I was hooked about two pages into Ember, a romance retelling of “Cinderella” featuring a heroine who is a (mostly) benevolent witch and a prince who is literally cursed by Charm — everyone who meets him loves him, finds him salivatingly handsome, and can’t help but do what he wants. I knew immediately I would want to read everything by this author, which, I’ll mention now, is devastatingly little that is available: three novellas and one short story on Amazon and none published after 2012. What happened to you, Bettie Sharpe?
Anyway, Sharpe’s writing is immediately arresting: lyrical without veering into purple prose, and highly sensual even without detailed descriptions of torrid encounters. Both books are unquestionably erotic, but the pages aren’t filled with actual lovemaking so much as longing and artful imagining. Both female protagonists are unreliable and, though not completely unlikeable, they share little in common with the sweet, insipid heroines of the fairy tales that inspire them.
A Cat’s Tale is a “Puss in Boots” retelling centered on Lady Catriona, who is a vain, manipulative liar. Considered by all to be the most beautiful woman in the land, she strives for little else than a wardrobe of opulent dresses and shoes. Knowing that she is equipped with the beauty to seduce the king, and that his wealth will provide her with all of her earthly desires, she schemes to marry him and, eventually, succeeds. The king is an old man, though, and after his death, Catriona runs afoul of the court appointed wizard, who curses her and changes her into a cat. Once in feline form, she befriends a handsome miller’s son and resumes her scheming to depose the wizard and regain her pampered place in court. For all of this, though, some of her goals are actually noble, and she is undeniably clever. The partnership she forms with the miller’s son is, at first, shocking to him — beyond her being a talking cat — given her utter lack of scrupulousness, but she quickly makes work of the naivete that undoes his potential and in the process, they grow to genuinely care about each other. The story is refreshing because it is not the tale of how a frivolous woman is cured by the stern, rational reproach of the right man; nor is it about the Manic Pixie Dream
GirlCat who teaches a serious man how to have fun. It’s, instead, an alliance between two people with complementary values and skills who respect the other’s best attributes while appreciating and accepting their faults.
Ember is, as I said, based off of “Cinderella,” and the title character is a witch who has performed blood magic on herself so that she can hold out against the Prince’s curse mentioned above. In this retelling, her stepmother and sisters are not wicked, but are her allies, and her household role as a servant is a disguise to fool the Prince. I don’t want to describe too much else: the plot “twists” aren’t shocking, necessarily — you’ll probably be able to tell what’s coming — but the way it unfolds through Sharpe’s prose left me breathless and unable to put the book down until I was completely finished.
Aside from being very imaginative retellings that avoid the saccharine quality that often comes part-and-parcel with modern fairy tales, the novellas are decidedly feminist. Both stories celebrate “imperfect” women, and both include female allies for the heroines, even when they don’t necessarily like each other (A Cat’s Tale) or when there is a rocky beginning to the relationship (Ember.) Thank you, Bettie Sharpe, for acknowledging that women are capable of working together under inauspicious conditions without catfighting.
Though both stories were instant favorites for me, they each have a handful of negative reviews, so clearly this style doesn’t work as well for everyone. But if you like a bit of fantasy in your romance and erotica that doesn’t veer all the way into paranormal territory, and if you like heroes and heroines that are a bit of a work in progress, I’d have to think these novellas would work as well for you as they did for me.