Disenchanted: The Trials of Cinderella by Megan Morrison

disenchantedINFORMATION

Goodreads: Disenchanted
Series: Tyme #2
Source: Library
Published: Oct. 2016

SUMMARY

Ella Coach’s mother died while working in a factory and now she wants reform for the labor class.  Unfortunately, her father has remarried and their family is trying to climb the social ladder.  But Ella doesn’t want to be a quint and moon over Prince Dash like every other girl at her new fancy prep school.  Dash is a bit strange, anyway, since the Witch’s curse was removed from him.  He is no longer sure what he wants, now that he is no longer cursed to break hearts.  But it’s probably not social revolution.  Meanwhile, Serge,  a jaded Blue fairy godfather, wonders what it would be like to be able to help the kids who need him, not just the ones who can pay.  And his new apprentice Jasper just might show him the way.

Review

Disenchanted is the modern fairy tale retelling I am pretty sure everyone wants, and it’s strange I have not seen anyone else talking about it.  From it’s protagonist of color to its focus on working conditions and a living wage, it encourages its readers to empathize with others and to think critically about their own world.  And let’s not forget it’s also an engrossing story.

Megan Morrison immediately sets the tone of the story by alluding to Cinderella’s dark skin and bronze curls, but otherwise not making a big deal out of it.  Cinderella is not looked down upon in this world because of her skin color, but rather because her family is “new money.”  Similarly, it’s well-known that a few of the guys are crushing on Prince Dash Charming and hope to marry him.  No one sees this as a problem (except for the fact that Dash is straight) and instead they talk with each other about other romantic prospects that might be more realistic for the boys to attain.  Acceptance is the norm in this world, if you’re not talking about class.

The bulk of the story then focuses on Ella’s desire to reform the working conditions for those who labor in the factories that keep the owners of the Garment District prosperous.  She explains the concept of sick leave to another character, explores the exploitation of cheap child labor, and advocates for doing business only with ethical companies.  She explains in simple terms why poor people remain poor, even when there are two working adults in the home, and the devastating consequences when one member of the household becomes ill–lower income but more bills.

Intertwined with these heavy concerns are the stories of Ella, Dash, and Serge.  Ella is struggling to accept that her money  now has money and she is part of a new social class.  She wants to be with her old friends, but may find that she has new power with which to do good.  Dash, meanwhile, might be falling in love with Ella, but the crown is at risk if he does not placate political forces by courting a more suitable match.  And Serge remembers the days when he thought fairies could make a difference.  Now they work only for clients with money and they often do things that trouble his conscience.  Is reform possible for the Blue Fairies?

In some ways, the book seems inspired by the early 20th century and the Triangle Factory in particular, but it’s impossible not to notice that the story also comments on relevant issues today, such as a living wage.  If you’re looking for a bit of social commentary mixed in with your fairy tale romance, look no farther than Disenchanted.

5 starsKrysta 64

Kingdom of Ash and Briars by Hannah West

kingdom-of-ash-and-briarsInformation

Goodreads: Kingdom of Ash and Briars
Series: None
Source: City Book Review
Published: September 2016

Summary

When teenager Bristal is tossed into the cursed Water in the Woods, she expects to die. Instead, she emerges as an elicromancer, one of the most powerful magic workers to live in centuries. Yet power comes with a price, and Bristal is soon caught up in a plot of dark elicromancy that could lay waste to an entire kingdom if she fails to make all the right choices.  Threads of Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and other classic tales emerge as Bristal fights for her people.

Review

Kingdom of Ash and Briars is one of those books I really, really wanted to like but just couldn’t.  The jacket copy promises Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Mulan, all wrapped up in an overarching “gritty fairy tale gone wrong.”  This sounds excellent, but the way West goes about it is immeasurably disappointing, as none of the fairy tales in the book are given the time they really deserve.

West tries to cram a lot of action into a small space, and the result is extremely bad pacing.  Conflicts are all resolved within pages of being introduced.  There is no development, no suspense.  It’s all quite episodic and choppy.  This applies to some of the fairy tales,  as well.  The Cinderella aspect is a side note of about two chapters.  And, of course, that means characters are not developed either.  There is a of telling and very little showing because there simply is no time for it.  Instalove is a common issue.

