Retro Friday Audio Review: A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce

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March 8, 2013 by Heidi

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted by Angie at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc. Everyone is welcome to join in at any time!

A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce audio book coverTitle: A Curse Dark as Gold [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: Elizabeth C. Bunce [Website|Facebook]
Standing: Stand alone novel.
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Retelling
Published: November 1st, 2010 by Scholastic Audio (first published March 1st, 2008)
Format: Audio; 12 hr 30 min. Read by Charlotte Perry
Source: Borrowed from my local library.

This ravishing winner of the ALA’s William C. Morris YA Debut Award is a fairy tale, spun with a mystery, woven with a family story, and shot through with romance.

Charlotte Miller has always scoffed at talk of a curse on her family’s woolen mill, which holds her beloved small town together. But after her father’s death, the bad luck piles up: departing workers, impossible debts, an overbearing uncle. Then a stranger named Jack Spinner offers a tempting proposition: He can turn straw into gold thread, for the small price of her mother’s ring. As Charlotte is drawn deeper into her bargains with Spinner-and a romance with the local banker-she must unravel the truth of the curse on the mill and save the community she’s always called home.

Sometimes our worst fears are all in our head, but those are really the lucky times–it’s much, much worse when our worst fears are manifest.  Charlotte Miller grew up hearing about the Curse of Stirwaters.  A curse that was blamed for all of the ill luck that befell her family over the years–broken mill wheels, rivers changing course, the fact that no male Miller child had survived to inherit since the mill’s founding.  But practical Charlotte Miller refuses to believe in such things, even when their ill luck creates insurmountable barriers to success and the only way out seems to be a bargain with a mysterious man who can spin gold from straw.

I love fairy tale retellings, particularly those that are so subtle and tackle the lesser-done fairy tales–in this case, Rumplestiltzkin.  A reader may go in knowing the basic structure of the tale, but I assure you that in the case of A Curse Dark as Gold, you will not expect where it leads.  Surprisingly, I found Elizabeth C. Bunce’s tale to be one of the most sinister and creepingly insideous I have read.  We as readers feel the sharp panic and desperation of Charlotte as she is slowly backed into a corner, with every possible exit featuring a horrid reality.

Charlotte’s refusal to believe in anything save herself makes her at once a strong but hampered heroine.  She continually reaches out to those in her life who, from the view of most, deserve no help or kindness, unable to believe the worst of anyone until it is laid bare at her feet.  A young woman working in a time and place where only a man will be taken seriously by most, she scrapes and claws for every small victory throughout–however, it becomes all too obvious that small victories cannot outweigh huge defeats.

A Curse Dark as Gold was one of those incredibly divisive listens for me.  I wanted so badly to see Charlotte, her family, and the people of Stirwaters overcome, but at the same time it was so hard to listen with that growing pit in my stomach each time some new and horrid event fell upon them.  It is a book where the villains are as prolific as the goodhearted–you can feel them closing in from all directions while Charlotte refuses to lean on the support offered by family and friends.  I loved Charlotte for wanting to protect everyone in her care, but I became so frustrated with her extreme practicality–the type that leads one to brush off help and love when they most need it because they are too proud, or convinced that others do not have the capacity to believe what they hardly believe themselves.

Elizabeth C. Bunce challenges a story we all know to be greater.  She takes a tale where a name, Rumpelstiltskin, holds so much power, and turns it on its head.  In the original tale, the woman who must give up her child isn’t even named.  A story where a name means everything, and the woman we root for has none.  Bunce refuses to settle for this, and instead infuses the entirety of A Curse Dark as Gold with wonderful, meaningful names that fit their bearers, right down to the Stirwater name placed on the wool they manufacture–a name that is something to covet throughout the land.

The greatest impact of A Curse Dark as Gold, however, was not a glorious cummupance, but a theme of forgiveness.  I struggled very much with Charlotte’s continuinous nature of forgiveness.  I love to see a villinous wretch get what’s coming to him, and this book offered oh so many chances, and yet Charlotte’s capacity to forgive provided a much more lasting impression than any vengeance could.  Elizabeth C. Bunce chooses a route that isn’t popular (of which she is much aware given her note at the end), and yet, is so much more powerful.  Her chioces helped to remind me of what it really means to love thy neighbor and turn the other cheek–that it is greater to forgive than to punish.  I struggled to swallow this, but I love a book that challenges me to be a better person.

