Good Idea, Amateurish Execution: Kalynn Bayron – Cinderella is Dead

A book based on the fairy tale of Cinderella with a queer Black protagonist and a cover this beautiful? Of course, I couldn’t resist. But it teaches me the lesson – yet again – that books can’t be judged by their cover or even by what the synopsis promises. I was all aflame for this story, I wanted to like it so very much, so my disappointment is even greater. Because it’s just not very good.

CINDERELLA IS DEAD
by Kalynn Bayron

Published: Bloomsbury YA, 2020
eBook: 400 pages
Standalone
My rating: 3.5/10

Opening line: Cinderella has been dead for two hundred years.

It’s 200 years since Cinderella found her prince, but the fairytale is over.
Sophia knows the story though, off by heart. Because every girl has to recite it daily, from when she’s tiny until the night she’s sent to the royal ball for choosing. And every girl knows that she has only one chance. For the lives of those not chosen by a man at the ball are forfeited.
But Sophia doesn’t want to be chosen – she’s in love with her best friend, Erin, and hates the idea of being traded like cattle. And when Sophia’s night at the ball goes horribly wrong, she must run for her life. Alone and terrified, she finds herself hiding in Cinderella’s tomb. And there she meets someone who will show her that she has the power to remake her world.

This book starts out so well. 16-year-old Sophia lives in Lille, the capital of the kingdom of Mersailles which is ruled by the King and his ironclad laws. There aren’t many but they are serious. Based on the tale of Cinderella, which happened some 200 years ago, women have no rights, the husband or designated man of the household makes all decisions and can “discipline” his wife and children however he sees fit. How that horrorshow came out of the Cinderella fairytale? I don’t know and neither does anyone in this book, so just accept it and move on. The law also states that, starting at age 16, every young woman has to present herself at the royal ball where she can hope to be chosen by one of the men currently seeking a wife. Men aren’t obliged to go to the ball, they can go if they want and they can choose a 16-year-old wife even if they themselves are much older. If a girl doesn’t get chosen on her first ball, she shames her family. Every girl gets three tries, otherwise she is a forfeit and essentially turned into a slave. Yup, that’s the setup.

Look, everything about this world is already ridiculous but for the sake of the fairy tale I was willing to let it slide. This book, however, has very little in common with any fairy tale as it reads more like the exact cliché YA dystopian novel you’d expect from its world buliding. Sophia is not like other girls (ugh) but at least she has a good reason. Because she is in love with her best friend Erin and they’ve even had somewhat of a secret relationship. You can imagine that this woman-hating totalitarian world does not look kindly on the LGBTQIA+ community. Sophie wants to just run away but Erin is too scared and just wants to do what is expected of her, even if that means denying who she really is and living her entire life under the control of whichever man chooses to marry her.

At the ball, Sophia’s temper (or should I say stupidity) runs away with her and, shortly after, she runs away from the ball and is now on the run from the King and his guards. If they find her, they’ll execute her. Thankfully, she immediately meets another girl and continues her story with her. Secrets about the past are revealed, plans for revolution are made, allies are found, and romance abounds. I honestly cared so little about this book by the end that I feel tempted to just spoil the twists but in the hopes that other people find more joy in this, I’ll leave it at that.

There were so many problems with this novel and they became more and more glaring the further I got. I already mentioned the world building and how it makes absolutely no sense. But even with a huge amount of suspension of desbelief, I couldn’t overlook the book’s many other flaws.
Let’s start with the writing style. I had read on several places on the internet that this was supposed to be a debut novel (which would have made things a little better) but apparently it is not at all. Kalynn Bayron has published several other full-length novels and shorter works. I wouldn’t have guessed it judging from this book. Starting from recapping events from the previous chapter through dialogue, over super cringy conversations, overly dramatic descriptions, and a predictable plot, I would have bet my kidney that this was a first try at writing a novel. It honestly reads like my own very first book which I wrote at the age of 12 – part wish-fulfillment with the super beautiful girl protagonist who saves the world without actually doing much herself, part dramatic, impactful scenes but without the necessary build-up to make them dramatic.

