Book Club Questions and Author's Answers
(First Bite: The Wicked Queen's Tale)
1) The legend of Snow White is one of the darkest fairytales in existence, with its murderous queen bent on destroying the innocent young heroine. In what ways does Queen Lillian differ from other depictions of the famous villainous (including the Walt Disney version we all love so well?). Do any of her characteristics in First Bite manage to humanize her?
A: The wicked queen is, perhaps, at her most foul form in First Bite, with her penchant for dabbling in black magic and the dark arts. And her vampirism with its blood cult ties is an especially gruesome angle that I hoped would emphasizes her monstrous nature. The text hints that at one time she might’ve been different, capable of human understanding. Clearly her desire for power has outweighed whatever good qualities she may have possessed in the past.
2) As evidenced by the group of villagers in the tavern, Queen Lillian’s evil doings have inspired many tales of superstition, passed from generation to generation. How do these seemingly far-fetched stories of wild beasts help to protect Lillian from scrutiny?
A: Tales of strange creatures that haunt the forest and evil hags that kidnap infants from their cradle serve as a perfect distraction from the beautiful and seemingly placid Lillian, who leaves ruined villages in her wake each time she changes her identity. No one would suspect someone of her stunning allure to be involved in the bloody deeds required to keep her keep from losing her eternal youth. Not even her servants---all of whom shrink before her shadow---could imagine her connection with the brutal slaying of innocent young village girls.
3) In Chapter 5 we get our first glimpse of the servant girl Fortulla. Though still young, the narrative informs us that she is at an “indeterminate age somewhere between eight and eighty” and that she’s never known a life apart from the midwife hag and her foul ways. But what happened earlier in the book to hint that Fortulla did have another life, and a mother who cared for her?
A: Fortulla is the poor infant that we glimpsed in the book’s preface---the one who is stolen at birth from her mother by Tahilda the midwife. Now Tahilda’s slave, the young girl believes herself marked for evil, more or less, her life a series of circumstances she’s helpless to change. She doesn’t let herself dream of a better life because she has no idea what such a thing would look like.
4) Fortulla dreads the hag’s habit of branding the newborn infants with a strange mark. Only the girl infants are marked, not the boys. This is a practice we hear mentioned between Tahilida and Queen Lillian, as well. What do you think it means?
A: The queen is always looking for a blood source to supply her youth and beauty. It’s Tahilda’s job to mark potential candidates for future victim hood, young maids who Lillian must slay before they’ve lost their innocence. But as the queen questions the magic mirror, it becomes clear that she’s looking for something else as well---the young maid who is destined to thwart her reign and lead to her death.
1) Lillian seems to have a group of followers, a sisterhood if you will. Despite her demands for sacrifices---and her obvious disdain for them---why do these women continue to treat her as a deity?
A: They’re part of her blood cult, all of them eager to drink the source of long life. This is where the vampira legend comes into the story, the idea that the queen has created a circle of women who live to unnatural long age by feeding off the leftovers of her own victims. They cannot match her power or her beauty; they merely continue to exist as shriveled forms of humanity -- unless, of course, they possess her knife and perform the ritual for the heart‘s blood that preserves the Queen so perfectly. Lillian is their goddess, providing them with the means to erase wrinkles and ailments as she dispenses a little heart‘s blood now and then in exchange for their service.
2) What do we learn about the queen’s gift of immortality in this section? Her conduct becomes clearer in the scene from Transylvania as she argues with her master. What exactly are the conditions of their strange bargain?
A: Lillian has made a deal with the devil---literally. She has promised to further his evil throughout the world in exchange for her undying beauty and youth. Although she despises him--and perhaps even regrets striking the bargain in the first place---she seems bound to continue with the agreement. If she fails, the price is death and something worse, as the text hints in their scenes together, where his touch fills her with loathing and dread.
3) Why do you suppose Tahilda murders the beloved young queen who gives birth?
A: No doubt, she senses there is something special about this newborn infant and feels it may be important for Queen Lillian that it lacks the protection of a mother later in life. Its purity and innocence may strike her as it does the mother, who comments it is “like the snow.” If so, its blood will be perfect for Lillian in future years and Tahilda hopes her mistress will be so grateful as to bestow a valuable gift upon her devoted servant of darkness.
