On Fairy Tales and Masks

Princess in the Opal MaskA couple of common threads around here include retold fairy tales, and the masked Phantom of the Opera…so The Princess in the Opal Mask by Jenny Lundquist, with its Cinderella spin and masked princess, seems tailor-made, no?  🙂  It also turned out to have strong female characters, a well-developed world and an excellent fantasy feel, all things I enjoy in a book!

The story alternates narration between two girls: Elara who has a Cinderella-like existence among her adopted family, and no knowledge of her birth parents; and Wilha, a princess who has never been allowed to show anyone her face, not even her own father.  And…it’s hard to say more without spoilers, but suffice to say both girls end up central players in a tentative and uncertain peace treaty with a neighboring kingdom.  There’s intrigue and romance and backstabbing and conspiracies–and Wilha’s mask is only the most visible one.

I really loved the idea of the princess in the mask, and was so intrigued by the mystery–even Wilha herself doesn’t know why she has to wear a mask all the time.  All sorts of rumors fly, that her face is cursed or blessed, and the book explores Wilha’s own confused feelings and fears.  The Phantom of the Opera at least knew why he was hiding his face–Wilha has no answers, except a fear that showing her face will mean death for anyone who sees her.

Wilha also struggles to be seen as a person, not as The Masked Princess.  Most of us don’t go around in physical masks all the time (or hardly ever…) but the struggle to be seen as our true selves is much more universal.

Clearly I warmed to and related to Wilha right away.  Elara took longer–part of her struggle is that she doesn’t want to let anyone get close to her.  Considering her life, that does make sense.  Unfortunately, I felt like I couldn’t get close to her as a reader either.  However, she emerged more in the second half of the book, making more connections to others–and me!

The worldbuilding is another very strong element of the book.  Much of what happens, particularly with the neighboring kingdom, is grounded in the country’s history.  Lundquist does a nice job conveying a lot of information about past events, without getting bogged down or dry.

Description is a strong element here too.  Those masks may be imprisoning Wilha…but they’re beautiful too.  I want an illustrated version of this, mostly just to see the masks.  The cover is pretty, but it really doesn’t do justice to the elaborately-described masks!

There were plenty of unexpected turns in here, and it genuinely kept me guessing in the romance department.  A sequel has been promised for next Fall, and I’m looking forward to it!  Wilha and Elara are both on paths towards claiming their own lives and I can’t wait to see where they go next–and I’m hoping the sequel will pick up some threads (romance included) that were left unresolved here.  If this book was any indication, more twists and mysteries will be in store!

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publishers in exchange for an honest review.

Author’s Site: http://jennylundquist.com

Buy it here: The Princess in the Opal Mask

Scarlet: Book Two of the Lunar Chronicles

ScarletI came late to the game last year with Cinder by Marissa Meyer, so I was determined to jump in sooner with this year’s sequel, Scarlet.  It was a great read, and now I’m eagerly waiting to see where she’ll take the adventure in the next book!  Read my review of Cinder here, and be warned, there will be spoilers for that book in this review for Scarlet.

Cinder is a sci fi fairy tale retelling, featuring a cyborg Cinderella (who leaves her foot on the palace steps!)  The last book ended with Cinder under arrest, soon to be handed over to the vicious, mind-controlling Lunar Queen.  Scarlet brings in several new characters, starting us off with title character Scarlet, whose beloved grandmother recently disappeared.  She’s soon pulled into a much larger and more dangerous game than she realized, and reluctantly accepts the help of a mysterious street fighter she knows only as Wolf.

Meanwhile, Cinder swiftly breaks out of jail and goes on the run, by accident and necessity working together with Carswell Thorne, conman, smuggler and thief.  The stories converge when Cinder and Carswell also end up on the trail of Scarlet’s grandmother, everyone intent on what secrets the woman could be hiding.