The characters were actually the best part because, first of all, they are distinct and they’re not all perfect. Sophia, of course, is the best of the best and only sees the good in people and never does anything wrong and just wants to save the world and everyone from the evil king. Constance, her love interest, was my favorite. She is feisty and impulsive, sometimes even funny, but definitely her own kind of person. She was the one thing I kept holding on to while reading this. Other than that, we don’t get to know many characters too well. There’s mysterious Amina, there’s Sophia’s best friend and (ex-)lover Erin who conveniently turns into a bitch once Sophia has found a new love interest. Oh, and there was Luke, the young gay man Sophia meets at the very beginning of the book and whom we don’t see again until the very end because even though he was the most interesting person to me as a reader, in this story his only value seemed to have been that he is another gay person in Lille. Once that was established, he was no longer useful for Sophia’s story.

If I’m talking characters, I also have to talk about the villain, King Manford. He is the kind of villain who’s evil just for the sake of being evil. There is a super weaksauce attempt to explain his actions at the end, but it was neither convincing nor even tried to be. I can’t take a character like that serious and I certainly want more from a YA novel than a Bad Guy who’s just bad because reasons. It’s a writer’s job to come up with compelling characters with agency and that includes the antagonist. Manford executes people on a whim, he’s the one enforcing the crazy laws of his kingdom and making sure women don’t have any rights whatsoever. So of course it’s easy for Sophia to fight him. Her plan to kill him won’t haunt her because he is so purely evil that taking a life – even the life of a despicable man – would come with no psychological consequences. That is a sad thing, especially in a book that uses a fairy tale as its basis and pretends to subvert it.

The author generally doesn’t appear to have a lot of confidence in her readers. I can’t imagine why else she’d explain the events of the previous chapter to us, why her characters would have “As you know, Bob” conversations, or why we are told at least one million times how this society works, how bad it is, and how much everyone is suffering. WE GET IT!!! We got it after the first two chapters where you showed us this world. There’s no need to explain it to us again and again in every chapter after that! The writing got worse and worse later in the book. Once Sophia and Constance are together, they turn from young women with a plan to cheesy idiots, exclaiming their love in the most sappy words imaginable. Mind you, the entire story takes place over the course of maybe two weeks.

A good plot can still save a badly written novel. Give me the subversion of the original fairy tale, give me twists and high stake moments, give me battle scenes, and difficult decisions for our protagonist. I wants them! Oh… there’s none of that available in Cinderella is Dead? Well, that’s a bummer.
It starts with Sophia never actually figuring anything out for herself or doing anything of consequence of her own volition. Every situation where she doesn’t follow the rules is forced by someone else’s actions, be they the king’s or someone else’s. When she needs new information, it conveniently is delivered to her. By Constance, by a friendly townsperson, by the super ridiculously convenient fact that she finds something that has been stuck behind a drawer for the last 200 years that NOBODY ELSE HAS FOUND IN ALL THAT TIME!!!!! She can open locks with a hairpin when it’s convenient to the plot, the king’s guards are terrifying but also really dumb when it’s convenient to the plot, and the characters are only in real danger when it’s convenient to the plot. Do you see a pattern here?
I was never, for one second, worried that anything could happen to the protagonists because the potentially dangerous scenes are over so quickly that I didn’t have time to get worked up about them. And the style of this book is just not the kind where you have to fear for anyone. You know evil wil be defeated somehow. In fact, you know pretty early on how it will be defeated, even if Sophia takes ages to finally catch up and get it, too.

Another thing I found a bit strange was how much this world relied on the Disney movie version of Cinderella. That felt so cheap and jarring, especially since it gets mixed up with other versions of the fairy tale. When did Cinderella wear an “iconic blue dress” in the actual fairy tale? Depending on which version you read, her dresses are usually silver or gold. Bayron chose to implement elements such as birds picking out the stepsisters’ eyes and the fairy godmother but then she made a character ask someone else to “bibbidi-bobbidi-boo” something which is just so weird. I’m aware that there is no one original version of any fairy tale but using the Disney movie so heavily just didn’t feel right, especially for this secondary medieval-ish world where Cinderella was an actual person and movies definitely aren’t a thing.