4) Tahilda’s actions don’t go unnoticed and the hag is pursued by soldiers when she and Fortulla reach the village. Leaving the child to fend for herself, she transports herself away in a cloud of smoke and ash. Why does Fortulla seem so distraught by this?
A: Because, she’s never been alone before and, in fact, she can’t remember anything beyond the cruel existence with the hag. She’s also deeply afraid that she has been tainted by her association with a practitioner of the dark arts. Fortulla believes that she’ll be regarded as a witch and will then suffer the penalty of death or imprisonment at the hands of frightened villagers.
1) We see that Fortulla’s luck has changed, as she’s adopted by a kind farming family and grows into a healthy young woman. And then, even more unexpected, she is approached with a rare opportunity---that of attending a fine lady’s orchards in a faraway village. Why do you think Queen Lillian chooses Fortulla for the task of maintaining her precious fruit crops?
A: It’s hard to say how much Queen Lillian knows about Fortulla when she invites her to become part of her villa’s staff. She admits that she has seen her many times before, has watched her tending the trees on her adoptive family’s property. But in their subsequent conversations, Lillian is eager for the details of the child’s past and obviously makes the connection that she is a former servant of Tahilda’s. Knowing the girl has been equipped for a life of darkness may appeal to her in some way and make her feel safer trusting her with the care of her most valuable possessions.
2) In this section, we learn of the queen’s special orchard and the rare apple tree that she keeps locked away from the hands of all but a few trusted servants. Obviously, there is a deadly and magic quality to this particular fruit. But what else can you guess about it, based on other references in the story?
A: Think back to the village superstitions where “…the witch’s soul is a wood, a splinter from the Tree of Life and Death. When Adam fell, when the Garden vanished” (Chapter 1). And, of course, there is Queen Lillian’s conversation with the reptile-like demon, where he references the branch she must keep concealed. No doubt, the tree is connected with the queen’s well-being and is vital to her power and probably her very existence.
3) Rumors abound about the queen’s impending marriage, this time to a widowed king with a young daughter. What do you think Queen Lillian’s motive can be in marrying again---especially when she has no plans of leaving her villa for her husband’s home?
A: If the queen does not intend to join her husband in his kingdom, we must presume she is not marrying him for his land or people -- but simply for the sheer pleasure of destroying him. And we must consider the fact that Fortulla feels a spark of recognition upon seeing the king---most likely from her visit to the palace with Tahilda all those years ago. We can easily guess from this that the king’s daughter is the baby Tahilda marked, the one likened to the snow for ivory skin and red mouth.
4) Fortulla receives only kindness from the queen and yet she hears from the other servants what a harsh mistress the queen can be. And occasionally, she too feels the shadow cast by the queen, averting her eyes from her presence. But at times---during their private chats---she also finds a sense of humanity in her placid mistress. Do you think Queen Lillian feels any sort of attachment to the young girl?
A: I think it’s possible the queen sees Fortulla as her only chance for anything resembling a normal human connection. After all, she has no one to confide in, no one to tell of her strange secrets and regrets. And so far, she has shown Fortulla nothing but kindness and calmness, although she can never fully hide the aspects of her character that make her so intimidating.
5) In this section, we meet Blanche, or Snow White as traditional fairytale fans know her. Devoted to her father, she seems ready to embrace his new marriage and the chance for Lillian to fill the void left by her long dead mother. What sign or omen implies that Blanche is already in the queen’s disfavor?
A: The raven that haunts the child’s window sill is one of the queen’s creatures, sent to spy on the poor child. It also becomes a symbol of sorts, for Blanche’s abrupt transition from lively child to subdued young lady. This is especially apparent in the scene where the bird snatches her beloved doll, smashing it to bits on the paving stones. I love the maid’s assertion that she is “too old now for playthings,” the eerie image of the doll’s shattered pieces below.
1) We learn in Chapter Nineteen that eight years have elapsed since Fortulla was given a key to the queen’s special orchard. During this time, Princess Blanche has become a young lady, allowed to visit the village only once a year, to lay a wreath upon her mother’s grave. When Fortulla escorts her on this outing, what does she learn of the hag’s vile practice of marking the infants?
