Toads and Diamonds, by Heather Tomlinson (Holt 2010, YA, 276 pages)
The story of the two step-sisters rewarded and punished by a fairy disguised as an old woman was always a favorite of mine. It was a pleasure to read it reimagined in Tomlinson's Indian-esque setting, a detailed and colorful (literally) world that added interest to the story (to me at least) by virtue of its non-European-ness. Tomlinson makes it clear in her afterword that her world is not a carbon-copy of India, and she has tweaked the geography and the main religions considerably. That being said, there is so much cultural detail about the day to day life of this place that it certainly feels, to me at least (who doesn't know all that much about it), like a convincing portrayal of 17th-century India.
In that place that never quite was, a jeweler died, leaving his widow and his two daughters to begin a gradual descent into poverty. Now Diribani, beautiful, kind and happy, and her step-sister, Tana, more practical, and less conventionally lovely, must fetch the household's water from the communal well. One fateful day, that chore brings them face to face with a goddess. And the goddess chooses to give each sister her soul's desire.
Diribani is given the beauty she craves--whenever she speaks, jewels and flowers fall from her lips. The greatest wish of Tana's heart is to protect her family...and she, too, receives a gift. When she speaks, snakes, toads, and frogs appear. In Tana's world, toads and frogs are lucky, and snakes useful and desirable in their role as rodent catchers, so it is not a terrible thing. Yet Tana is sure that the goddess has judged her unworthy of the beauty and grace bestowed on her sister.
The gifts of both girls soon come to the attention of their province's governor, and the young prince of the realm, both followers of the monotheistic religion practiced by their conquering ancestors. And this attention is not at all desirable, for either girl--Tana becomes a hunted outcast, Diribani a prisoner in the gilded cage of the prince's retinue. As they struggle to understand what the goddess intended them to do with their gifts, their hearts and their strength of will are sorely tested. Neither knows if they will be able to make a happily ever after for themselves...or if they will end up worse than before.
Toads and Diamonds is told in alternate chapters from the point of view of each sisters, and Tana's increasingly miserable circumstances provide a nice contrast with Diribani's claustrophobic life of luxury. Tomlinson succeeds in making each sister a distinct character, with whom the reader can become invested in, although Tana, probably because she is more conflicted, more introspective, and more intelligent, is by far the more interesting of the two. Although each sister's story has a rather firmly-written moral, Tomlinson allows the characters, for the most part, to convey to the reader the changes in their ways of thinking, so the morals don't stand in the way of the story.
My only substantive quibble with the book is the ending Tomlinson implies awaits the sisters. It seems to me that, despite the goddess' gifts, with their character-developing consequences, the two sisters are about to become dependent again on the world of men, with no chance of actually creating futures for themselves. The classic fairy tale ending of the handsome prince/male rescuer seems to be the best the two sisters can hope for. Sigh.
Here's Tomlinson discussing at Tor how this book came to be, and some other reviews at Bookish Blather, Reading in Color, and Bibliofile.