Now that I’ve got most of the bad stuff out of the way, let met tell you what this book does well or how it at least earned a couple of brownie points. It’s not for the Black queer protagonist – that’s great for representation but it doesn’t make the story the tiniest bit better. But this was an absolutely readable book, probably because the language was so dialogue-heavy and otherwise kept things really simple. There are no big words, no long sentences, no flowery language or heavy descriptions. This was one of the fastest 400 pages I’ve read in a long time.
The far more important bit is that Bayron actually acknowledges that killing the king doesn’t immediately change the world. The rules he’s put into place have been with people for 200 years and they are very well fixed in their minds. Why would men, who currently hold all the power, willingly give that up just because their ruler is gone? It is mentioned several times in the book that killing the king is just the beginning and that there is a lot of work to be done afterwards. I loved that because it made this crazy world just a little bit more believable and it acknowledged that you can’t just start a quick rebellion, kill a ruler, and then live in a utopia where everyone’s happy and accepting of each other. That is important and I’m glad I got to read it in a YA book.
But then, in the very last chapter, there is this one little line that is such a big fat “Fuck you, democracy” to make me re-think my opinion of the protagonists and their motives… I can’t say more without spoiling but I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes.

This entire book felt like a badly thrown together mash of ideas that weren’t thought out properly  at all. Our perfect heroine needs a villain to fight – fine, here’s a cardboard  uber-villain. But there has to be a shocking twist, right? Have you seen The Empire Strikes Back? Why not use something like that, that could be fun. And then evil has to be defeated, of course. Let’s just fill that final “battle” with lots of clichéd dialogue to hide the fact that there’s very little to it, after all.
No matter how I look at it, this just wasn’t a good book. It needed some serious work, some honest editing, and it just needed a better story. If the Cinderella aspect has so little actual impact on anything, why use it at all? Why not make up your own dystopian world and have it make sense? I started out quite liking the ideas and the characters. But the more I read, the more frustrated I got and the less I cared. I don’t know if I’ll give Kalynn Bayron another chance. If this is how she writes her fifth (or whatever) book, then I have little hope for improvement on the next one.

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Pretty bad

Rosamund Hodge – Gilded Ashes

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.

gilded ashesGILDED ASHES
by Rosamund Hodge

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?

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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.

gilded ashes

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

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Second opinions:

Malinda Lo – Ash

Sold as a Cinderella retelling with a lesbian twist, Malinda Lo’s Ash didn’t really deliver what it promised. There is very little Cinderella about it and the elements that were wedged in felt forced and unnecessary. This was kind of a mess.

ashASH
by Malinda Lo

Published by: Hodder, 2009
Paperback: 291 pages
Standalone
My rating: 4/10

First sentence: Aisling’s mother died at midsummer.

In the wake of her father’s death, Ash is left at the mercy of her cruel stepmother. Consumed with grief, her only joy comes by the light of the dying hearth fire, rereading the fairy tales her mother once told her. In her dreams, someday the fairies will steal her away, as they are said to do. When she meets the dark and dangerous fairy Sidhean, she believes that her wish may be granted.

The day that Ash meets Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, her heart begins to change. Instead of chasing fairies, Ash learns to hunt with Kaisa. Though their friendship is as delicate as a new bloom, it reawakens Ash’s capacity for love—and her desire to live. But Sidhean has already claimed Ash for his own, and she must make a choice between fairy tale dreams and true love.

Entrancing, empowering, and romantic, Ash is about the connection between life and love, and solitude and death, where transformation can come from even the deepest grief.

