A Curse Dark as Gold--Elizabeth C Bunce
March 2008 by Arthur A. Levine Books
Charlotte Miller has always scoffed at talk of a curse on her family's woolen mill, which holds her beloved small town together. But after her father's death, the bad luck piles up: departing workers, impossible debts, an overbearing uncle. Then a stranger named Jack Spinner offers a tempting proposition: He can turn straw into gold thread, for the small price of her mother's ring. As Charlotte is drawn deeper into her bargains with Spinner-and a romance with the local banker-she must unravel the truth of the curse on the mill and save the community she's always called home.
This was a slow, thoughtfully paced novel, but that worked well with reading it in twenty minute sessions as an audiobook. The slowness will probably bother some readers, but I liked being given the time to absorb the whole situation and appreciate the story. The setting is developed thoroughly and accurately Bunce did tons of research in writing the book. But I didn't find myself caring much about the characters.
I liked it as an adaptation of the Rumpelstiltskin fairytale. Jack Spinner was an interesting character. His development was satisfying and different from any other adaptation I've seen before. He is the villain, but a sympathetic one. I couldn't help but compare this novel to Suzanne Weyn's Crimson Thread, which is another Rumpelstiltskin retelling set in the Industrial Revolution, though a bit later on. Crimson is definitely more lighthearted, and the Rumpelstiltskin character is not as compelling.
Reading the relationship between Charlotte and Randall is painful. You don't often see marital strife portrayed in these kind of books; it's usually just happily ever after. Seeing a couple struggle would have been refreshing if it wasn't heart-wrenching, but it fit their ridiculously quick courtship. However, I didn't like how Bunce resolved this conflict. SPOILER, He just comes back and everything's fine? What? And now he does magic? And all their problems are just swept under the rug, unresolved. I didn't like their period of distrustfulness but it was compelling and interesting and real and deserved a better resolution than that.
For most of the novel the magic just didn't work for me. Maybe if I had gone into it knowing it was a historical fantasy, I would have liked it better, but with the Industrial Revolution setting I was expecting historical fiction. Even though Bunce set up the magic with all the the hexes and superstitions, the magic felt implausible. I did like the eventual explanation of Jack Spinner and his origins.
The climax felt a bit sloppy and haphazard. It was scattered and hard to tell exactly what was going on and who was there. The conflict was resolved, but I felt almost as if something was missing.
The theme of what's in a name is very important. The name Charlotte means strong or free, and she lives up to her name, almost to the point of stubbornly refusing any help ever, like she has to prove that she, a woman, can keep her mill running. I can't say much without spoiling things, but Uncle Wheeler and Jack Spinner are worth paying attention to.
On the whole, I liked it, but it wasn't fantastic.