The only real complaint I have with Dead Upon A Time by Elizabeth Paulson is that I wish there were a little bit more of it. It’s a fun read with likable characters, but it moves at a quick pace (if I counted right I think the whole story covers the span of 3 days) and I would have enjoyed spending more time in the world of the story, which is an amalgamation of multiple fairy tales.
The plot follows Kate Hood after she discovers her grandmother is missing. The only clues are a series of tapestries depicting children in scenes of fairy-tale inspired horror, like a girl in a room covered in needles or a brother and sister in a room slowly heating up like an oven. An outcast in her village, Kate’s only ally is Jack, the only person the villagers hate more than her, but after the king’s daughter also disappears, they wind up as the official search and rescue team.
Kate is a likable protagonist: smart, a little sassy, and independent, but still not totally sure of herself. All in all, a pretty realistic depiction of a teenage girl, and someone readers could easily root for and relate to.
My favorite part of the story is Jack (yes, of the infamous beanstalk). In this version, Jack has been shunned by his village because of damage done by the giant he unleashed, turning him into a snarky, slightly hardened eighteen-year-old. Jack’s sarcasm and playful teasing provide most of the book’s humor, but you can really see the way his shunning has shaped him in the distrust and disdain he shows toward every character besides Kate. I would have liked a chance to delve further into his character, perhaps get more detail on his encounter with the giant or some of his past history with Kate.
That is also one of the perks of the story: no insta-love! We don’t get much info on it, but it is made clear that the characters have known each other since childhood, even if they were never close. Kate is physically attracted to Jack from the start, but I’m still curious at what point in the story Jack’s attraction began.
Kate’s feelings would best be described as a schoolgirl crush; she finds Jack attractive but has more pressing matters to deal with (and even if she didn’t, she doubts it’s a real possibility), the same way a high school freshman might admire the prom king. Jack seems to be more and more impressed with Kate as she reveals her resourcefulness along the journey, but it’s unclear to me if he starts the story seeing her as a girl he’s doing a favor for or if he does the favor because he feels any kind of friendship or affection toward her. A couple flashback scenes or references to past experiences would have gone a long way to deepening their relationship for me. Either way, the journey quickly puts them in situations where they learn to trust and depend on one another, earning each other’s respect and admiration along the way, creating a believable arc.
The ending is where I really would like to have seen the story beefed up, though. It pretty much hits the climax and then suddenly there’s an epilogue. After spending the whole journey with Kate, I expected to spend a little more time on the big rescue attempt and its aftermath. I want to know more about what happened with Kate’s parents, what happened to the princess’s stepmother and step-sisters, and it would have been nice to see how the villagers reacted to everything.
Though this last point might seem a tad negative, I don’t mean it that way. The ending might not have totally satisfied me, but that’s not because what I got was bad; it’s that it everything that came before was good enough to make me want more.
All in all, I give Dead Upon a Time three stars and recommend it to anyone who enjoys fairy tale retellings or a quick adventure story.