As you’re probably already guessing, this volume brings in “Little Red Riding Hood,” though only in the loosest sense.  I do love it that Scarlet wears a red hoodie, though!

The split plotlines gave me some trouble at first–I kept wanting to be in the other one, whichever one I was currently in–but once I got adjusted to that, I very much enjoyed the book.  Meyer ratchets up the stakes and the conflict, and introduces us to some excellent new characters.

I have a soft spot for charming rogues, so Carswell was a great addition.  He’s a very arrogant criminal who expects everyone else to be as impressed by his exploits as he is.  He brings some humor into a frequently dark book.  Scarlet is a good character as well, a fierce young woman who is determined to forge ahead and deal with things.  I hate passive heroines, and Scarlet is anything but.  Wolf is fascinatingly complex.  I have kind of a thing for dark, brooding heroes too, and he’s a wonderful blend of strength and wariness.  He’s immensely capable about some things (see: street fighter) but so nervous about others (like romance).  I love that blend.

My favorite character from the first book was also back, though I would have liked more of her…Iko, Cinder’s android friend.  She was dismantled in the last book but Cinder saved her personality chip, and in this book installs it into their spaceship.  Iko’s freaking out about whether she’s still attractive as a spaceship (“But I’m so huge!”) is absolutely wonderful.

Scarlet is living in France, and her search for her grandmother eventually takes her to Paris.  Being me, my first thought was, hey, maybe there’ll be an Opera House reference!  So imagine my delight when it turns out the kidnappers have actually made the Opera House their base. 🙂  This is set a long stretch into the future, so we get to go wandering through the crumbling but still recognizable remains of the Opera House, including the grand foyer, the marble stairs, and the auditorium.  Loved it.

The book takes a turn near the end, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.  For one thing, it suddenly gets a good deal more violent, and I could have lived without some of the blood.  For the other, possibly larger thing, some details are revealed on the Lunar Queen’s army, and I’m not sure if I like where this may be going.  But I can’t really tell, until the next book comes out!

I enjoyed Cinder and I think I may have actually liked Scarlet a bit better.  Or maybe it’s just fresher in my mind.  Either way, it didn’t disappoint, and I’m looking forward to #3!  The title is Cress, so I’m thinking…Rapunzel, maybe? 😉

Author’s Site: http://www.marissameyer.com/

Other reviews:
Dreaming of Books
Sophistikatied Reviews
Dark Faerie Tales
Others?

Buy it here: Scarlet

Classic Review: Ella Enchanted

I’ve reviewed a lot of retold fairy tales on this blog.  One of the first was Ella Enchanted, and I still think it’s one of the best!

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Cinderella, in her traditional form, is a character who drives me absolutely up the wall.  Come on, woman—I know you lived in a pre-feminist culture, but don’t you have any backbone at all?  Your life’s awful—so do something about it!  And the fairy godmother—where was she all these years while Ella was being mistreated?  The fairy only shows up when the girl wants to go to a party?  (Because obviously that’s something of paramount importance.)

But, like all great fairy tales, Cinderella does have that spark of eternal appeal.  Who can’t relate to the dream of being lifted out of your ordinary or even unpleasant life, because that one person (the prince, the book editor, the boss for the dream job, the head of the club…fill in your own relevant personality) sees you and says, yes, you’re special above all others.  That’s the core of Cinderella.  But Cinderella herself is irritating.

So when you can take that eternal spark and improve on the character and the plausibility—well, as I said when discussing Wildwood Dancing, then you’ve got something.  And Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine is one of the best retellings of Cinderella I’ve ever read.

Ella is cursed at her christening—if anyone gives her a command (from “eat this cake” to “go jump off a roof”) she has to obey it.  And with that one brilliant stroke, Levine has a heroine who, like the traditional Cinderella, does everything her wicked stepfamily tells her to do—but who also has a mind of her own.  No one could accuse Levine’s Ella of lacking backbone.  She obeys, but I don’t think I’d describe her as obedient.  She can think for herself and, as much as she can around the limits of her curse, takes control of her own life.