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We all know the story of Cinderella, the girl used and abused by her stepmother and stepsisters. Forced to do all the chores and live as a servant to her family, hers is the ultimate rags-to-riches tale. If you needed to boil Cinderella down to its essence, that would be it: going from nothing to everything, whether that “everything” comes in the shape of a prince or otherwise.

Malinda Lo’s book is sold as a retelling of the Grimms’ tale but has so little in common with it that I kept wondering… why wouldn’t author and publisher simply market this for what it is: An original fairy story. After all, there’s no shame in coming up with your own ideas rather than re-hash a well-known fairy tale. But you see, when I’m told I’ll get a “Cinderella retelling” and I end up with something completely different, I feel disappointed and angry. Not because that something is bad in and of itself but because I feel tricked. I bought this believing one thing, only to find out I have been fooled.

The elements that connect Lo’s story to Cinderella are so flimsy and unimportant that they might as well not be there at all. Aisling – or Ash – loses her mother at the beginning of the book. Her father promptly remarries and, a few weeks later, dies of an illness. The stepmother and two stepsisters are mean and make Ash clean the house. Except as readers, we are only told that they are mean and we don’t ever actually witness Ash doing chores. In fact, Ash seems to have a very easy time getting away from home, doing as she pleases – where’s the terrible Cinderella life? Then the story takes a highly convenient turn when stepmother and sisters spend extended amounts of time out in the city – so Ash has even more free time on her hands, which she spends in the Woods, meeting up with Sidhean, a handsome fairy man. Her life sounds pretty damn comfortable to me.

ash2All of this is made worse by Ash’s utterly wooden character. In the beginning, she is still somewhat believable. A young girl who misses her mother terribly, is scared for her sick father and terrified of the new stepmother, Ash is a child stricken with grief. But as soon as she hits puberty, Ash becomes a blank piece of paper on which the author forgot to write something. She keeps meeting up with Sidhean in a hinted romance. I can recall at least one scene with sparks flying – although these sparks were pretty one-sided. Ash doesn’t show any emotion, except for blushing frequently, and remains cold to Sidhean’s advances. If there’s one thing I cannot stand in a protagonist, it’s passivity. Ash didn’t take any action, unless you count going to the wood to wait for stuff to happen, to wait for others to speak to her, to wait for somebody to tell her what to do. It’s both boring and annoying to watch.

Enter the huntress. If I hadn’t read Malinda Lo’s Adaptation, I might not have noticed at all, but seeing the same thing happen twice in as many books, it stood out to me how only ever one of the “love interests” appears. The author really took the easiest route for her love triangle (if it can be called that). When Ash first meets the huntress Kaisa, Sidhean disappears for just the amount of time it takes Ash and Kaisa to form a sort of friendship. The inconvenience that might arise, should both potential love interests appear at the same time, is simply avoided – and with that, any conflict that might have made the book interesting. In addition, the friendship between Kaisa and Ash is strange in nature. They go riding together (again, since when does Cinderella have time to spend entire days doing whatever she wants?), they talk very little, Ash blushes a lot. No romance in sight. Until – BAM! – at the end it’s True Love Forever! Any points this story may have gained from ignoring the prince and going for the huntress are lost in an avalanche of pointless insta-love.

Speaking of the prince. He is yet another example of why this just doesn’t work as a Cinderella retelling. Prince Aidan is mentioned by the stepsisters as a prize to be won, and Ash actually does go to a ball in a blue dress and dances with him. Except these scenes were utterly pointless. They didn’t advance the plot, they didn’t show Ash’s character (except how incredibly passive and boring she is). Had the entire section been cut from the book, the story would have remained the same. So I kept asking myself – why put them in at all? Just so this can be called a “Cinderella retelling”?

To be fair, there are some elements of Ash that I found interesting. Instead of retelling a fairy tale, Lo created her own world with its own fairy lore. The fairy folk, old beliefs, and superstition are much more central to the plot than anything to do with Cinderella, at least in the beginning. There is a strong undercurrent of old faith versus new beliefs that could have made for a great story all on its own. But trying to bridge the gap between original fairy stories and Cinderella, the author doesn’t fully commit to either of them, leaving a half-finished blob of a novel in her wake. The one point of conflict – a fairy contract (you know these are tricky!) – is resolved so ridiculously easily that I actually laughed out loud.

