GENRES/ SUBJECTS: Historical Fantasy, Retelling (Cinderella)
Isabelle should be blissfully happy – she’s about to win the handsome prince. Except Isabelle isn’t the beautiful girl who lost the glass slipper and captured the prince’s heart. She’s the ugly stepsister who’s cut off her toes to fit into Cinderella’s shoe … which is now filling with blood.
When the prince discovers Isabelle’s deception, she is turned away in shame. It’s no more than she deserves: she is a plain girl in a world that values beauty; a feisty girl in a world that wants her to be pliant.
Isabelle has tried to fit in. To live up to her mother’s expectations. To be like her stepsister. To be sweet. To be pretty. One by one, she has cut away pieces of herself in order to survive a world that doesn’t appreciate a girl like her. And that has made her mean, jealous, and hollow.
Until she gets a chance to alter her destiny and prove what ugly stepsisters have always known: it takes more than heartache to break a girl.
A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.
Stepsister has been on my radar since it was announced because it sounded exactly like something that would be right up my street: a feminist Cinderella retelling. While I’m pleased to say it didn’t disappoint me, I’m not 100% sure how I feel about it as a whole.
The story moved fairly quickly and is an easy read. Donnelly has a nice, straightforward writing style, peppered with some lovely turns of phrase for colour. The chapters are very short — most only a few pages — so the novel feels like it’s moving along quickly.
I really enjoyed the beginning — which had a dark, atmospheric eerie fairy tale feel — and the ending — which was dramatic in an action-packed epic-fantasy way. The middle was a little slower, much more of a character-piece than I’d been expecting. I did really enjoy those characters though, especially Isabella.
I really liked the way Donnelly wrote in France being at war, and how the events of Cinderella have an impact. I liked that she’s actually put some thought into the ways in which the events of the happy-ending fairy tale might have ramifications in the real world. I would have loved to see this given a bit more time and development rather than only becoming obvious at the very end. While I know this is all about the fact it’s Isabella’s story, I felt like there was a lot of really interesting politicking underused in favour of a relatively simple military victory. That’s a personal preference though, and not something I can hold against the story Donnelly is trying to tell.
My only real criticism of Stepsister is that occasionally (especially in the middle, character-driven section), it feels like Donnelly is more interested in the “message” than the story itself. There are a few points where the characters feel a little more like hollow mouthpieces for a pretty feminist or misogynistic phrase, rather than human beings with actual agency. It’s perhaps a little heavy-handed, but in general, I didn’t have any real problem with it.
Stepsister is an interesting retelling and a creative story which manages to combine lots of fantastical elements — a faerie queen and the embodiments of Fate and Chance — with something very grounded and realistic feeling. I really enjoyed Stepsister while reading, and it was a real page-turner, I’m just not sure how memorable I’ll find it a few weeks from now. I think this is definitely one you have to read and decide about for yourself.