By the time of the Lunar Chronicles series, Queen Levana is a monster -- a icy, cruel creature who brutally murdered her own niece and seeks to conquer the Earth.
But in "Fairest: The Lunar Chronicles: Levana's Story," Marissa Meyer travels back in time to explore how a lonely young princess became the monstrous glamour-wrapped queen of Luna. It's a dark, bleak story that deftly avoids the problems that usually come from "how a villain became a villain" stories, instead giving us a compelling story about how a woman's slow descent into darkness -- and how the road to hell is paved with a princess' good intentions.
After the brutal murder of her parents, Princess Levana Blackburn finds herself an outcast in the Lunar Court. Her cruel, debauched sister Channery is now the new queen, and she never passes up an opportunity to torment her little sister. The only person who shows Levana kindness is the guard Evret Hayle; Levana believes herself to be madly in love with him, craving a lover and family, but is riddled with misery and jealousy when she finds that he has a pregnant wife.
When his wife dies in childbirth, Levana uses glamour and mind control to slowly sway Evret into a relationship -- and though he resists her at first, eventually they are married. But her married life does not bring her the happiness she craves, as they are still haunted by the specter of his first wife. When her sister dies unexpectedly, Levana finds herself in control of Luna... but only until Channery's baby daughter Selene comes of age, in another twelve years. To be a true queen, Levana will do something truly terrible...
Writing a villain's backstory is a tricky business. They need to be expanded as a character so readers can understand what makes them tick... but that very act can demystify them, or make them too "likable." See "Maleficent" for a prime example. So it's a testament to Marissa Meyer's skill that she does this so well in "Fairest," making Levana more fleshed-out, sympathetic character without diminishing the monstrous things she has done over the years, climaxing in murders that she feels no guilt over.
It's a story as cold and bleak as the pale surface of the moon, and Meyer's strength is that she spins up a story that is essentially a slow descent into true evil. In a way, this is the antithesis of most young-adult fantasy and sci-fi -- the "love" story is empty and meaningless, the heroine's ascent to power is riddled with horrifying actions like bio-warfare and genetic abominations, and it's painfully obvious that this fairy tale will not have a happy ending. Many scenes that have the sheen of a happiness are painfully (and deliberately) hollow, like the wedding ceremony.
It also helps that Meyer's writing is stunningly beautiful and atmospheric, painting a court as exquisitely beautiful and empty as the glamours the courtiers employ. The biggest weakness is that occasionally something important (like Channery's illness and death) are skimmed over in passing, when they could have been explored in more detail. I know this is a novella spanning a decade, but it's a bit disconcerting at times.
Levana herself is the masterful stroke in this story -- at first she seems like another mildly-damaged young-adult heroine who wants true love and freedom from a mean relative. As it begins, you pity her. But as the story unwinds, Meyer reveals that her romantic streak is a desperate, almost sociopathic craving for love and acceptance, a black hole that grows as it consumes. What made her pitiable and identifiable is warped and twisted, and her desperation slowly calcifies into full-blown cruelty. And as she's comparable to the wicked queen of "Snow White," Meyer cleverly weaves in mirror imagery and a reason for the queen to want so much to be "fairest of them all."
"Fairest" gives a clever twist to the tale of Snow White -- a story of the wicked queen, and the terrible events that turned her into a murderous monster. It could use a bit more fleshing out, but the elegant writing and the masterful exploration of the villain make it a must-read for fans of the Lunar Chronicles.