To me, every aspect of this story was badly executed. The characters are bland cardboard cut-outs, there is little to no plot, it is not a retelling of Cinderella, nor does it fully stand on its own feet. The romance is undetectable – with poth potential partners – and the writing doesn’t stand out, either. None of these were bad enough to make me throw the book across the room in a fit of rage, but I don’t know if my total indifference isn’t worse.

MY RATING: 4/10 – Bad

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Second opinions:

As always, here are some other people’s opinions to see if the book may not just be the thining for you. Make sure to check out these reviews as I seem to be pretty alone with my negative opinion. Sometimes, a book is just not for you.

FTF Book Review: Alethea Kontis – Enchanted

My first entry for Fairy Tale Frenzy is a book that swept me off my feet. Despite some reservations and caveats, I wholeheartedly enjoyed this fun romp through the land of fairy tales and ate up the second book right after (review coming very soon).

Alethea Kontis does something that I suspect many other YA authors try to do but fail. Write a story that can be read even by small children (no sex, no swearing, almost no violence) but that is still more than enjoyable to adults.

enchantedENCHANTED
by Alethea Kontis

Published by: Harcourt, 2012
Hardback:
320 pages
Series:
The Woodcutter Sisters #1
My rating:
7.5/10

First sentence: My name is Sunday Woodcutter, and I am doomed to a happy life.

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Fairy Tales Retold

  • The Frog Prince
  • Cinderella
  • and some others that lead into spoiler territory

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Synopsis

It isn’t easy being the rather overlooked and unhappy youngest sibling to sisters named for the other six days of the week. Sunday’s only comfort is writing stories, although what she writes has a terrible tendency to come true.

When Sunday meets an enchanted frog who asks about her stories, the two become friends. Soon that friendship deepens into something magical. One night Sunday kisses her frog goodbye and leaves, not realizing that her love has transformed him back into Rumbold, the crown prince of Arilland—and a man Sunday’s family despises.

The prince returns to his castle, intent on making Sunday fall in love with him as the man he is, not the frog he was. But Sunday is not so easy to woo. How can she feel such a strange, strong attraction for this prince she barely knows? And what twisted secrets lie hidden in his past – and hers?

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Review

Normally, I would avoid a book with a cover like this. My prejudice against certain Young Adult books – especially the ones involving romance – may not be completely unfounded but it is certainly unfair to a whole range of books. So I jumped over my shadow and picked this up on a whim. I had just read a few stories in my Annotated Classic Fairy Tales and was in just the right mood.

This is ostensibly a retelling of “The Frog Prince” and “Cinderella”, but Alethea Kontis manages to sneak in references to a ton of other fairy tales. Part of the fun was discovering these little easter eggs that, while not adding much to the plot, filled me with glee.

Sunday is the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter. She and her sisters are named after the days of the week which I found a confusing and silly little gimmick, but hey, it’s better than the billionth Cindy Ella, Daniella, Ella, Rella, and what have you. Each of the sisters has a gift (or a curse?) and we are introduced to them all at the very beginning of the book when Sunday tells a frog about her family. She and this frog named Grumble become friends and, after three days – I repeat: THREE days – apparently that friendship has turned into True Love (capital letters, Shrek-and-Fiona-kiss True Love!). Sunday kisses her frog goodbye every day but has to leave so quickly on the third day that she doesn’t notice him turning back into Prince Rumbold, a man her family despises. Because they have a history.

enchanted sundayWhich leads me to the first reason I loved this book. Both Sunday and her prince get a back story. While Sunday spills the beans on her family history right in the first chapter, discovering Rumbold’s past and personality is a slower affair and much more satisfying. It’s a lovely change to have fairy tale characters feel like actual people. Rumbold struggles with remembering who he was before his enchantement but his closest friends stay true to him no matter what and make him all the more likable. They also lightened the mood with their banter whenever Rumbold needed it most. I admit I have a very soft spot in my heart for Rumbold’s buddies.

