This is a Cinderella retelling focusing on one of the ugly stepsisters. There is magic in this story, but also a lot of realism. We start with Isabelle, the younger of the stepsisters, getting ready to reluctantly cut off her toes to fit into the glass slipper. Her older sister, Octavia, has already cut off her heel and was caught out, so now it’s Isabelle’s turn to try to secure their future. As expected, it doesn’t turn out well. The tale of Cinderella has a happy ending, after all. But not for everyone.
Ella has become the beloved Queen of France, and her treatment by her stepfamily is not taken well by the populace of their local village. There are reasons for their behaviors, though, and we learn more of them as the story progresses. They have been punished for their misdeeds, more than anyone realizes. They have been given the moniker “Ugly Stepsisters” not as much for their appearance as their behavior and treatment of others. But everyone is capable of cruelty, and they can all justify their actions to themselves.
Isabelle has strength in her, but she has been forced to hide it. As a girl, she loved playing war, fencing and riding and studying the great commanders. Octavia loves mathematics and science, and would rather be studying and calculating than anything else, but for both girls those are not “proper” pursuits for women. We focus on Isabelle most of the time, but Octavia has a glorious rant about three-quarters of the way through the book. Isabelle has flaws aplenty, the biggest one being her anger issues. Octavia is obsessed with mathematics and science to the point of distraction, and their mother’s mind is falling apart. All three would benefit from therapy and perhaps medication. Seeing the mental state of the mother allows the assumption that the behavior of the daughters may not be completely under their control. Isabelle tries to hold on to her anger, but there are times when it gets away from her.
We also have the Fates and Chance. The Fates draw the life maps of mortals, and Chance has stolen Isabelle’s. He is convinced that he, or Isabelle herself, can change her fate, although it will not be easy. He has a lot riding on it as well, because he has made a bet with the eldest Fate, the Crone. So Fate and Chance are both trying to influence Isabelle’s path – Chance to save her, and Fate to lead her to the violent end that her path originally ends. Neither are human, although Chance seems to have more of Isabelle’s best interest at heart. But not completely – he’s still selfish whereas Fate is cruel.
In addition to the regular hardships of life, war has come to France. It creeps closer and closer to the players in our story. Like a train coming from a distance, it looks small and unthreatening at first, but as it approaches you can hear the noise and smell the smoke and feel the heat and see how fast it’s moving. And if you don’t get out of it’s way, it will run you down without a thought.
There was a quote fairly early on, and it stuck with me:
“Should you ever decide, in those small dark hours, to hang yourself, well, that is your choice.
But don’t hunt for the rope until morning.
By then you’ll find a much better use for it.”
This fulfills the CBR 11 Bingo square of “Birthday” as Jennifer Donnelly’s birthday is August 16th. (It also fits in “Youths!” and “Remix” in case you need something for those categories!)