[Minor Spoilers Next Paragraph]

Because of this, I was simply never really invested in Bristal or her issues. Of course, Bristal often seems barely invested in her own problems.  For instance, she is whisked away from her home to study magic once she becomes an elicromancer–and home never comes up again.  Apparently she wasn’t really attached to anyone she used to know.  I know she’s an orphan, but she was adopted and ought to have felt some responsibility towards her adoptive mother and any friends she had.  Even weirder, roughly 16 years pass between the start of the novel when Bristal gains her powers and the story proper.  This means Bristal must be roughly 30 years old, yet the book never drops the YA tone or the teenage voice for Bristal herself.  There was a huge disconnect for me here.

Finally, a lot of the story was simply cliche.  This was not because of the references to fairy tales, which could make any retelling “predictable” in some way.  It was simply that everything fit into a neat little pattern of perfection, in ways that are overused in fantasy in particular.  There are times cliches are satisfying, but I found this book just exhausting.

I was really looking forward to Kingdom of Ash and Briars.  I wish I had more good things to say.  Unfortunately, I wanted to DNF about 10 pages in and only finished because I was required to, having agreed to review the book for another site. I have to recommend passing on this one.

2 stars Briana

The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye

The Crown's GameInformation

Goodreads: The Crown’s Game
Series: The Crown’s Game #1
Source: Library
Published: May 17, 2016

Official Summary

Vika Andreyeva can summon the snow and turn ash into gold. Nikolai Karimov can see through walls and conjure bridges out of thin air. They are enchanters—the only two in Russia—and with the Ottoman Empire and the Kazakhs threatening, the Tsar needs a powerful enchanter by his side.

And so he initiates the Crown’s Game, an ancient duel of magical skill—the greatest test an enchanter will ever know. The victor becomes the Imperial Enchanter and the Tsar’s most respected adviser. The defeated is sentenced to death.

Raised on tiny Ovchinin Island her whole life, Vika is eager for the chance to show off her talent in the grand capital of Saint Petersburg. But can she kill another enchanter—even when his magic calls to her like nothing else ever has?

For Nikolai, an orphan, the Crown’s Game is the chance of a lifetime. But his deadly opponent is a force to be reckoned with—beautiful, whip smart, imaginative—and he can’t stop thinking about her.

And when Pasha, Nikolai’s best friend and heir to the throne, also starts to fall for the mysterious enchantress, Nikolai must defeat the girl they both love… or be killed himself.
As long-buried secrets emerge, threatening the future of the empire, it becomes dangerously clear… the Crown’s Game is not one to lose.

Review

The Crown’s Game has a fascinating premise: two enchanters must duel to the death to determine who will be the next royal enchanter and adviser to the tsar.  Yet a complicated duel becomes even messier when each of the participants decide they don’t want the other one to die.  With undertones of The Night Circus and other beautifully magical books, The Crown’s Game seemed destined to become one of my new favorite books.  Unfortunately, I didn’t connect with the characters, and much of the plot doesn’t make sense, so The Crown’s Game actually was one of my biggest letdowns of 2016.

Possibly one of the most difficult things for an author to achieve is making readers care about their characters, and it’s certainly something Skye struggles with.  Of course I feel bad that Vika or Nikolai is destined to die, but it’s the type of “feeling bad” I’d have for any person in a sad situation.  I did not care about them, or any of the characters,  as individuals.  I’m not entirely sure what Skye could have done to fix this, though I think showing readers more of what was at stake for the characters might have helped.  Of course nobody wants to die, but beyond that, what matters to these characters? What do they lose if they die?  If Skye had shown me more of what makes the characters tick or what they wanted to achieve in life, or shown me who would have been absolutely devastated if they lost and died, I might have cared more.  I needed to feel there would be some emptiness or unfulfilled potential if one of these characters died.