Sunday’s family seems to be entirely made up of fairy tales. Some sisters, and indeed their parents, fall into their roles easily while others are less transparent. Figuring out who is who and how they would fit into which fairy tale just added to the reading pleasure. I also found it refreshing that most of them behaved like teenagers. Sunday may be a good-hearted young woman but she also has moments of selfishness and angst, she doesn’t always know how to handle her feelings, she is a little naive. All of this makes her relatable to anyone who has been through that teenage period of hormones and insanity. Saturday is the sort of trope-heavy kick-ass sister who chops wood with her father and brother, Friday is basically Beth from Little Women, and Wednesday is the quiet, mopey poet who hides away in her tower room all day. But not all is quite as simple as it seems at first glance. Despite fitting the classic fairy tale bill, this family sticks together and their love for each other – although shown in different ways from different family members – was tangible and gave me a wonderful feeling of coming home after a long trip. This feeling of home and warmth and family is what Alethea Kontis does best. I have, in the meantime, read the second novel in the series, and can happily report that the trend continues. If you don’t fall in love with the Woodcutter family, there is no hope for you, my friends.

I had qualms about the romance because it all happens so fast. Once Rumbold is restored to his human form and the king throws three balls in his honor, however, I slowly started believing in it. Sunday and Rumbold’s “second first meeting” was much more romantic and charming than the brief descriptions of their conversations when he was still a frog. Now, Rumbold is already in love with Sunday, so it isn’t too far fetched for him to fall even more in love with her during the balls. But Sunday, believing her frog friend vanished or dead, falling so quickly for a new man strained my suspension of disbelief.

Despite the almost-insta-love (which should be forgiven in a fairy tale, if nowhere else) I couldn’t put the book down. The writing style ranges from simple to beautifully poetic but it always stays engaging. For someone like me, who prefers dark fairy tale retellings, to be so enthralled in a clean story without any swearing, sex, or violence, is all the more surprising. There is a brief scene in the end involving a bit of blood – villains need to be vanquished after all – but other than that, this book is suitable for children and adults of all ages.

I don’t quite know how it happened but I have fallen in love with the Woodcutters, Prince Rumbold and his friends. The second book, Hero, will focus on Saturday, and the third – coming out in 2015 – on Friday. I hope Alethea Kontis will get to tell each sister’s tale and then add a bonus story for their changeling brother Trix. That kid is too great not to get his own novel.

MY RATING: 7.5 – Very good

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The Woodcutter Sisters:

  1. Enchanted
  2. Hero
  3. Dearest

woodcutter sisters series

Sarah Pinborough – Charm

So yeah… I admit I picked up Pinborough’s novellas because they are blissfully short and I wanted to reach my Goodreads reading challenge goal for the year. Call me a cheat, I don’t even care. These stories are awesome and I’m eating them up. I should also warn you: I have done my very best to express myself through words only here, but there comes a point when I find myself needing gifs to help me along. Because reasons!

charmCHARM
by Sarah Pinborough

Published by: Gollancz, 2013
Hardcover: 224 pages
Series: Tales from the Kingdoms #2
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: Winter had come early.

Charm is a beautifully illustrated re-telling of the Cinderella story which takes all the much-loved elements of the classic fairytale (the handsome prince, the fairy godmother, the enchanted mouse, the beautiful girl and, of course, the iconic balls) and puts a modern spin on the characters, their motives and their desires. This is fun, contemporary, sexy, and perfect for fans of ONCE UPON A TIME, GRIMM, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN and more. This edition contains 15 original pen and ink illustrations by Les Edwards

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Wishes do come true. As Cinderella wished to go the the ball, fall in love with the prince, and live as his princess in the castle, so did I wish that these fairy tale novellas were connected through more than just their Grimm originals. And they are! Remember that Huntsman from Poison? Or the despicable prince? They’re back.