A: The grave that Fortulla stumbles upon in the foul part of the village bears the same mark the hag seared into the flesh of the poor infants. A native woman is able to tell her that the grave’s occupant bore such a mark upon her hand---and that she was killed by a beast, a “Devourer of Hearts.” At this moment, the ritual becomes clear to Fortulla, the meaning of the mark as a sign that the victim is destined for dark servants who feast upon blood of the innocent. She feels the sense of evil and foreboding in the village, quickly leading Blanche away from the market and the piper’s eerie tune that seems to pull her in.
2) The queen seems angry when she learns that Blanche is the one prophesied by the mirror to cause her downfall. Which seems strange, given her eagerness to learn of the girl’s location before. Why does she hesitate to take her life while she has the chance?
A: Because it’s not as simple as Tahilda makes it seem in their conversation. First, Queen Lillian knows that this potential victim must be of a special nature if she has the ability to destroy such a force of evil as herself. If she can wait but a few more years, the girl’s blood will be of a powerful quality, giving her many more years of youth. And yet, she risks letting the prophecy play out the longer she delays the murderous deed. So it’s a difficult situation for the queen, especially as others around her grow fond of the princess, taking a strong interest in her fate.
3) ) We get our first glimpse of the huntsman in this section, a mysterious figure hidden behind a raggedy cloth mask. Many seemed frightened by his appearance, but Fortulla is brave enough to speak with him. What is her impression of him, based on this brief meeting?
A: Understandably, she’s a little frightened of him, of his initial silence and his strange appearance. She’s also somewhat disturbed by his almost cavalier treatment of the surrounding forestry, where he says that “Shadows hide beasts and blood-drinkers”. But she does not think him wicked or bad at heart, defending him when the other servants speculate on his strange nature.
4) For years, Fortulla has half-hoped her existence with the hag was more dream than reality. A hope that fades when the vile Tahilda confronts her the same day as the huntsman’s arrival. What does their conversation reveal to the Fortulla about her employer?
A: Something she’s known all along, but doesn’t want to admit---that Queen Lillian does indeed have a connection to dark powers. Although, she never would have associated the beautiful figure with a despicable hag like Tahilda. Even when she discovers that Blanche bears the hag’s mark, she doesn’t fully grasp the role her mistress plays in the young girl’s danger. But she is deeply crushed to know she has been aiding evil yet again, her fate always leading her to be a servant of darkness.
1) The huntsman’s story is revealed in Chapter 23: how Lillian married his father, a man struck down in his prime by sudden illness. How he ran away from her presence, only to be attacked by wolves in the forest, his father’s home and grounds burned in his absence. What sort of vengeance do you think he has in mind now that he’s tracked Queen Lillian to her current dominion?
A: He’s probably still undecided at this point exactly what action to take. But he clearly feels the tree has something to do with the queen’s power; now it’s just a matter of learning how to use it against her, so that it destroys instead of supplying her strength. Since he doesn’t know the apples are poisonous, we can assume he still has much to learn about Lillian, despite having been her stepson in his youth.
2) Fortulla is undeniably curious about the huntsman, a natural emotion increased even more after she rescues him from the queen’s poison fruit. Her eyes are drawn to him throughout dinner the next evening, testing his reaction to the stories told by the other servants. Do you think she feels only curiosity, or is there a spark of attraction buried in their awkward communication?
A: I think Fortulla feels drawn to the huntsman---and he to her---for a number of reasons. She probably identifies with his being an outsider and having a secret past he doesn’t wish to discuss. She no doubt senses his pain, something she can understand with her own brutal treatment at Tahilda’s hands. And they share a troubled and lonely childhood, made more difficult by being motherless. And though they don’t yet know it, they have a mutual goal: to destroy the evil that has haunted their lives, making it impossible for them to live beyond its shadow.
3) When King Andre returns to his homeland, there is much speculation that he will seek the queen’s hand in marriage. And this time, we see that Lillian is eager for the union, even sending false messengers to plant ideas about her goodness in the king’s mind. What are her motives for doing this?
A: Clearly, Lillian is enticed by the notion of more subjects to rule over. King Andre is the head of two kingdoms; an empire when combined with her own, or so she thinks. The people in her own land are scattered and poor, the economy sagging beneath the shadow of her reign -- and soon, the same fate lies in store for Andre‘s people once they are in her clutches, since it is implied the Queen’s presence in any land poisons its goodness as dark servants and dark deeds overtake the population. With Andre’s land in her power, she can spread her power and darkness across a wide range of subjects and add more miserable conquests to her collection.
