Cinderella Is Dead by Kaylnn Bayron

Cinderella Is Dead by Kaylnn Bayron

Information

Goodreads: Cinderella Is Dead
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

200 years ago, Cinderella married Prince Charming. Now, in her honor, the young maidens of the kingdom must appear each year at the king’s ball, where the men will choose their brides. Those who are not chosen are sentenced to a labor camp. Sixteen-year-old Sophia must attend this year, but she would rather marry her best friend Erin. So, she makes a desperate attempt escape, finding Cinderella’s last descendant in the process. Could it be that the fairy tale they have all been told was never true? This feminist retelling encourages readers to smash the patriarchy and choose their own destiny.

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Review

Feminist fairy tales are rather in vogue right now, and Cinderella Is Dead proudly joins their ranks as it presents readers with a world where young women are seen by men as goods they can choose and abuse at will. The story’s darkness is also rather on trend as it becomes immediately apparent that society as a whole has chosen to look the other way as the king encourages the men of his country to select wives like wares at a market, marry them, beat them, and then dispose of them when they want a younger bride. Women are also being forced into labor camps, or sold secretly as apparent sex slaves. The book is not for the faint of heart. Those look for an edgy, feminist fairy tale with a twist, however, will adore Cinderella Is Dead, despite its share of common YA weaknesses.

Admittedly, a story line focused primarily on how awful men are can start to feel a bit oppressive, and, frankly, a bit unfair. The protagonist (Sophia) and her love interest repeatedly emphasize how there are really no good men because even the few who are not horrible wife beaters and murderers do nothing to stop the king and his followers. Sophia’s father, for instance, is presented as decent to his wife and daughter, but, when it comes down to it, he will not support Sophia’s desire to defy the king and run away, because he fears what the king could do to him and to his wife as a result. Sophia has little sympathy for her parents’ fear of being tortured and executed, and ultimately dismisses her father as a weak coward who cannot be a good man because of his apathy. Pretty much every single man in the book is presented either as evil incarnate or guilty by association. It’s a pretty extreme view that may alienate some readers, even if they do want to fight the patriarchy.

If readers do not mind this portrayal, however, the book has plenty of action, romance, and mystery to keep them engaged. Basically, Sophia needs to figure out the truth of the Cinderella story, not the propaganda the crown puts out in order to keep women subservient. This will allow her to identify the king’s weakness and put an end to his rule. It is a bit unbelievable that an untrained girl has plans to end the monarchy in a few days’ time with zero training and no plan, especially when others have tried before her for the past 200 years, but this is a pretty standard plot line in YA fantasy, so I imagine plenty of readers will find no fault here.

Another issue I had with the book is how quickly Sophia turns from being in love with (and wanting to marry) her childhood friend Erin, and desiring to be with her new flame. One look is all it takes for her heart to change sides. Instalove is pretty common in YA books, and I think Cinderella Is Dead is just engaging in a trope many readers clearly find enjoyable–or at least not objectionable enough for them to stop buying books. For myself, however, I wish the romance had had more of a lead-up. It is particularly difficult to sell instalove when you begin a book with the protagonist in love with someone entirely different!

Still, the weaknesses I see inn Cinderella Is Dead are really common in YA books, and many readers do not mind them at all. While they do prevent me from finding the book to be a five star read, I think it has enough originality and fast-paced action to be enjoyable. Readers who enjoy YA fairy tale retellings will want to give this one a try.

3 Stars

So This Is Love by Elizabeth Lim

So This Is Love by Elizabeth Lim

Information

Goodreads: So This Is Love
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: April 7, 2020

Official Summary

What if Cinderella never tried on the glass slipper? Unable to prove that she’s the missing princess, and unable to bear life under Lady Tremaine any longer, Cinderella attempts a fresh start, looking for work at the palace as a seamstress. But when the Grand Duke appoints her to serve under the king’s visiting sister, Cinderella becomes witness to a grand conspiracy to take the king-and the prince-out of power, as well as a longstanding prejudice against fairies, including Cinderella’s own Fairy Godmother. Faced with questions of love and loyalty to the kingdom, Cinderella must find a way to stop the villains of past and present . . . before it’s too late. 

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Review

So This Is Love is largely the type of YA I often miss–a feel-good fantasy story where nothing too terrible happens and where what’s most at stake is something in the protagonist’s personal life, not necessarily the fate of the kingdom or the world. The cover art makes the story look dark (I realize this is just the branding of these “What If?” Disney stories), but overall it has the hope and cheer of the original “Cinderella,” even when things are going wrong.

Lim impressively captures the tone of Cinderella herself, writing a character who sounds sweet and sometimes naive, but not in a way that’s off-putting or cloying, She comes into more confidence over the course of the story, of course, and there are some nods to the idea that she couldn’t have really been as happy and chipper being an abused servant as the Disney movie suggests, but I did overall think Lim did a good job of embodying the voice of a Cinderella character.