Charm begins exactly the way you would expect a Cinderella retelling to begin. Cinderella is the poor, common girl doing all the housework while her step-mother and sisters galivant around in pretty dresses. But from the very beginning, this Cinderella felt like a real young woman. She is prone to self-pity (which doesn’t exactly make her likable, but all the more relatable) and she has desires like everybody else. Just because you are degraded to a scullery maid doesn’t mean you wouldn’t like to have sex with handsome men, right?

hot in here

That said, this story was quite a bit sexier than its predecessor. Cinderella knows exactly what she wants and while she can’t have the prince ravish her in real life, she is an expert in dreaming about him and helping herself… ahem. This isn’t 50 shades of fairy tales (thank the gods!) but there are a handful of scenes that managed to make me blush a little.

Officially, this is a new version of Cinderella, but it is interconnected with so many other fairy tales. That witch in the gingerbread house? Still eating children. Cinderella’s buddy, Buttons? He’s actually Robin Hood. But never mind any of the cameos. This book – like Poison – was all about the Huntsman for me. If I have one weakness when it comes to stories, it’s couples that OBVIOUSLY want to do it but spend all of their time fighting. Call it a kink or whatever, I just can’t resist it. The bickering, the shouting, the slap slap kiss… yep, sign me up, please.

catch-and-release-slap-o
Let me try and regain some semblance of control.
What fairy tales have always done (never mind which version you heard, it’s true for all of them) is tell stories of awful things happening to women and children. Sarah Pinborough still has awful things happen to women and children, but she gives all her characters a personality and, with it, a choice. Cinderella is pigheaded and naive and oblivious to the pain she inflicts on others. She wants to marry the prince because she fell in love with his picture. When she realises that he neither can nor wants to give her what she wants (emotionally and sexually), that irritating brute of a huntsman suddenly doesn’t seem like such a bad choice anymore. And the one thing that sets these novellas apart from other fairy tale retellings? That silly girl actually goes after what she wants!

It’s so refreshing to read about an empowered female. Disney ruined my entire generation with their princesses and how true love just falls into their laps – sometimes literally. Sarah Pinborough’s characters are different. With the possible exception of the prince, everybody is fairly certain of their own needs, and most characters aren’t ashamed to go out and do something about it. And thank you a thousand times for saying it’s okay for a girl to sleep with her friend even if she’s not in love with him!

Now the rambling about sex and relationships is out of the way, let me tell you about the ending. I won’t spoil it (though I desperately want to) but Sarah Pinborough manages to deliver a happily ever after of sorts, despite all the gloom and disappointment I have come to expect. Snow White’s story is resolved in a surprising, yet totally satisfying way. There I was, reading the last pages with my gloomy face on, when suddenly THINGS HAPPEN and characters realize certain truths about themselves, and when I closed the book, gloomy face had turned into silly happy face.

doctor who happy

Seeing as I’m already halfway through the third book, you’ll be hearing about Beauty fairly soon. It promises more of the Huntsman, the prince, some Red Riding Hood and Rumpelstiltskin, all mixed in with Sleeping Beauty.

So yes. Read these.

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Marissa Meyer – Cinder

This was a surprise. Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, this strong-minded little book, decided to pick me up, sweep me off my feet and provide me with reading pleasure non-stop. So people do still write good YA fantasy books. I do have some reservations about certain aspects but overall this was an enjoyable read.

CINDER
by Marissa Meyer

published: Feiwel & Friends, 2012
ISBN: 1466800119
pages: 387
copy: ebook
series: The Lunar Chronicles #1

my rating: 6,5/10

first sentence: The screw through cinder’s ankle had rusted, the engraved cross marks worn to a mangled circle.

Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl. . . .  Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future.

