This is a highly original take on the European mediaeval fairy tale Red Riding Hood.
In this re-telling for adults, the girl is no child on a prosaic errand in Early Mediaeval Europe, walking from the village through a forest to her ailing grandmother’s cottage, where the main danger is straying from the path and to risk being taken by a hungry wolf.
This is altogether on a rather more majestic scale. Pyrrha is as strong a female lead as you could wish for, the daughter of a ruler, a professional fighter riding through the Griseo Woods that divide the magical realms of Fraus and that of Alithia, where her grandmother Queen Gracia lives.
Her main danger is being set on by the robber band or guerrilla group known as The Wolves. Things are made still more hazardous for her as she has many reasons to despise and distrust another violent band, The Hunters, who owe allegiance to her mother. Though ostensibly her allies, she knows that they work against her.
In fact, this Red Riding Hood is more a danger to the wolf than he is to her, for Pyrrha is a mortactio. That is, she can kill with her touch.
This wolf himself is slightly vulpine, as a result of the magic generated by the relationship between the magical forest and ‘The Wolves’, the band of masked guerrilla fighters who live there. Still, he is neither an animal nor a werewolf. In fact, he is a handsome young leader of the robber/guerrilla band, with a carefree charm, a love of joking and an astute mind.
Just as in the original fairy tale, the main focus of attention was the relations – often interpreted as potentially sexual – between the young girl and the predatory wolf, so in this version, the developing feeling between the Red Riding Hood character and the wolf is the lynchpin of the plot.
Far more than they realise, both Pyrrha and Lycos hold the key to each other’s fate in their hands.
Pyrrha hasn’t enjoyed the experience of normal, human touch since she was a small child, when her touch killed her father, the consort of her cold and distant mother, Regent Duri. Pyrrha has long known that her own mother coldly detests her, and assumes that this was the reason.
Since that accidental killing, she has taken other lives. Unreasonably blaming herself for her father’s death, she dedicates herself to a lonely life as the Regent’s chief bodyguard, the ‘Huscarl’. She wears an outfit that protects others from her touch, including a red hood.
When he heard that her beloved grandmother is ill, she sets off with a magic serum on a journey through the highly magical and dagerous Griseo Woods on her way to Alithia.
These woods are not peaceful retreats:
‘Most notable is the flavotenus, a lovely yellow flower that grows in large patches. The flowers connect like crab grass. When an inattentive traveler steps on one flower, the entire network of flavotenus springs from the earth to trap its victim in a yellow net. If there is no one around to help, the prey is slowly consumed by the flavotenus. Their bones eventually sink into the earth beneath a flowery death tribute.’
‘I stop at three skeletons which hang from a large oak tree. As I stare, another gust of wind rattles bones and chatters teeth. Some digits and ribs have dropped to the earth… I suspect these are Wolves, killed by Hunters and hung along the road as a warning. Their distinctive, wolf-head helmets would have been taken for the valuable metal…’
Pyrrha has several violent adventures before she even comes upon The Wolves. She has to endure a demeaning temporary escort of a group of Hunters led by the sadistic Jagar, long her covert enemy.
Then, when she is taken prisoner by the beguiling Lord Lykos, she finds herself torn: to whom does she owe loyalty?
But now she finds that her greatest danger is not her mother’s cold indifference, or any monster or external danger, but her own feelings for Lord Lycos: ‘From now on, I must wear my gloves and hood. They provide more than a physical barrier from my curse. They remind me of what I cannot have, and they guard my heart.’
She can’t allow herself to fall for the Lord of the Wolves, her hereditary enemy; besides, her touch must kill him. Yet, she longs for his touch more than she has longed for that of anyone during her lonely years as a mortactio…
I’ve only one minor complaint. I would like to have learnt a little more about the economic base of this alternative, partly matriarchal, mediaeval world, though there are indications that they clearly rely largely on magic to supply their economic surplus and luxury goods. I realise I am showing my colours as a former economics student here, though. Most readers of fantasy do not want more than a few hints by way of explanation.
As ever with this writer, the story has many touches of irrepressible humour: ‘What was loose and wrist-length on my grandmother strains across his biceps. Ripped seams flap at his elbows. Ruffles frame his handsome face.
“And the nightcap?” I ask.
The Wolf grins. “Authenticity.”
And: ‘People who think their neighbors illegally planted carrots on their property will be the slow death of me.’
A Touch of Red is another fast moving, action packed fantasy that I strongly recommend. As ever the writing is vivid, and there is nothing like torn loyalties for heightening the tension in a story. The characters are vividly brought to life, the action moves fast and there are many memorable encounters with monsters and magic.
The plot develops inexorably to a final, epic and climatic battle where Pyrrha’s courage and loyalties are tested as never before.