There’s a good plot, with ogres and adventures and a kind of quest in Ella’s search for a way to overcome her curse, but I think what mostly stands out in my mind are the characters.  Ella, of course.  And her fairy godmothers (both of them), her more-than-usually complex wicked stepfamily, her absentee father, and, of course, Prince Charmont—because what’s a Cinderella story without a true love, right?

Ella Enchanted probably belongs in the juvenile category, rather than young adult.  But, kind of like the original Cinderella, it has a wide appeal, even if you’re not really the target age group.

I unfortunately can’t quite just ignore the movie here.  There is one, but let’s all just pretend that there isn’t.  Don’t see it.  Really.  I did, and I think I spent most of it twitching and saying, “No, no, no, that’s wrong.”  Besides getting the details wrong, it got the spirit wrong, and while I can sometimes forgive a movie for changing the facts a little, it’s much harder to forgive a movie for maiming of the spirit of a story.

Because what Ella Enchanted really is is a very practical, plausible (once you accept the existence of magic) retelling of Cinderella.  The movie isn’t.  But the book is, and it’s well-worth the read.

Author’s site: http://www.gailcarsonlevine.com/

A Sci Fi Retelling of Cinderella

First, a bit of business–the first post for the Going Postal group read goes up a week from tomorrow.  I contacted everyone who let me know they were interested, but there’s still plenty of time to join in–so let me know if you’d like to!  Now, on to the review…

I put Cinder by Marissa Meyer on hold at the library at the beginning of the Once Upon a Time Challenge–in mid-March.  It’s only fair to say that my library usually runs through hold lists pretty quickly…but in this case, the book finally got to me in mid-June.  I managed to read it about five days before the OUaT Challenge ended!

So was it worth the wait?  Yes–because I was very curious about it.

As you may have guessed or known, Cinder is a retelling of Cinderella, though I was surprised by how loose a retelling it actually was.  Set a vague distance into the future, Cinder is a cyborg, mostly human but with a mechanical hand and leg, and circuitry in her brain.  While she is downtrodden by her (adoptive, not step) family, and there is a prince and a ball, the book mostly focuses on the search for a cure for a pandemic sweeping the globe, as well as rising tension with Lunars, the human moon-dwellers who have developed mental powers to manipulate others.

I quite liked Cinder.  She’s a strong Cinderella who’s plotting escape from her family and doesn’t actually care that much about the ball–she has bigger problems to think about.  I loved the cyborg-ness too, and wanted more of that element.  What was there was fun, from the low-tech (storing things in a compartment in her calf) to the high-tech (she can mentally connect to the internet, and her body warns her when she’s overheating).

Prince Kai was a nice guy, though a bit bland.  He served his role in the story perfectly well, and had a little more complexity in his uncertainties about how to fulfill his position as prince (and soon to be emperor), but he didn’t strike me all that much either.  In a bit of a reversal of that, my one biggest issue with the book was that I wasn’t sure why he was so struck by Cinder.  He starts singling her out almost as soon as he meets her–and I do appreciate that they meet and start developing a relationship well before the ball.  It’s just that I’m not sure what prompted him to pursue that relationship.  I mean, I like Cinder–but I’m really not sure why the prince, who has every girl in the country to pick from, decided he liked this particular one.  I’m all in favor of the idea that he saw something special in her, only I don’t feel like the book ever made clear what exactly it was, or even if there was something–I’m just assuming there must have been.