I’m torn. On the one hand, this book was a fast-paced, fun read that exceeded my expectations by far. On the other hand, I am really, really pissed that the big revelation at the end is not only blatantly obvious but that it’s obvious from a very early moment on. I think it was on page 38 or so that I rolled my eyes and thought: “Oh, how very well concealed this “hint” is. I’m sure Cinder has nothing to do with that little aside about a certain person who died but whose body was never found”. Anybody with the attention span of a butterfly will know what I mean but – for the sake of those who maybe didn’t read that carefully and missed it – I won’t spoil it here. It did ruin the book for me, though.

Now that I’ve got that off my back, let me say that this story starts out with some great ideas that mix surprisingly well. A cyborg heroine who is also a mechanic, what’s not to love? And the author isn’t cheap. That is not all she offers. There is also people living on the moon, a pandemic plaguing the whole planet Earth and no cure in sight, and androids all over the place. Oh yes, there also happens to be a handsome and charming prince who invites Cinder to the ball…
Towards the middle, the author loses herself a little and the plot drifts. This middle bit could have used some editing as it didn’t further the plot very much. It does pick up again in the last third and the book is fast-paced throughout. I would even go so far as to call it very hard to put down.

My biggest problem with the plot was probably this obivous revelation I’ve mentioned. It is obvious to the reader, it is even obvious to some of the characters. Only our poor, self-conscious heroine refuses to see it until the information is served on a silver platter. For a girl who otherwise seems smart and quick, that is just really, really dumb and cost her many a sympathy point. It’s really sad when you have a potentially kick-ass heroine who keeps making bad choices. The prince drops off a faulty android which contains some vital information and Cinder decides it’s more important to build a car for herself than to fix that android. She trusts people far too easily but keeps secrets from the prince, who – if not the brightest bulb on the christmas tree – is at his worst a confused young man with a good heart.

Most of the characters are kept vague, the stepsister and stepmother are appropriately evil and self-obsessed, the prince charming and incredibly bland. There wasn’t much of a love story, which suited me just fine. If I can’t fall in love with a character, I don’t really see why the protagonist should. And other than Cinder, nobody seems to be a three-dimensional, believable person. That’s okay, though, as this is sort of a fairy tale, and I for my part, can forgive it.

While there are some great ideas in this book, many of them remain sadly unexplored. The plot takes place in New Beijing, a setting that was so little realised that it could have been any other place – I didn’t feel that Chinese touch at all. In fact, the way people talked and behaved, the decriptions of the city, reminded me very much of your generic western setting. Except for the palace which is built like ancient Chinese palaces, there is nothing to set this place apart.

The same goes for Cinder being a cyborg. Apart from having a mechanical foot and hand, she also has some pretty awesome gimmicks. A retina overlay informs her when somebody is lying, downloads the latest news from the net and we learn that a large part of her internal organs are also wired. I loved this idea and the possibilities it offers. However, we see too little of those, at least for my taste.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read with only a few hints at the original Cinderella tale, most of which were taking with a grain of salt. Cinder does not care if she has a pretty dress to wear and doesn’t even want to go to the ball. She does have a loathsome stepmother, though, and I particularly liked the idea of the lost “glass slipper”. I will be reading the second book in the Lunar Chronicles and as YA books go, this is one of the better ones. But I wasn’t overwhelmed and hope we get a second volume that is both better than this book and doesn’t end with such a cliffhanger.

Marissa Meyer
photo credit: Kali Raisl

THE GOOD: Great ideas and a fresh take on Cinderella. A fast-paced, fun read.
THE BAD: Oblivious main character, world-building was lacking, I would have liked more depth overall.
THE VERDICT: I would recommend this book for fans of  dystopian YA novels and fairy tales alike. It’s fun, it’s quick, and it’s got a cyborg Cinderella!

RATING: 6/10  Quite good read

Check out the author’s homepage– it’s full of extras, book trailers, recommended reading, art and other goodies. Also, there is a prequel to Cinder you can read for free on Tor.com.

The Lunar Chronicles:

  1. Cinder
  2. Scarlet
  3. Cress
  4. Winter

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