The plot was somewhat more exciting than the characters, but some of it doesn’t quite make sense, and the pacing is off.  There are really two strains of plot going on, and Skye didn’t quite reconcile them.  The book wants to be dire and epic and deep, but it gets sidetracked by frivolous magic and flights of fancy.  And, honestly, if the book had simply embraced frivolity, I think I could have really enjoyed it.

[Slight spoilers this paragraph.] Ostensibly Vika and Nikolai are dueling to the death. Their goal: impress the tsar with their magic and show him they have what it takes to be a royal advisor and also lead a upcoming war.  What do they with their magic instead? Decorate St. Petersburg.  Now, the book goes out of its way to assure readers that Vika and Nikolai are performing stunning, complex, difficult magic, that it takes enormous strength and power and concentration to do something like paint all the houses on a square or make a water fountain in a river.  So, sure, I’ll buy that.  However, this takes place in a world where 1) few people believe in or know anything about magic and 2) the tsar started the Crown’s Game because he fears a looming war.  So 1) probably no one knows whether painting some houses is complex magic or not and 2) it definitely doesn’t have an immediate use in war.  Of course, the book also has to come up with lots of convoluted explanations to help the plot make sense (i.e. no one believes in magic, so the competitors can’t do anything too dangerous or scary). However, this is still stupid because they could have just gone somewhere more isolated, and I think there’s still a way to demonstrate you have warlike abilities that would be more effective than making magical puff pastries.  The enchanters’ training exercises that nobody saw were more to the point than the things they choose to do during the actual competition.

In terms of pacing, the book starts out slowly then goes on a mad dash at the end, complete with the classic “overdone drama between two characters motivated by a seemingly insignificant ‘event.'” I was not really a fan. The book then ends suddenly and kind of assumes readers will be on board for the next one, but I don’t think I will be.

Usually I give 2 stars to books I actively dislike, but I’m giving 2 here instead of 3 mostly because I was just so bored the entire time I was reading it.  I also considered DNF-ing several times, which is also a criterion I use to give lower ratings.  There’s a lot of potential in The Crown’s Game, but it has a bit of an identity crisis over whether it wants to be a book about beautiful magic or a book about war and danger and deceit.  I would have loved a more frivolous take on this, I think, a book that just gloried in aesthetic magic and making St. Petersburg beautiful.  I didn’t really buy all the dire additions to the plot, however.  This was one of my most anticipated reads of 2016, so I’m quite sad I felt so let down.

2 stars Briana

Mechanica by Betsy Cornwell

MechanicaInformation

Goodreads: Mechanica
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: August 25, 2015

Official Summary

Nicolette’s awful stepsisters call her “Mechanica” to demean her, but the nickname fits: she learned to be an inventor at her mother’s knee. Her mom is gone now, though, and the Steps have turned her into a servant in her own home.

But on her sixteenth birthday, Nicolette discovers a secret workshop in the cellar and begins to dare to imagine a new life for herself. Could the mysterious books and tools hidden there—and the mechanical menagerie, led by a tiny metal horse named Jules—be the key to escaping her dreary existence? With a technological exposition and royal ball on the horizon, the timing might just be perfect for Nicolette to earn her freedom at last.

Gorgeous prose and themes of social justice and family shine in this richly imagined Cinderella retelling about an indomitable inventor who finds her prince . . . but realizes she doesn’t want a fairy tale happy ending after all.

Review

Mechanica puts a charming steampunk spin on the classic tale of “Cinderella.”  Nicolette Lampton feels trapped by her cruel stepmother until she discovers her mother’s hidden basement workshop and begins tinkering to make inventions of her own.  She hopes with hard work she’ll be able to buy herself a new life and maybe even become as skilled as her mother.  After all, there’s not just a royal ball coming up; there’s also an Exhibition!

Mechanica gives readers a “Cinderella” character who really knows what to do with her work ethic.  Instead of feeling downtrodden by her abusive family , she feels she’s simply biding her time until good things can come her way.  While I wish  the family dynamics would have been explored more–I think there’s a lot to say about abuse in many fairy tales that many authors simply overlook–I did admire Nicolette and her drive.

