New Book Nook: “What Once Was Mine” puts a chilling, electric spin on a Disney classic

Fairy tales are told and retold. It’s how these things work. Disney knows that better than most. Their own retellings of fairy tales have been so ubiquitous across generations that more often than not it is their retelling that becomes the yardstick against which all other adaptations are measured.

But lately, there has arisen a new trend of Disney retelling their own stories. The most prominent example of this is the live action remakes of their animated classics, but on the publishing side, there is the A Twisted Tale series. Functioning as something of a Disney What-If, these books retell all or part of the Disney story loved by all, with one key detail changed.

Liz Braswell’s What Once Was Mine, a retelling of the 2010 movie Tangled, asks the question: what if Rapunzel’s mother drank from the wrong flower? In this case, rather than the Sundrop flower, which granted Rapunzel (and her hair) the power of healing, she drank the Moondrop flower, which comes with a whole host of complications.

As a baby, Rapunzel’s hair comes out silver rather than gold. And in a fit of newborn tears, she accidentally kills a servant who touches her hair. Wanting to protect the kingdom, and their baby, the king and queen leave her in the care of Gothel, who claims to be a witch who can help Rapunzel learn to control her powers. However, seeing the so-called “murderhair” as the advantage it is, Gothel keeps Rapunzel locked up in her tower, frightened of herself. 

The action starts to unfold as the movie does, but with key deviations along the way that make the adventure worthwhile, even for readers who are intimately familiar with the story already. Determined to locate the mysterious Flynn Rider so he can guide her to the floating lanterns that appear in the sky on her birthday, Rapunzel sets out alone from her tower, and meets a new friend named Gina. Gina promises to help her find Flynn, which they eventually do, and it is there that the story takes a turn into brand new territory. 

The three of them, needing to regroup and plan a way to get Rapunzel to the lanterns, retreat to Gina’s mother’s home. Her mother, a proper witch, recognizes Rapunzel for who and what she is, and gives her the tools needed to harness her power. Though the quest slows down, it allows the characters a chance to breathe and to grow. The romance between Rapunzel and Flynn is given the time and space to flourish here, and is more scorchingly intimate than I expected from a Disney book. 

But romance is only one component. What is a Disney story without its villains? Yes, there is Mother Gothel, but with her comes a variety of nobles who all want to possess Rapunzel for their own purposes, and to whom Gothel is more than willing to sell her adopted daughter. One of these nobles is the very real Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the world’s most prolific female serial killer who would torture her victims then bathe in their blood. The sequences focused around Bathory were the most chilling in the book. I’m tempted to call them “horror-like” but there is no “like” about it. It is horror made appropriate for the age range of the target readers. That said, if you’re very squeamish like I am, it might be wise to tread with a touch of caution.

The strength of What Once Was Mine is taking the time to build out aspects of the characters that a film doesn’t have the space to do in under two hours. As mentioned above, there’s the romance between Rapunzel and Flynn that is allowed to grow organically, with even elements like his signature “smoulder” repurposed to serve their budding connection. Beyond that, Rapunzel’s friendship with Gina is the kind that is both healthy and caring, but also sees both women challenging each other and their preconceived notions of what life can and should be. The two are sisters in spirit, if not by blood.

It comes as no surprise that the focus on family, and the dynamic between siblings comes across so strongly. The entire novel is structured as a story that a brother is telling his sister through her chemotherapy treatments. Though both of them would love to go back to the kind of relationship they had prior to her diagnosis, the retelling of Rapunzel’s story is their way of adjusting to their new normal – or rather, their normal-for-now – while maintaining their connection.

The most notable part of the book, though, is the way Braswell writes Rapunzel. She walks  that line of naive but not unaware. There is a lot Rapunzel doesn’t know about the world. Her view on almost everything is shaped by the 37 books she’s read over and over. She is sheltered, but she’s not an idiot. Her instincts are good, and she is willing to learn. She was written with such precision that even her lapses in judgement felt realistic rather than contrived. The way she gradually overcame Gothel’s conditioning was wonderful to see, and by the end she stood proud on her own and in control of her own power and destiny. 

With a Happily Ever After of course. This might be a twisted retelling, but it’s still a fairy tale after all.

What Once Was Mine is available September 7, 2021. 

Special thanks to Netgalley and Disney Hyperion for an advance copy for review purposes.

Check out my Geeky Waffle cohost Candace’s review of “What Once Was Mine” here.

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