So it wasn’t a heart-stopping romance, at least not for me, but I am curious to see where it goes.  This book is the beginning of a series, and there are a lot of threads still to be explored.  There are some good tensions in Cinder and Kai’s relationship, like the political marriage he’s being manuevered into with the Lunar Queen, and the small fact that Cinder is trying to hide being a cyborg from him.  Cyborgs are looked down on as somehow less than human, in what I’m sure is intended to be a reimagining of the social structure of Cinderella’s original setting.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention Iko.  She (it?) is Cinder’s friend and somewhat fairy godmother-like figure, and she’s a robot.  She’s a robot who is also a hopeless romantic, quite forward, and often funny.  She wants Cinder to go to the ball more than Cinder does, and she’s really rather adorable at times.  The most moving moment in the book for me involved Iko’s personality chip–and that’s all I’m going to say, to avoid any spoilers!

So, to sum–fascinating concept, good characters (especially Cinder and Iko), okay romance, pretty good plot though at times it stretched on a bit, and one late-in-the-book twist was really obvious (maybe that was just me–but I don’t think so).  I liked the book–I didn’t love it–but I am adding it to my list of series, and plan to read the next one when it comes out!

Author’s Site: http://www.marissameyer.com/

Other reviews:
Stella Matutina
At Home with Books
Book Journey
Andrea’s Book Nook
Book Nut
I saw this on a LOT of blogs before it finally got to me…did I miss yours?

Retelling Cinderella on Screen

When I did my Fairy Tale Round-up for Cinderella a few weeks ago, I forgot a perfectly lovely movie.  Beedrill pointed it out, which sent me off to Netflix to request a disc and re-watch Ever After.

It’s a charming retelling of Cinderella, starring Drew Barrymore as Danielle, a smart young woman trodden-down by her stepfamily.  Set in Renaissance-era France, there’s no magic but plenty of whimsy, and definitely a fairy tale feel.  The plot is pretty standard fare, but the characters really shine.

Danielle is a wonderful Cinderella, well-read and keenly aware of the injustices of the society around her.  I do wonder a little why she never set out to find a place away from her stepfamily, but this is mostly justified by her circle of friends among the servants and her obvious attachment to her home.  There’s also an interesting dynamic between Danielle and her stepmother, the Baroness, as Danielle longs for acceptance from “the only mother she’s ever known.”

The stepfamily is wonderful–the Baroness is nasty, demanding, and selfish, while bemoaning how hard she tries and how little everyone around her appreciates all that she does for them, and can’t everyone just put in a little more effort, please.  It reminds me a bit of The Devil Wears Prada, actually.  The older stepsister, Marguerite, is beautiful but horrid and self-absorbed, while the younger stepsister, Jacqueline, is a sympathetic if largely passive character.

Danielle’s friends among the servants are mostly minor characters, but it’s so nice that they exist–so many characters, Cinderellas and others, seem to be utterly alone in the world, which just isn’t realistic.  Danielle’s friends collectively serve the role of fairy godmother, with some help from Leonardo Da Vinci.

Danielle’s prince is Henry, and if there’s an implausible aspect of the story it’s in what Danielle sees in him.  He’s handsome enough, and he’s a prince of course, but in the beginning of the story he’s also arrogant and immature.  He grows rapidly under exposure to Danielle’s philosophy and far more mature view of the world, so I suppose he does seem to have potential.  They have a good chemistry so I believe she likes him…I’m just not always sure why!

There are some excellent funny moments in here, especially involving Da Vinci, or the stepfamily.  There’s also a sequence near the middle involving a group of gypsies that I don’t want to spoil for anyone…so I’ll just say it’s wonderful!

Any criticisms…well, the dialogue is remarkably formal at times.  It’s occasionally off-putting, though mostly I think it works with the style of the movie.  The post-ball timeline is very unclear and it’s hard to tell how much time is elapsing between events.  I’m also a bit doubtful about how quickly they contrive to hold royal weddings, and the apparent ease with which people can get in or out of royal engagements…  But all of those are minor points, far secondary to the drive of the story.

This movie reminds me a little of Robin McKinley’s Beauty.  It’s not anything too radical or innovative, but it’s a lovely retelling with a strong heroine and a sweet romance.  And any comparison to a McKinley book can be considered a high compliment!