Monday, June 23, 2014

Book Review: The Stepsister's Tale

What really happened after the clock struck midnight?

Jane Montjoy is tired of being a lady. She's tired of pretending to live up to the standards of her mother's noble family-especially now that the family's wealth is gone and their stately mansion has fallen to ruin. It's hard enough that she must tend to the animals and find a way to feed her mother and her little sister each day. Jane's burden only gets worse after her mother returns from a trip to town with a new stepfather and stepsister in tow. Despite the family's struggle to prepare for the long winter ahead, Jane's stepfather remains determined to give his beautiful but spoiled child her every desire.

When her stepfather suddenly dies, leaving nothing but debts and a bereaved daughter behind, it seems to Jane that her family is destined for eternal unhappiness. But a mysterious boy from the woods and an invitation to a royal ball are certain to change her fate...

From the handsome prince to the evil stepsister, nothing is quite as it seems in Tracy Barrett's retelling of the classic Cinderella tale.

Obviously I enjoy fairy tale re-tellings.  I have two shelves dedicated to those sorts of books alone and so many others boxed away waiting to shine forth.  Cinderella though isn't a favorite since honestly nothing beats Ella Enchanted for me.  That remains almost pitch perfect to me and is book I point to when folk want to know how to re-imagine a fairy tale correctly.  (I love the movie Ever After as well, but movie re-tellings are a separate matter entirely).

Barrett's book has much to recommend it.  Our main character, Jane (one of the "ugly stepsisters") gives us a focal character who from the start is shown to be working hard.  She's trying with everything she has to preserve what her mother sees as their "way of life" and live up to those ideals while still dealing with the every day tasks of having to do everything for a large estate.  Tend the animals, clean, cook...Jane (and her sister Maude) do it all just to keep up a pretense of some gentility.

Something had to give and when Isabella ("Cinderella") and her father move in and that something occurs when Isabella's father dies.  Its no longer Jane keeping her mother and sister alive, its now Jane keeping her mother, sister and vain useless stepsister alive.  Keeping the dreams of one person alive is hard enough, but meeting the demands of two people running around in denial is just awful. 

Two problems curbed my enthusiasm for this book, no matter how much I liked Jane and appreciated their budding relationship she was building.  The pacing is horribly skewed. Its not that its a slow character driven novel (I love those) its that for 75% of the book its a character driven novel and then the last 25% seemed to remember it had to weave in a whole lot of the original tale.

In short order we have Cinderella's "fairy godmother", the ball, the search for the lady who fits the shoe and the "happily ever after".  It felt very rushed and several character turns rang as unrealistic and contrived.  Jane fared the best, but I still was sideswiped by her abrupt 180 on how she viewed Isabella's nature.

Meanwhile Jane's mother, Lady Margaret, suddenly has character and a will of her own while Isabella gets over herself long enough to realize she made some big mistakes.  In neither case does either character show many glimpses of such traits, they just appear to help save the day at the end.  And if we're being technical neither ever admits they were in the wrong.  After Jane conceives the solution to their problems the main book ends and in the Epilogue we're told how it all worked out for everyone because of her solution.

I really, truly HATE it when books do that.  I don't believe Epilogues should prove the ending.  If I read the last page and I don't believe whatever the author wanted me to believe in (the romance, the end of a war, that the sky turned red forever and ever after) I don't want an Epilogue telling me how the ending was correct.  An Epilogue should add to my already established belief in the ending.  Or set up the continuation of the series itself by moving the focus to a new character.  Its a bit like a scientist stating in his research paper that the experiment turned out correctly after only listing the original hypothesis and nothing at all about how he came to that conclusion.

Overall this wasn't a bad book, it just needed to expand on the characters outside of Jane more.