4) Lillian feels secure of King Andre as he pays his first visit---until she witnesses his admiration for the beautiful young Blanche. More than mere jealousy, what fear is it that springs into the queen’s heart?
A: She has waited too long, given her step-daughter‘s beauty, charms, and innocent character. At least, that is what Lillian thinks when she sees the young girl’s beauty threatening to rival her own. A question to her magic mirror confirms the worst; she must now face a difficult decision: end the girl’s life before her blood is ripened, or risk being defeated as the prophesy foretold.
5) Unable to perform the murderous task herself, Queen Lillian enlists the huntsman to kill Blanche and cut out her heart. But even though he feels it would play into his quest for vengeance, pity stays his hand. Does this sort of compassion seem to contradict what we already know about him?
A: The huntsman does indeed seem cold and bitter from his childhood tragedy. It is as if he’s more comfortable with the darkness of the forest, with its strange creatures, then he is in the company of fellow humans. And, of course, there are the rumors of his criminal activities that Lillian recounts. The truthfulness of these is not confirmed, but they leave little doubt that he possesses a somewhat questionable character.
1) In First Bite, the Prince fails to meet Blanche before her disappearance, but seems to feel a strong connection with her nonetheless. Do you think this change in the traditional story adds or takes away from the romantic angle?
A: I enjoyed the new twist on their relationship, even though it meant losing the classic “love at first sight” theme. Prince Charming is usually a one-dimensional character and it’s true that he’s not as fully fleshed out in this story as one might like. But I hope we imparted a romantic, fairytale feel with his already strong attachment to the idea of Blanche, as well as his reaction to her portrait.
2) After Fortulla agrees to help the huntsman destroy the queen, she searches Lillian’s chamber---and gets caught. Although the queen marks her for death, she seems sad to do so, even hurt. Does this confirm that the otherwise inhuman queen looked on Fortulla as a friend?
A: I think the queen does feel betrayed. She has trusted Fortulla with the care of her dearest object, has confided bits and pieces of her past and personal feelings. She seemed even to be on the verge of confessing her true identity in that moment after she gave Fortulla the remedy for the fruit’s poison. So even though she is a monster, a “Devourer of Hearts” the queen possesses enough remnants of human feeling to regret the loss of Fortulla’s company.
3) The huntsman recognizes that the queen’s knife is of a special quality, and Tahilda seems obsessed with the notion of gaining it for her own use. What sort of powers does she claim it possesses?
A: The knife is a key part of Lillian’s ritual and because of the dark powers it was enchanted with a limb from the original Tree, gives her an advantage over the others in her blood cult. It is what she must use to remove the victim’s heart; no ordinary blade can endow the sacrifice with the ability to reverse aging. Without it, she is the equal of her sisters, the women who drink the blood only to ease a few pains or smooth a crease or two.
4) Fortulla says she has no choice but to do the hag’s bidding; that she’ll either die in captivity or in pursuit of the queen’s enchanted weapon. But do you think her motivation for returning to the villa is deeper than that? Or is she just resigned to the idea that darkness is her fate?
A: I think she knows she’ll never truly be free to pursue her own destiny until Queen Lillian has been destroyed. The evil is inescapable, no matter how far she runs or who she associates with. She truly has nothing to lose by the risk. And also, her concern for the huntsman obviously motives her to continue the search. Her worry for him matches the pain of her captivity, as she thinks of him carrying out their plans alone and in danger.
1) Accused of being a witch’s assistant, Fortulla is tossed into prison to await trial with the hag. But despite all of Tahilda’s former cruelty, she can’t bring herself to denounce the evil woman, even in an effort to spare her own life. Do you think she owes Tahilda this loyalty in any way?
A: Fortulla half-believes her own self to deserve the punishment for witchcraft, her old doubts about being tainted by association returning anew. So it’s no surprise she can’t betray her cruel mistress to protect her life. She must know the older woman deserves this fate; she’s seen her heinous acts in the past, the murder of Blanche’s poor mother included. But when the moment comes to expose her for these deeds, she can’t forsake Tahilda without confronting the fears about her own potential for wickedness. It’s also implied that the trial’s verdict is a foregone conclusion and this is merely a public show for the benefit of the townsfolk. Even Fortulla’s denouncement of her mistress wouldn’t save her, since she would most likely still be burned for practicing dark arts.