Besides the somewhat flat step-family, most of the other characters are similarly well-developed and reveal multiple facets of their personalities throughout the novel.  There’s also a (mechanical) animal companion, and I fall for those every time in books.  Sign me up for a cute horse with intelligence and unconditional love!

The official summary broadly hints how the end of the book will go, so I won’t consider a few more hints much of spoilers.  I’ve seen other readers imply it doesn’t go how they wanted, but I didn’t have an issue with it.  I also didn’t have a problem with the apparent insta-love earlier in the novel; Cornwell clearly indicates that it’s supposed to be read as infatuation.  She’s playing with fairy tale tropes, much the way Frozen does with the insta-love between Anna and Hans.  As for insta-friendship, I don’t find that hard to believe at all.  Half of being someone’s friend is deciding you want to be.

Overall, I just found Mechanica a really enjoyable read.  It will be  appreciated by anyone who adores retold fairy tales as a I do.
4 stars Briana

Why Didn’t Cinderella “Just Leave?”

Cinderella Dicussion

The other day I was speaking with someone about retellings and favorite childhood books, and when we got to Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, she said, “I always loved Ella Enchanted because Levine said she wrote it because she always wondered why Cinderella didn’t just leave.  I always thought that, too.”  As much as I also love Ella (I’ve probably read it about fifteen times), this comment troubled me because it seems to me the answer is is clear: It isn’t simple for people, especially children, to “just leave” the people who are abusing them.  When you also consider that most “Cinderella” stories take place in fantasy worlds or historical time periods when women didn’t have many rights, it becomes even more obvious why a young girl couldn’t “just” set out on her own to seek her fortune and have that venture go well.

As writers continue to offer variations on this classic tale, I hope more of them will take the time to thoughtfully consider that Cinderella’s “evil stepmother” is more than a trope or a plot point; she’s an abuser.   The effects of that on the Cinderella’s psyche deserve to be explored,  not glossed over as something unimportant that Cinderella happily endured while she sang with her charming animal friends (as Disney suggests).

Additionally, authors who want their Cinderellas to just “man up ” and go should make it clear what specific factors in their literary worlds enable the protagonist to do so–as well as clarify that Cinderellas who don’t aren’t necessarily wimps.  They may be bound to their abusers by psychological and societal factors beyond their control.

Why Don’t We Talk about Abuse in “Cinderella” Stories?

Wayfarer Quote

I’ve been taking issue with representations of child abuse in young adult and middle grade novels in general recently, and I intend to write a post on the topic more broadly in the future.  However, I am particularly disappointed by the number of “Cinderella” retellings (and other fairy tale retellings with abusive parents, such as “Snow White”) because the entire point of a retelling is to expand on an existing story, to explore things that were left unexplored in the originals.  Retellings give authors an opportunity to flesh out a bare-bones source story that often focuses on plot instead of things like character psychology/interiority.  In retellings, flat good or evil characters become complex, insta-love becomes a complicated romantic relationship, small details that “just happened” in the original are explained at length.  Yet somehow the fact that Cinderella is suffering from child abuse is left unexplored, as if it somehow doesn’t matter either to Cinderella herself or to the readers.

Conversations about abuse have become more public in our society recently, and I think the fact that victims of abuse often struggle with extricating themselves from abusive relationships is becoming more widely-known.  We have to remember this when we think of “Cinderella” stories and ask ourselves why she doesn’t just leave her stepmother’s home.  We have to remember not to victim-blame, not to assume it’s somehow Cinderella’s fault for “allowing” herself to be treated horribly by her stepfamily.  We should remember, too, she’s a child (or a teen), and children don’t just up and leave the only homes they have ever known.

However, we also should avoid the trap of gong too far in the other direction and assuming that Cinderella’s life isn’t “that bad,” of believing the abuse in the tale doesn’t need to be discussed.  I understand that many authors who retell the story are interested in the romantic aspects of it, whether that’s the rags to riches story or the love story.  They don’t want to delve into the dark world of child abuse in their retelling.  And yet it’s there.  I think responsible authors will tackle this somehow, will avoid the Disney mistake of suggesting that Cinderella’s main virtue is smiling throughout her abuse and being a happy servant.  I want to see Cinderellas who are troubled or depressed or angry because of their treatment and to see authors discuss how their protagonists deal with their abuse.  (Lili St. Crow does this in Wayfarer, but I can’t think of another author who does.)