For the most part, I found Charlotte Perry’s narration of A Curse Dark as Gold to be spot-on.  Her voice managed to capture the world, the fear, and the desperation of the Millers’ tale.  Taking place in a world much like early-Industrial Revolution England, fans of historical novels will find themselves at home in the village of Stirwaters, with all of the charm and grating social customs such a setting entails.  My greatest issue with the audio, however, is the way Perry has voiced Charlotte’s love interest, Randall.  Quite frankly, she makes him sound like a poncy old man–more Old Fezziwig than Pip, and this made it very difficult to at any point be into their relationship.  If the romance of a tale matters greatly to you, I recommend picking up A Curse Dark as Gold via print.  Otherwise, it is wonderful on audio.

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  I’d certainly love to read Bunce’s Thief Errant series–but first it has to finish!  The publication future of the third book is up in the air at the moment, which always turns me off a series, but Nafiza does have a Twitition going for book 3.

Recommended for:  Readers who enjoyed The Hollow KingdomI feel as if these could take place in the same world!  Certainly Charlotte’s Uncle Wheeler and Kate’s guardian Hugh Roberts would be members of the same club.

Get a second opinion:
Angieville – “This is a dark, drafty, remarkably real tale and, like Jack Spinner, it will spin its golden thread around you.”
See Michelle Read – “Bunce’s prose is beautiful – a sense of sinister foreboding is felt with each groan and turn of the mill wheel, intensifying with each mysterious revelation.”
Steph Su Reads – “A CURSE DARK AS GOLD was actually too light on the Rumpelstiltskin retellings, rendering itself more just a supposedly spooky and tense story of desperation and redemption that turned out not to be my thing”

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26 comments »

  1. For some reason, I didn’t enjoy The Thief Errant Series at all. I don’t even remember getting through the first book because although the plot was fantastic, I felt little to nothing for the characters. On the other hand, this sounds fantastic! I only recently added it to my shelves and now I can’t wait to read it. I do think that out of all the fairy tales, Rumplestiltskin is one of the creepiest, so I’m certainly looking forward to the darkness of the tale. Wonderful review, as always, dear! :)

    • Heidi says:

      Hmmm, we’ll see. Honestly, I won’t start it unless I hear the 3rd book is definitely getting published, but if so I’ll give it a try! I do hope you give this one a try, I’m not head over heels in love with it, but I really recommend it as a solid retelling.

  2. Oh yes, this certainly pairs well with The Hollow Kingdom series! The pacing and the tone are so similar.

    I wish I could remember more details about this book! I read it ages ago. I picked it up on a whim from the library and was pleasantly surprised at what I found inside. Good to know it’s solid on audio as well if I feel up for a reread!

    • Heidi says:

      Yes! They really could take place near one another, which I love since they’re also so different. I love that you picked this one up on a whim, because it is so lovely–it’s really stuck with me thus far!

  3. Oh innnnteresting. I’ve jumped firmly onto the fairy tale retelling bandwagon, with Cinder, Scarlet, etc, and this sounds as dark and chilling as fairy tales originally were. I’ll have to give this look. Great review, Heidi.

    • Heidi says:

      Yeah, I somehow DID jump on that bandwagon as of late, and not even intentionally (am now reading yet another one, in fact). This one is very dark, extremely bleak, but also beautifully told.

  4. Steph Su says:

    I was going to share with you my slightly different thoughts on this book but then I noticed you had already found it! haha. I know what you mean about the story being almost hard to stomach, with all the terrible things happening to the characters. In that sense it reminded me a bit of that disturbing and forgettable movie from several years ago, The Brothers Grimm or something similar, where there was just so much upsetting creepiness and not a lot of payoff (at least for me).

    On the other hand, I’ve heard fantastic things about Bunce’s Thief Errant series. I really need to get into that someday!

    • Heidi says:

      Haha, yep! I read your review for this one, and I can totally see how this one won’t be for everyone–there WASN’T a lot of payoff, and I feel like I had to do a lot of thinking about this one before deciding that I was okay with that. I with the Thief Errant series would finish being published–then I’d read it for sure!