I have more mixed feelings about the plot. I enjoyed it while it focused on Cinderella and her quests to make a life for herself and to possibly recapture the attention of the prince and see if they really did fall in love the night of the ball. However, this romance and personal journey is mixed with some hints that something larger is going wrong in the kingdom–riots and calls from the peasantry for lower taxes, more representation in government, etc.

The weird part about this is that it all occurs off-page. The story rarely leaves the castle and then it stays in the city directly surrounding the palace. Readers only hear about this social unrest through the character of the Grand Duke–who is not the kind of foppish and silly character portrayed in the Disney movie, but rather a cunning political schemer who thinks peasants having power is scandalous and will be the ruin of the kingdom. This was a tough sell for me simply because I have seen the movie; otherwise, I suppose the character as a plot device (obstacle to Cinderella’s happiness) is fine. However, I did find it odd that the Grand Duke is incredibly worried about riots and social changes that the readers never actually see.

There is a similar subplot about the question of whether magic should be banned in the kingdom–which is also largely discussed as something occurring off-page and not something the readers necessarily have a large investment in, in terms of the main action. This also means there are roughly three major plots going on: Cinderella’s romance, the question of peasants having power, and the question of magic.

In the end, however, I think the book works. It’s a bit like a Disney movie itself–entertaining, never too dark even when Cinderella faces challenges, and…not always as developed as it could be. It’s fund and enjoyable; I just can’t always think too hard about the plot, or it becomes obvious that some parts don’t quite work. I did still like it, and I’m glad I read it.

Briana
4 stars

6 Enchanting Retellings of “Cinderella”

Do you love retold fairy tales? Can’t get enough of Cinderella? There are more extensive lives of Cinderella retellings out there, but these are six of the best that we actually recommend!


Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

Isabelle has never been able to please her mother. She’s too wild. Too ugly. Too opinionated. That hasn’t kept her from trying, though. She’ll cut off her own toes to try to make her mother happy. But the prince isn’t fooled. As blood pools in Cindererlla’s glass slipper, Isabelle is sent away in disgrace. Then chance gives her the opportunity to change her fate, to reclaim the pieces of her heart she’s lost. Isabelle yearns to try. But maybe she’s too bitter and broken to get her own happily-ever-after.  A standout feminist fairy tale retelling featuring a bold heroine and an imaginative world.

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Princess of Glass by Jessica Day George

A companion book to Princess of the Midnight Ball, this reads as a mixture of fantasy, romance, and mystery.  The protagonist Princess Poppy is not the Cinderella figure, but, rather, the one who takes it upon herself to discover where a serving girl has suddenly been acquiring fancy new clothes.  This gives the story a unique spin other retellings lack.

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Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

At birth Ella was cursed by the fairy Lucinda with the gift of obedience. She has to follow any order given by anybody, even if she receives a command that endangers her or others. Determined to gain her freedom, Ella sets out on a journey to find Lucinda and beg her to take back her gift. Rescue, however, may come from a more unexpected quarter. With its spirited heroine, intriguing premise, and heart-wrenching emotion, Ella Enchanted proves a timeless tale that bears repeated readings.  It has rightfully taken a place among the classics of children’s literature.

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Disenchanted: The Trials of Cinderella by Megan Morrison

This retelling takes inspiration from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to depict Ella as a proponent of labor reform. Coming from “new money,” Ella struggles to find acceptance in her new social class, but also feels drawn to help the working class from which she rose. A modern take on a classic tale.

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Geekerella by Ashley Poston

In this modern retelling, Elle is a geek girl who meets her prince at a con. A cute read meant primarily to be fun, though the book also raises questions about geek culture and what it means to be a “real” fan.  A lively retelling.

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Wayfarer by Lili St. Crow

Ellie Sindar is a powerful charmer, but her stepmother abuses her, forcing her to use her spells for stepmother’s gain.  But when handsome Avery arrives at her school, Ellie begins to dream of a future romance.  Unfortunately, however, her stepmother has dark plans in mind–and Ellie’s soul may be the price.

Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

Information

Goodreads: Stepsister
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2019

SummarY

Isabelle has never been able to please her mother.  She’s too wild.  Too ugly.  Too opinionated.  That hasn’t kept her from trying, though.  She’ll cut off her own toes to try to make her mother happy.  But the prince isn’t fooled.  As blood pools in Cindererlla’s glass slipper, Isabelle is sent away in disgrace.  And now everyone knows just how terrible she really is.  Then chance gives her the opportunity to change her fate, to reclaim the pieces of her heart she’s lost.  Isabelle yearns to try.  But maybe she’s too bitter and broken to get her own happily-ever-after.

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Review

Jennifer Donnelly’s Stepsister will likely be one of the standout YA fantasies of the year.  In it, Donnelly imagines the aftermath of Cinderella’s romance through the eyes of Isabelle, one of her “ugly” stepsisters.  Isabelle may not be as pretty as Cinderlla. And she’s certainly not as sweet.  But Isabelle is strong and smart and hardworking.  And she thinks it’s about time she gets to be happy, too.  In Isabelle, Donnelly gives readers a heroine who is not afraid to stand out or to go after what she wants–even if the world repeatedly tells her “no.”  Stepsister is a fierce, feminist retelling that makes readers rethink what they know of “Cinderella.”