Does It Even Make Sense If Cinderella Does Leave?

Mechanica Quote

Besides the opportunity to expand on a short story, another benefit of retellings is that they allow for many variations of the same story. So it makes sense that, in some, Cinderella will “just leave.”  However, I think whether she can is a question that should be thoughtfully considered by authors and readers alike.  Particularly if a “Cinderella” story takes place in a past or pseudo-past time period, she may not have the resources to leave or may realize that leaving could make her life worse.

In Victorian England, for instance, a woman’s occupations choices were often between a low wage worker (perhaps a maid or a factory worker) or a prostitute.  Some estimates suggest 1 in 12 women were prostitutes (source).  The situation for many Cinderella characters is similar, when you remember that most of them are isolated and have no friends or family to live with if they leave their stepmother.  Yet if a teenage female left home on her own, the likely options were:

  1. becoming a maid, just in someone else’s house instead of her stepmother’s (though this outcome is least likely since Cinderella would be alone without any sort of references, so no one would trust her enough to hire her)
  2. becoming a sex worker because no one would hire her
  3. becoming a beggar if she couldn’t find “honest” work and didn’t want to be a sex worker

So, no, many Cinderellas can’t “just leave” home.  If authors want their Cinderellas to strike out on their own, they need to create the circumstances in the novel that allow them to do so.  One example is Cinder by Marissa Meyer.  In Meyer’s futuristic world. women can lead independent lives, and protagonist Cinder has enough training as a mechanic in order to sell her skills somewhere.  However, most retellings in this vein–modern or futuristic ones–will still have to make some assumptions. Cinderella is probably at least 18 and legally allowed to just pack up and leave her abusive home.  In a contemporary story, she might simply wait till she’s old enough to go to college. (I can’t say I’ve seen any modern versions where Cinderella makes a bid for emancipation at fifteen and then manages to find a job when most require employees to be at least sixteen.)

Conclusion

Cinderella’s situation is infinitely more complicated than most readers (or authors) assume when they ask why she doesn’t “just leave” her abusive stepmother.  Psychological ties, lack of outside support, the inability to earn money elsewhere, and legal prohibitions on leaving home could all play a factor in stopping her.  Remember that in most Cinderella stories, our protagonist is a child or a teenager.  Most young people don’t simply pack up and leave home when they have no one to turn to and nowhere else to go.  I hope more readers will be sensitive to this, and more authors will put the investment in creating complex Cinderella stories that recognize the existence of abusive and deal thoughtfully with how Cinderella responds to it.

Briana

Ash and Bramble by Sarah Prineas

Ash and BrambleInformation

Goodreads: Ash and Bramble
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: September 15, 2015

Official Summary

No one has ever broken free of the Godmother’s terrible stone prison until a girl named Pin attempts a breathless, daring escape. But she discovers that what seems to be freedom is a prison of another kind, one that entangles her in a story that leads to a prince, a kiss, and a clock striking midnight. To unravel herself from this new life, Pin must choose between a prince and another—the one who helped her before and who would give his life for her. Torn, the only thing for her to do is trade in the glass slipper for a sword and find her own destiny.

Review

I can envision the birth of Ash and Bramble.  Prineas sat down and thought, What if you don’t want to be in a fairy tale?  What if it’s more exciting to write your own story instead of following the pattern of everyone else’s?  The result: a gutsy YA novel that capitalizes on the popularity of fairy tale retellings even as it tries to argue they’re boring and overrated.

I kind of loved it.

The prose, I admit, is a huge turn-off and something I actively strove to ignore throughout the novel.  All of the book is in present tense, which I hate, and uses short, choppy sentences, which I despise.  Worse, however, is the lack of consistency in points of view.  Protagonist Pin’s chapters are all in first-person, while love interest Shoe’s chapters are in third person.  I never understood the reason for the switch; I don’t know if there was an artistic reasons.  I only know it drove me mad.