  5. Angie says:

    Oh my, yes to the panic and desperation shared with the reader. I loved it.

    But wow am I sorry the narrator missed Randall. Because in the book he is lovely. And the slow growth of their relationship one of my favorite aspects of the novel.

    • Heidi says:

      Yes, I just had this FEAR of putting my headphones on with this one because I just KNEW something else bad was going to happen, and it always did (though I love that I never knew what). I did love the growth of their relationship, but YES the narrator killed it for me. :(

  6. I’m so glad to have another fairy tale retelling to add to my TBR list – seriously I can never read enough retellings, although, like you, I really admire those that tackle lesser-known tales. Many times they’re able to seem a lot fresher and more vibrant than simply another Cinderella retelling (although I realize that this is a gross exaggeration and excellent Cinderella retellings do continue to be published). Your lovely review makes me want to read this – and The Hollow Kingdom – sooner rather than later.

    • Heidi says:

      Yep! This one should be right up your alley, Amanda! It’s really well done, and more of a bare bones type retelling than one we easily recognize (like Cinderella). And YES, read The Hollow Kingdom as well–that’s been my absolute favorite read so far this year!

  7. Nafiza says:

    I am SO sad that the third one is still not being published. Especially since the second one ends with such a horrific cliff hanger. (What I heard from other sources since I refuse to read the the second one until the third one has been published.) Lovely review, Heidi.

    • Heidi says:

      Yeah, tales of the cliffhanger are what’s going to keep me from even starting that series unless the third one gets published. I can’t take that sort of thing!

  8. […]  Those who love Gothic tales and the creepier fairy tales.  I didn’t enjoy it as much as A Curse Dark as Gold, but it is in a similar vein (in fact, the names/covers did confuse me for some time).  Strands of […]

  9. You’ve convinced me, you evil, wonderful book-reviewing lady.

    Seriously though, I’ve read so much about this recently and I keep on being like “Meh… shall I?” but YES. Yes I shall.

    Thanks love!

  10. Lauren says:

    I am slightly addicted to fairy tale retellings, and I have no idea how this one slipped my attention. It sounds wonderful! I love that the author gives other names besides R’s as much power, and that she is able to provoke you to think about your own attitudes toward forgiveness. I hope she can convert me too, because I’m all “let the jerk get what’s coming to ’em” when it comes to villains. I’m happy to be inspired otherwise. :-)

    Very excited to get this one (maybe I’ll skip the audio though, I’d hate to ruin a perfectly good romance with poncy old man voice). Amazing review, Heidi!

    • Heidi says:

      To be fair, this one came out in 2008, so I think a lot of people don’t see much of it around the blogosphere these days. This was a fantastic one though, and I really couldn’t recommend it more–it was so unexpected and had such an insightful take on the original story.

  11. Cecelia says:

    This is on my list of ‘read it eventually’ books, but I’m thinking I should bump it up to official TBR status. I love a good fairy tale retelling, and your mention of an unconventional ending has really piqued my interest.

    • Heidi says:

      Yes! This one is definetely worth checking out if you’re into fairy tale retellings. I really kind of struggled with the ending, but that’s also what kept me thinking about this book and made it so unique.

  12. Hahahaha, I try to avoid reading reviews for books I want to read, but I always look for evaluations of the audios, because good ones are amazing. Anyway, I’m passing on this one, because I cannot handle the poncy men’s voices. That happened in the Once audiobook. All of the men sounded HILARIOUS. The romance scenes as well as the scenes where the dudes were supposed to be intimidating just did not work.

    • Heidi says:

      I’m the same, Christina! And yes, the narration kind of killed the romance for me, which is too bad because it was otherwise wonderful.

  13. Jasmine Rose says:

    Yay, Rumpelstiltskin! I love when the lesser-known fairy tales get some attention, especially this one. I’d never heard of this one before and I’ll definitely be adding it to my TBR now. :]

    • Heidi says:

      Yes! This is a great retelling of a story that doesn’t get taken on too often, and I love that it was done in an industrial revolution setting–so unique.

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