2) In First Bite, Lillian doesn’t need a spell to disguise her from Blanche’s recognition. The absence of the necessary sacrifice has caused her skin to age, her features crumbling at an alarming and morbid rate. Do you like this alteration in the tale, or does it take away from the magical element?
A: I quite enjoyed this change in the storyline and the urgency it added to Lillian’s quest. Snow White, at heart, is a rather gruesome tale, and the image of the queen’s rapid deterioration stays with the spirit of the legend while adding something a little different. It’s an interesting turning point for her character too, as Lillian begins to show signs of weakness, not only physically but emotionally. The cruel confidence with which she dispensed of the huntsman vanishes in a tide of worry and fear for her impending punishment at the hands of her master.
3) Fortulla seems almost surprised that the huntsman returns to rescue her---for a fleeting moment, she even imagines he’s come to lead her to the stake. But he insists that he needs her help, in fact, that her knowledge of the dark arts may be used to destroy their mutual enemy. Does Fortulla share his confidence?
A: This must be a strange notion for her, as she’s been haunted by the witchcraft connection her whole life. Always afraid of being recognized, of being viewed as dangerous because of her servant hood to one so evil as Tahilda. She may not share the huntsman’s opinion of her skills, but she can’t abandon him to fight the queen alone. Which should prove to her more than anything that she is not like those who enslaved her, always seeking wickedness and personal gain with their supernatural abilities.
4) The Prince seems quick to trust the huntsman when he realizes there may be a chance to yet save Blanche’s life. And even though he’s never met her, he’s willing to put his life at risk without the aid or approval of his father. Is his motive for this quest bravery or something else?
A: I think he must possess a natural courage, or at least an independent spirit, to have pursued such a dangerous mission without his father’s approval and protection. But it’s also fairly obvious that the Prince had idealized Blanche’s innocence and beauty. Even before he glimpsed her portrait, his interest was sealed by the stark tragedy which befell her. His grief for her loss was genuine; his spirits dampened at the news of her death as if he they were already acquainted.
1) As she casts the spell for the witch’s destruction, Fortulla seems to undergo a change of sorts. Can you think of some details from this section that make her seem more like a heroine than before?
A: For one thing, she has abandoned her servant rags for the garments of a fine lady. And her fear has vanished in a surge of determination and rage. She seems indignant rather than meek in this scene, from her battle against the queen’s army of birds, to the moment she shatters the magic mirror with a fire place poker. Her thought at this moment---that “If nothing else, she would be punished for a crime she committed, for once,” is surprisingly rebellious in tone. It also implies that she has finally accepted her own innocence, the fact she is not to blame for the deeds of those who controlled her fate in the past.
2) The queen is on the verge of taking Blanche’s heart when she realizes someone has entered her chambers, a sorceress casting a spell from her own private quarters. In light of this development, she abandons the girl’s body untouched, stumbling homewards in vain. What do you think Blanche’s fate is---does the story hint what will happen to her?
A: Although this is more thoroughly answered in the story’s sequel Snow White’s Knight, we can speculate the Princess’s fate based on the original tale, as well as the conversation between the huntsman and the Prince. Obviously, it’s important that the huntsman gave the Prince the antidote for the apple’s poison; this no doubt will play a role in reviving her from the seeming death inflicted by the apple. How this comes about, however, is left a mystery as far as the wicked queen’s tale is concerned.
3) Blanche’s story fades into the background as First Bite draws to its conclusion. Instead, Fortulla emerges as the primary heroine and her rescue by the huntsman takes center stage for the ending. Does this seem anti-fairy tale in some way, with its lack of magical romance?
A: Certainly, they are not a traditional fairy tale couple---Fortulla has little beauty compared to Blanche and the huntsman is a far cry from Prince Charming, with his rough, somewhat frightening manners. But they are heroic in having triumphed over impossible odds, their bravery paving the way for Blanche’s own inevitable happy ending. Their romance, with its understated nature, also seems more appropriate for a story with such a grim, foreboding tone.