If one can tolerate the writing style, however, there is a very interesting story buried beneath.  Large swaths of it will be predictable—like which man is going to win in the love triangle—but others are quite unexpected.  The whole point is that Pin wants to break away from a perfect, contrived life as a Cinderella with a happily-ever-after, so she tries to do the unpredictable.

The multiple layers of the story mean that sometimes the pacing is off.  The book starts in media res, except the readers don’t actually know what happened before the action started because none of the characters really know either.  From there it’s a quick sprint to get from the opening scenes to the part where the Cinderella story is supposed to play out to the part where Pin has to decide if she even wants her Cinderella story.  The result is a bit chunk-like, even though the book tries to head this off by dividing itself into parts and signaling something new is about to start.  However, the plot and the characters are interesting enough that I tried to ignore my discomfort with this, as well.

Though Pin is supposedly the star of the novel, and the other characters spend a lot of time observing how unique, how unexpected, how like a flame in darkness she is, I was more captivated by the side characters.  Shoe is definitely a fascinating, complex character, and I was glad he got his own sort-of POV chapters.  I also enjoyed reading about all the other characters who had been caught up in the dangers of their world, who were kind of broken but persevered.  Even the last character in the love triangle was multi-faceted.  Pin just feels contrived compared to them, especially when she goes stereotypical YA protagonist and suddenly discovers she possesses a bunch of kickass skills that will help her in her fight.

In many ways, I fought with Ash and Bramble more than I really enjoyed it.  Half of it pulled me to liking it while the other half pushed me away.  However, I found it interesting, and I think it will appeal to anyone who normally enjoys new takes on fairy tales.

3 stars Briana

Cinderella Stays Late by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams

Cinderella Stays LateInformation

Goodreads: Cinderella Stays Late
Series: Grimmtastic Girls #1
Source: Library
Published: 2014

Summary

Cinderella dreamed of attending Grimm Academy, an elite boarding school that previously her father could not afford–but she never imagined she would have to attend with her stepsisters.  The Steps always try to make Cinda look bad in front of her friends and now they’re trying to sabotage the new prince’s ball.  Can Cinda, along with Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Snow White, save the ball from disaster before the stroke of midnight?

Review

Cinderella Stays Late certainly seems not to be a wholly original idea–other books before have mashed up fairytales and even inserted them into a boarding school setting.  However, the attempt of the Ever After High series to mix cutesy and glitter and fairytale puns to appeal to a stereotypical idea of a tween audience comes across as more cheesy than winkingly funny, and sometimes even as slightly condescending.  The Grimmtastic Girls, meanwhile, manages to take these same elements, even the puns and the emphasis on sparkles and fashion, and to make them seem natural in its world, rather than a heavy-handed marketing ploy.  Perhaps the difference lies in Holub’s and Williams’s ability to know how to mix fluff with real depth; though frills and glitter abound, they never overshadow the characters or the plot.  The result is an engaging tale with an arguably wider appeal–after all, readers can really care about these characters, rather than just about their clothes.

Though the Grimmtastic Girls series possesses an overarching plot, as well as a mini threat to be faced in each book, the characters really drive the story.  Holub and Williams take well-known fairy tales and utterly transform them, beginning by depicting heroines such as Cinderella and Red Riding Hood as pre-teen girls with typical pre-teen problems–first day of school anxiety; friendship troubles; insecurity about their appearances or about fitting in; and, of course, crushes.  The girls may live in a fantasy world, but they feel like they could be students in ours.  Even fairy tale elements such as the cruelty of Cinderella’s stepsisters point to contemporary issues to which readers can relate, such as bullying or abuse.

The cover recommends Cinderella Stays Up Late as a book for fourth graders, but the sensitively-drawn characters as well as the engaging plot will hold appeal for readers of all ages.  Not for a long time have I enjoyed a fairy tale retelling this much and I cannot wait to read the sequels.