There were ideas I loved in Rosamund Hodge’s debut Cruel Beauty, and there were some things that really bothered me. But I saw potential in Hodge as a writer, especially as one who puts spins on fairy tales. This novella set in the same universe as Cruel Beauty may have suffered from some insta-love, but otherwise it did everything right. Consider me impressed.
Published by: Harper Teen, 2014
Ebook: 111 pages
Series: Cruel Beauty Universe
My rating: 7/10
First sentence: My mother loved me more than life itself.
A romantic and fantastical reimagining of the classic Cinderella tale, Gilded Ashes is a novella by Rosamund Hodge set in the same world as the author’s debut novel, Cruel Beauty.
Orphan Maia doesn’t see the point of love when it only brings pain: Her dying mother made a bargain with the evil, all-powerful ruler of their world that anyone who hurt her beloved daughter would be punished; her new stepmother went mad with grief when Maia’s father died; and her stepsisters are desperate for their mother’s approval, yet she always spurns them. And though her family has turned her into a despised servant, Maia must always pretend to be happy, or else they’ll all be struck dead by the curse.
Anax, heir to the Duke of Sardis, doesn’t believe in love either—not since he discovered that his childhood sweetheart was only using him for his noble title. What’s the point of pretending to fall in love with a girl just so she’ll pretend to fall in love with him back? But when his father invites all the suitable girls in the kingdom to a masked ball, Anax must finally give in and select a wife.
As fate would have it, the preparations for the masquerade bring him Maia, who was asked by her eldest stepsister to deliver letters to Anax. Despite a prickly first encounter, he is charmed and intrigued by this mysterious girl who doesn’t believe in love. Anax can’t help wishing to see her again—and when he does, he can’t help falling in love with her. Against her will, Maia starts to fall in love with him too. But how can she be with him when every moment his life is in danger from her mother’s deadly bargain?
Maia lives with her stepmother and two stepsisters and has to do all the chores, all the housework, and is basically be a slave to her family’s whims. So far, so Cinderella. But Hodge puts the first twist on the story right at the start. Maia’s mother loved her daughter so much that her ghost remains and protects Maia from demons, from humans who wish her harm, from everything – and sometimes that protection gets a little out of hand. So Maia lives with a mask on her face, constantly pretending to be happy so her mother’s ghost doesn’t hurt anyone around her. For if her mother’s ghost believes a person makes Maia unhappy,
When Lord Anax announces a masked ball where he will choose his bride, Maia has to deliver her sister Koré’s letters to him. Koré hopes to snare the lord and bring her family fortune and safety. Through chance, Maia and Anax meet in person and begin talking. I loved these first scenes between the two. Their reasons for eventually falling in love become believable in those first meetings. They disagree, they astound each other, Maia can be honest for the first time in ages. Lord Anax is used to being flattered, being lied to, being humored. When Maia – having nothing to lose and not daring to want anything for herself – speaks the truth, even when this means telling him he is not very good at something, he is intrigued. Maia’s attraction to Anax grows more slowly, but this romance is really not the heart of the story.
This novella is set in the same world as Cruel Beauty and so demons are a thing, the Gentle Lord bargains with humans, and all of those bargains usually end up doing more harm than good – in excellent fairy tale fashion. The world building is a constant companion throughout the story and I really liked the idea of bargains made for love being responsible for Maia’s family breaking. And that is the center of Gilded Ashes – Maia learning who her sisters are, why her stepmother is the way she is, that both Koré and her younger sister Thea aren’t just stupid girls out for the Lord’s money or power. All they want – all anyone wants in this book – is to be loved. The way they are trying to achieve this differs from person to person, but in essence, all they desire is love. Which makes it really difficult to dislike them, you know. How can you fault somebody for wanting to be loved by their own mother? By their stepsister? To be so starved for affection that even a perfect stranger’s love is desirable?
The moment I truly fell in love with this tale was when Maia and Koré BECOME FRIENDS! Cinderella is not the kind of story, even if retold with a twist, in which you’d expect to find female friendship. But as these characters grow, as they dare show their true selves, they also have to recognise that they don’t hate each other. Not only that, but that they genuinely care for each other. It was a thing of beauty that I liked much more than the romance between Maia and Anax.
The ending offered some twists, one of which was expected but not in any way lessened by being slightly predictable. The others were genuinely surprising. I don’t know if you can call it a happy end exactly, but it was a fitting one that leaves the readers with hope.
Altogether, this was an enjoyable little novella, set in an intriguing universe based on Greek mythology (yay!) that I preferred to its novel companion. If Rosamund Hodge continues to get better with every book she writes, I already look forward to her second novel Crimson Bound and anything else she’ll publish after that.
MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good