs of the new – clash against each other and vie for dominance. As with The Swan Maiden, Ms. Tomlinson’s first book, Toads and Diamonds is written with a descriptive flair that brings to life this exotic – if socially conflicted – setting. I love the level of detail that Ms. Tomlinson pours into her writing, describing not only the landscape but also the textures of cloth, the crunch of dried fennel seeds, and the taste of honeysuckle and hyacinthe. Not only is Diribani and Tana’s world fully described, but it’s also nuanced in terms of its belief systems and social strata – as the daughters of a merchant, the two sisters have position of stature in their small village, but their refusal to eat meat and beliefs in the Twelve gods are dismissed by the new religion that is slowly taking over the land – and this is seen in every interaction Diribani has with her new hosts as she makes her way to the capitol, and in the derision and fear that Tana bravely faces down on her own separate pilgrimage. This tension defines almost every facet of this wonderful book, and once again I found myself swept up in Heather Tomlinson’s gift for tone and setting.
Also, as with The Swan Maiden, Toads and Diamonds takes a scrutinizing look at the roles of women in their respective worlds. In the former, Doucette faced the choice between becoming a good wife and champion of the household or forsaking love for independence, magic and power. In the latter, Diribani and Tana find their circumstances dramatically changed twice-over following the death of their father – first, unable to make their own money outside of marriage (despite Tana’s keen eye and business acumen), and then again when they receive their gifts from the goddess and are reduced or used by others for their own means.
With these great subtextual discussions going on in the novel from religious/social hierarchies to the role of women, the thing I loved the most about Toads and Diamonds is how wonderfully subversive it is – because if you read Perrault’s original fairy tale, it’s rather predictable. The beautiful and kind-hearted sister is rewarded with jewels and flowers, while the rude, uncouth sister speaks in serpents and salamanders. In Ms. Tomlinson’s rendition, the “gifts” are not truly what they seem – for in a world where women have no social, political or economic power, a girl that speaks in jewels will be sequestered away and her treasures taken the second they spill from her lips; whereas the sister that speaks in serpents can help save a country overrun by vermin that are causing an outbreak of plague. Add to this the fact that – for once – stepsisters Diribani and Tana love each other unconditionally, admire each other’s unique traits, and would do anything for each other, and you’ve got a lovely twist on what could have been a rather blandly traditional retelling. Although this does lead to a feeling that both sisters are just a tad too good to be true (come on, no one can be so perfectly selfless and loving ALL the time!), they are believable and differentiated in their own ways. Personally, I loved Tana’s sharp mind and struggles with feelings of inferiority to Diribani’s inexhaustible good nature, but both sisters are undeniably well-written.
Of course, as I’m coming to learn must be Ms. Tomlinson’s modus operandi, I also loved that Toads and Diamonds does *not* settle for the Happily Ever After type of ending that is so repugnantly abundant in YA fairy tale retellings. There is an ending, and it is happy, but I absofreakinglutely ADORE the fact that this author did not feel the need to tie up the book in a big pretty bow. Rather, the ending makes sense with the blessings that these two sisters have received and their stations in life – and that, dear readers, is a great treasure to read, worth its weight in jewels and flowers, and reptiles and amphibians.
Toads and Diamonds is yet another winner from Ms. Tomlinson, and though it’s a tough call, I think even better than her first novel. Absolutely recommended to all.
Notable Quotes/Parts: You can check out the first few chapters online HERE, using Google Preview.
Additional Thoughts: As I’ve mentioned before, Toads and Diamonds is a retelling of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale, “Les Fées.”
You can read the entire fable online for free HERE.
Rating: 8 – Excellent
Reading Next: The Hidden Goddess by M.K. Hobson
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