“Kings of Snow” caught my eye this month with how much it accomplishes in a very few words: three distinct personalities, a fully realized world caught between ending and rebirth, odds, stakes, catharsis, and a tinge, small but real, of hope. This month, I’d like to talk about how retellings seat themselves in the readers’ context, and balancing on the fine line between didacticism and making art that speaks for something.
Overall, “Kings of Snow” does great craft work: the empty landscape, literally white as the page, is populated not just with descriptions of what Gas sees, but overlaid with memories that both jump out crisply and juxtapose with what’s described now to create a sense of time, loss, and texture. That juxtaposition echoes in the story’s metaphors, too: the implied sameness-and-yet-contrast of phrases like “Today the snow is thick as tar” takes another white, blank feature—snow—and compares it to something that is practically its opposite (black, viscous, hot) but does so using a feature that is comparable, and it works: it’s a tiny cognitive dissonance that works.
These are smaller examples, nesting-doll-style, of the larger work the story is doing: taking the story of the Three Kings, changing the protagonists to the kings instead of Mary and the child, flipping a hot climate to a cold one, and turning every trope of that story to practically its opposite—except the story’s core. Again, it’s a tiny cognitive dissonance, and it works.
“Kings of Snow” starts with a definite advantage: It’s an update of a very well-known Christian story, and just like with a fairytale retelling, when we remix or update an old story, we have all the foundations that old story has built in our readers’ minds to lean on. We’ve talked in previous months about the difference between worldbuilding to construct a whole new universe, versus worldbuilding to evoke deep-seated tropes that are already there. “Kings of Snow” goes the evocation route just by virtue of being a retelling, and that gives readers a huge amount of information without ever having to put that information on the page. The result is the tightly-packed, information-dense degree of content—and yet the clear, spare prose—you get when reading poetry, and the creation of two distinct hooks: first, the game of guessing which story this is (and the quickly paid off satisfaction of feeling that familiar click) and second, the question of why this story, here.
There was a concern from the author that as a holiday story, “Kings of Snow” might be overly predictable, and I want to address that question by suggesting that in a retelling, predictable is less a sign of failure than a tool we, as writers, use. More than any other kind of short fiction, retellings are all about context—about what we seat around that familiar click—and less knowing what plot events are going to happen than what they mean in a new frame.
One of the primary advantages to writing a retelling, even though magazines are full of them, is the instant layering it lets us build into a story. As we’ve discussed in previous reviews, there’s generally a big push for the original in SFF, but tropes are a tool: using a familiar story lets us basically skip the establishment of the plot itself and use the advancement of the story not to introduce information, but to comment on information that readers already have from every other story on this topic. It’s a capacity for creating instant depth: the draw of the story becomes less three older characters trudging to a birth through difficult terrain, but what everything associated with the story of the Three Kings means in this particular snowy, post-apocalyptic age—and what that could mean for us now. In religious/scriptural terms (since we’re in a Christian story), that’s an act of interpretation and application, and it lets us as writers say things that are poignant and personal if handled well.
And in “Kings of Snow” it is, I think, handled quite well. Its mix of supporting details takes those familiar tropes and builds in, quickly, complexity. It’s good to truly feel Gas, Bart, and Mel’s age in the difficulty of the journey, and there’s a unique task accomplished by their bickering: cast in the role of three wise elders—knowing from the original story that they are all supposed to be wise—their disagreements about the path to take, provisions, gifts, and the world both define them as characters and create a worldview that’s less about who’s right or wrong than the way people negotiate three different sets of knowledge about the world and how to make the journey. There’s a beautiful thing being said here about different wisdoms.
That thought about how different wisdoms combine is part of what makes “Kings of Snow” feel inspiring, not didactic, despite functionally bringing the story to a halt to deliver a lecture on present circumstances. That paragraph of backstory, on how the world ended up this way, works precisely because of how it balances the context of the post-apocalyptic Québecois setting with the retold story, and some very specific word choices that widen the scope from a lecture on how to be into a unifying sense of shared mistakes.
“Kings of Snow” defuses its condemnation in a few key ways. Immediately following those rich jerks by not just “poor jerks”, but “us poor jerks” builds in a tone of exhausted complicity. It’s a note of fatigue, rather than blame. That balancing of conflict with resignation continues as the paragraph builds out the conflict into Mel’s my-people-told-you-so—which puts Gas and the people he’s angry at together, in one group, again—and then defuses that with her own complicity, and the snowmobile. Once Gas being the descendant of slaves is brought in, this one paragraph starts to billow out into the bones of a much more complex system—not a simple equation of who’s to blame, but structures which everyone participated in, in different ways, and which brought everyone down.
I was left with the overwhelming sense that everyone contributed; everyone’s hands are dirty; everyone was part of this failure. And most importantly, that everyone is still in this together, trudging through the snow, continually bickering about how to assign blame. I was left with the sense of a society.
It’s that recognition on Gas’s part that “now we’re all trudging together” that, I think, makes this multilayered, difficult, vital paragraph work—and answered satisfyingly, for me, the question of why this story now? Why this story told in this particular way? Why would I, asked if this story is predicatable, say that even if it were, that doesn’t matter?
Retellings are about context, and the thing “Kings of Snow” doesn’t change is the story’s core. Marie is, even though we never meet her, bringing a child into the world in a dark time, and isn’t moving from where she is, because the whales are coming back, and she’s going to be there to usher that rebirth in. Marie, is trying. And her community is showing up to bring her gifts and witness, even if they think what she’s doing with the whales is dangerous and stupid, because she has hope.
Which is why it’s an excellent stroke of detail to make the gift is a piece of soapstone: something part of several northern cultures, and of a value that’s not immediate, but long-term. It’s a beautifully appropriate gift, thematically speaking: a metaphor for a child, or a new world; a gift that screams potential, yet to be shaped; a gift that will, with good work and luck, become beautiful. That’s a necessary story for many readers right now, and an important repositioning of the narrative of the three kings: one of people from an older world doing a physically and emotionally difficult journey, because at the end is hope.
In most of the English-speaking world, which is where the bulk of our audience is, we’re in fairly desperate political times for people all across the spectrum of belief. I’m personally expecting an upsurge in art that has a message. We write what we’re living, breathing, and feeling every day, and when political and social upheaval is what we’re living, fiction organized around a message is going to show up more and more.
“Kings of Snow” does this job very well, in a short space, using techniques that make a lot of the standard pitfalls of fiction actually work in its favour. I think it’s ready to place with a market.
Best of luck with this piece, and thank you for it.
–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (2015)