I picked this up due to crystalclear’s review, and since I have a weakness for fairy tale retellings. Stepsister takes place after the prince has chosen Ella, and taken her away from home to marry her. Her stepmother and stepsisters are left behind in a village where they are now hated for their abuse of the country’s future queen. Donnelly decided to use the Grimm’s version of the fairy tale as her starting base so Tavi (Octavia), the older sister, and Izzy (Isabelle), the main character, are recovering from cutting off their heels and toes respectively. The story even includes the bird in the tree that sold out the sisters when they tried to fool the prince.
There are a few different bigger background pieces going on in this novel as Tavi and Izzy adjust to being shunned. One of the reasons their mother pushed so hard for them to marry is that the family was on the verge of bankruptcy, and now they are barely scraping by. In the wider world, the country is at war with an invader, and losing. It’s only a matter of time until the invading military forces make their way to the village where a military force is stationed.
The Fates and the personification of Chance are using Izzy’s story as part of a philosophical debate/bet, whether a person’s fate is written in stone or whether it can be changed. The Crone leaves her home to go to Izzy’s home town to make sure Chance doesn’t interfere too much in trying to inspire Izzy towards a different course. There is also an older magic at work, the faerie queen who helped Ella. Izzy has managed to get her attention, though she does not believe the girl will be able to change herself on her own in time.
While the Crone thinks she and her sisters are the ultimate powers, I enjoyed the faerie queen’s reaction to that belief, and how she reminded her of the true hierarchy of magical powers, “Have you forgotten what I am? I am the heart’s first beat and its last. I am the newborn lamb and the wolf that rips out its throat. I am the bloodsong, crone.”
The faerie queen tells Izzy that she needs to find the missing pieces of her heart, and Izzy’s initial attempts are a bit misguided. Izzy has spent her whole life trying to fit into a socially acceptable mold, and her first reaction to finding herself is to try to once again make herself more like Ella, the pretty sister, the kind and compassionate one. In fact, that treatment and expectation of girls to fit into one mold is what fractured the relationship between the three sisters to begin and what made it so easy for Tavi and Izzy to resent Ella. She fit into expectations while they were “ugly,” and had interests unbecoming of girls. Izzy loved stories of combat and military leaders while Tavi loved math and science.
With their mother no longer trying to pigeonhole them, Tavi and Izzy are slowly starting to rediscover themselves but between the Crone, Chance and the upcoming war, they do not have time to slowly change their fate but are unknowingly in a race against time.
I liked Chance’s chaotic entourage made up of humans that had found ways to change their fates, and how much they are rooting for Izzy to also live up to her potential. I would quite enjoy a novella or spin off story following Tavi around as a brilliant scientist. There is a romantic subplot, but the focus is Izzy rediscovering herself independent of expectations. I’d definitely recommend this to anyone else that enjoys fairy tale retellings, and the message within the story sounds like a good one for a teen girl (or any teen) to hear.