I’ve had Tinder sitting on my bookshelf for a few months now, waiting for its chance to wriggle to the top of my TBR pile. If I’m being entirely honest, I let it skip a few places, just because I’m impatient when I’m waiting to read a book as beautiful as this one.
I mean, come on. Look.
The story is a retelling of the fairytale The Tinderbox by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s not one I’m familiar with, but – as fairytales are wont – it shares roots and ingredients from other tales I do know quite well, including Aladdin and his magic lamp. Essentially, the root of the story is this: a young man with a magical object can control the comings and goings of enchanted creatures bound to do his bidding, and all manner of chaos and adventure ensues.
But, of course, Tinder is more than just that.
Beautiful cover (and stunning illustrations – thank you, David Roberts) aside, this is a story about war, and devastation, and suffering. It’s a tale of the ghosts a person carries within them when they’ve witnessed dreadful things like murder and rape and mutilation, and how they attempt to carry on while burdened with memories and guilt. Our protagonist is a young man named Otto Hundebiss (which means ‘dog’s bite’), who encounters Death before the first page of the story has even been turned. He is on a battlefield, wounded, and Death comes to him. Filled with a desire to escape, he runs, only to wake up beside a fire in the company of a strange creature who describes Otto’s memories of his murdered family, despite never having met Otto before. Nursing Otto back to life and strength, this strange creature gifts him with a pair of new boots and a set of dice, the boots to walk in and the dice to tell him which way to go.
So, his quest begins.
Soon, he meets with a young ‘boy’ in the forest, who turns out to be a beautiful girl with cascading red hair. She is Safire, a mysterious girl from the land of the werewolf whose three brothers have gone to war. She is being hunted, and she won’t explain why. She and Otto spend a night in a cave, during which time he falls in love with her, but by the morning the huntsmen are hot on her trail, and Otto’s fever (caused by his battle wounds) is raging once more. He is too ill to move, and Safire needs to run to save her life. Separated from his beloved, Otto pleads with his enchanted dice to bring him back to her once more, and carries on his quest. He comes to a castle behind tall iron gates, wherein he finds shelter, but also apparitions, frightening visions and strange servants. The price for staying in this castle is high; the lady of the house is a strange, masked individual with one long, razor-sharp fingernail, from whom Otto shrinks in horror. She asks a favour of him – to go down to her cellar and bring up her tinderbox, which she has left there in error. Unsurprisingly, things are not what they seem.
The story is structured, paced and told as a fairytale. There is repetition (particularly around the number three), there is magic and superstition, things occur which should be impossible. Strangely, even though I normally have endless patience when it comes to this sort of unrealistic story structure, parts of Tinder saw even my attention waver. We know, for instance, that Otto needs to try, repeatedly, to get rid of the tinderbox once he’s found it; despite my awareness of this, it did drag just a little. I also can’t say I warmed to him much as a character. Fairytales aren’t known for their in-depth characterisation, to be fair, but still. I thought it was strange that a character who has been through so much, including war (the story is set during the Thirty Years’ War), the loss of his entire family, and being forced into becoming a soldier, could leave me with a sense of dislike. I don’t even mind the fact that he and Safire fall in love instantly; this is a fairytale. I don’t mind that he has to go through his quest in a methodical manner; again, this is a fairytale. It didn’t even bother me that things which should have been obvious didn’t occur to him – it’s a fairytale. Still, I found him selfish and interested only in his own promotion. Even his ‘quest’ to save Safire isn’t really about saving her (she seems more than capable of doing that herself); it’s about him, and his desire to marry her. He doesn’t want to save Safire and allow her to do what she wants with her life – he wants her for his own. I wish that had been different.
And then, that ending. I know, I know – it’s a fairytale. And there are going to be twists. And things don’t always go the way you want. And happy endings are there to be messed with.
But I didn’t like it.
However, I did enjoy Sally Gardner’s writing, because I always do. I enjoyed the subtle humour and the descriptions and the dark, unsettling passages when we are allowed to look inside Otto’s mind and memory, learning about what he has been through. I loved the illustrations more than I can express. The whole book is beautifully presented and an absolute treasure. But will I read it again?
I’m not so sure.
This book is worth owning, in its print form, for its sheer beauty. The story is worth reading, for sure. I can’t recommend it unreservedly, but I do think it’s worth checking out.