Donnelly’s retelling feels different from the many on the market as she focuses on the experiences, not of Cinderella, but of her stepsisters.  Donnelly does not pretend the two were really nice–they did, after all, treat Cindererlla like dirt.  She does, however, make them sympathetic, first by showing how society set them against each other buy judging their worth based on their looks and their docility, and then by showing how their mother stifled them by forcing them act like the “proper young ladies” they never wanted to be.  Isabelle is angry, resentful, and bitter–and not just at her perfect, beautiful, now fabulously-wealthy stepsister.

The theme of societal expectations runs throughout the book.  And, for the most part, it is a thoughtful look at how the patriarchy harms women.  At times, however, the message becomes heavy-handed, with characters actually making speeches about how women can never find out how strong they are, etc. Fortunately, the story is strong enough to survive these rough moments of dialogue.

The story focuses on quite a bit, not just Isabelle’s survival after Cinderella leaves and the village turns on her once-wealthy family.  There is a war going on, with troops rapidly approaching.  There is a long-lost love.  And there is a quest–a way for Isabelle to be granted her heart’s desire, if only she can be strong and smart enough.  It all makes for a fast-paced, exciting read, one that effortlessly expands the world of Cinderella from a house and a palace, to a kingdom.

Stepsister is sure to please both fans of fairy tales and fans of feminist fantasy.  With its strong protagonist, engrossing storyline, and fast-paced plot, it is sure to be one of the most notable YA fantasies of 2019.

4 stars

Geekerella by Ashley Poston

Geekerella

Information

Goodreads: Geekerella
Series: Starfield #1
Source: Quirk Books for Review
Published: April 4, 2017

Official Summary

Geek girl Elle Wittimer lives and breathes Starfield, the classic science-fiction series she grew up watching with her late father. So when she sees a cosplay contest for a new Starfield movie, she has to enter. The prize? An invitation to the ExcelsiCon Cosplay Ball and a meet-and-greet with the actor slated to play Federation Prince Carmindor in the reboot. With savings from her gig at the Magic Pumpkin food truck and her dad’s old costume, Elle’s determined to win – unless her stepsisters get there first.

Teen actor Darien Freeman used to live for cons – before he was famous. Now they’re nothing but autographs and awkward meet-and-greets. Playing Carmindor is all he has ever wanted, but Starfield fandom has written him off as just another dumb heartthrob. As ExcelsiCon draws near, Darien feels more and more like a fake – until he meets a girl who shows him otherwise. But when she disappears at midnight, will he ever be able to find her again?

Part-romance, part-love letter to nerd culture, and all totally adorbs, Geekerella is a fairy tale for anyone who believes in the magic of fandom.

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Review

I love fairy tale retellings, but if you had asked me before I read Geekerella if it were possible for someone to write a take on “Cinderella” that felt fresh, I probably would have said no.  The plot line is so well-known and in some ways so straightforward that I don’t even read a lot of retellings of it anymore; I tend to turn towards more obscure fairy tales.  However Poston’s take on geeky Cinderella who meets her Prince Charming at a con does put a lively twist on the tale, even as it follows the well-worn lines of the story. I don’t think I’ve had this much fun reading a book in a long time.

The book raises some interesting questions about what it means to be a “true fan” of something and explores the good and bad sides of geek culture. I’ve seen some arguments that the premise is absurd because geeks aren’t even outcasts anymore, and while it’s true that geek culture has never been more mainstream, I think it’s important to note here that Elle and her ilk are hardcore fans of the fictional show Starfield.  We’re not talking the type of fan who, say, just really likes The Lord of the Rings or Star Trek. We’re talking about the type of fan who speaks Elvish or can tell you what color earring someone was wearing in in scene 3 of episode 12.  I think these type of fans do still get side-eyed for being a bit weird.

However, ultimately the story is just pure fun, and I don’t think readers should over-think it.  The most common description I’ve seen is “super cute,” and this hits the right note.  So, while parts do read as “unrealistic” (I mean, a teenage fashion designer driving a vegan food truck named the Magic Pumpkin who goes on a badass mission with it, mowing over barriers at a country club does strain credulity), that’s part of the appeal. Geekerella is a crazy, improbable, but amazingly enviable adventure where the geeky girl next door has a chance to nab a movie star boyfriend who shares her geeky interests! So, yeah, cute.

This book will resonate with readers who have ever felt out-of-place or who ever just dreamed of something this unlikely happening to them. “Cinderella” is all about the right circumstances converging to make someone’s life brighter than it had been before, and Poston taps into that to write a compelling take that walks the line between normal high school life and fantasy. Definitely a recommended read from me.

Note: Goodreads tells me this is the first book in a series, but it definitely reads as a standalone. It looks as if book 2 might be a companion book more than a sequel.

4 stars Briana

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?”

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 Enchanted (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.

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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.)

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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.

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Further Reading

Briana