Monday 13 May 2019

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Review: Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly (#Ad)

Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

I received this eProof for free from Hot Key Books via NetGalley for the purposes of providing an honest review.

Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

Published: 14th May 2019 | Publisher: Hot Key Books | Source: Publisher
Jennifer Donnelly's Website

'In an ancient city by the sea, three sisters - a maiden, a mother, and a crone - are drawing maps by candlelight. Sombre, with piercing grey eyes, they are the three Fates, and every map is a human life . . .'

Stepsister takes up where Cinderella's tale ends. We meet Isabelle, the younger of Cinderella's two stepsisters. Ella is considered beautiful; stepsister Isabelle is not. Isabelle is fearless, brave, and strong-willed. She fences better than any boy, and takes her stallion over jumps that grown men fear to attempt. It doesn't matter, though; these qualities are not valued in a girl. Others have determined what is beautiful, and Isabelle does not fit their definition. Isabelle must face down the demons that drove her cruel treatment of Ella, challenge her own fate and maybe even redefine the very notion of beauty . . .

Cinderella is about a girl who was bullied; Stepsister is about the bully. We all root for the victims, we want to see them triumph. But what about the bullies? Is there hope for them? Can a mean girl change? Can she find her own happily ever after?
From Goodreads.

Trigger Warning: This book features discussion of considering suicide, threat of sexual assault, dead bodies, and war.

I had been so looking forward to reading Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly ever since first hearing about it. A feminist retelling of Cinderella, a sequel from an ugly stepsister's point of view! What could be better?! Unfortunately, I was pretty disappointed with this one.

The positives first. Stepsister is very feminist. The reason the stepsisters, Isabelle and Tavi, were cruel to Ella? Jealousy. They all live in a world where women are meant to be good and kind and pretty. All things Ella was and is, and charms the people around her. They adore her. But being into fencing and horse riding and the great generals of the past, like Isabelle is, or into maths and science like Tavi is, isn't very ladylike. Plus, they're not very pretty, and what man is going to want to marry a woman who isn't pretty? Both Isabelle and Tavi have been hurt by the things people say about them because of how they look and their interests, and that they're not particularly feminine, yet see Ella constantly being praised and told how pretty she is, so they took their hurt and anger out on her. Time and again, throughout the novel, Isabelle, and Tavi to a smaller degree, are pretty much told that who they are is wrong, because they are women. Stepsister is all about Isabelle learning to embrace who she is, learning to like who she is, and being herself unapologetically, despite the world trying to force her into a box she clearly doesn't fit in, and, honestly, doesn't really want to fit in. Stepsister took a really interesting look at gender roles, and what beauty actually means, what beauty actually is.

I loved how the story is about a fight for Isabelle's life, not just from her, but from one of the Fates and from Chance. The three Fates - the maiden, the mother, and the crone - draw maps for every single person's life, and Isabelle's map is destined to end violently. Chance is a young man who steals Isabelle's map from the Fates, believing that people shouldn't have their lives mapped out for them, ad should be able to decide on their own path. He steals the map to give Isabelle a chance to change her fate, and the crone and Chance bet on how Isabelle's life will end up - and then interfere with her life to get the outcome they want. I've read this kind of story before - where beings take an interest in particular people's lives, and compete with each other, bending the lives of these people who have no knowledge of how their lives are being manipulated, like The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough - but it was really fascinating to see this kind of story melded with a retelling. It was quite an interesting twist.

However, Stepsister was written for what felt like a much younger audience, which generally isn't for me. There's not a problem with it, I just don't like MG books, and this felt like, throughout, a book that would make a great MG/YA crossover novel. But then there would be moments where it was quite clear that this was definitely a YA novel. It got quite dark in places; there's a time when Isabelle confronts a thief trying to steal her chickens, and the thief notices her eyeing the rake and trying to figure out how to get to it, and he suggest she should use "my tool" instead, quite threateningly. Stepsister has an omnipresent narrator that talks to the reader; sometimes, they're pointing things out to us that the characters have missed, other times, they're almost advising the audience - and to be honest, it did feel a little heavy handed at times, a little preachy. But there's one point where Isabelle is despairing at the situation she's in, and the narrator talks to the reader, and says, pretty much, if you want to hang yourself, wait to get the rope until the morning, because you might change your mind. And it's so blasé. And it just felt so wrong. The narrator is talking to the reader about the reader hanging themselves! That just really didn't sit right with me at all. Am I over reacting? But this and the threat of sexual assault - making this book very much a YA novel, and potentially a bit older than the younger end of YA - did not fit the way in which the story was written, where Stepsister felt like it was aimed at quite a younger audience.

And I just wanted more from the story, I think. In the great scheme of things, not a huge deal actually happens. Perhaps it's because I've read a number of other retellings, but I was expecting a more complex story. And while, yes, Chance and the crone's interfering put obstacles and opportunities in Isabelle's path, apart from the odd time or two, nothing really major happens. And some of the relationships I just didn't find to be that believable. With the romance, it's nothing to write home about; we never really know why the two like each other (not giving names because of spoilers). Hugo, who Isabelle and Tavi have to spend time with, can't stand either of them, but he is like such a child; his problems regarding them are based on what I've said above - neither Isabelle nor Tavi behave the way women are expected to - but how he insults them is just bloody ridiculous. He's like a five-year-old! So the hate to something like friends relationship that develops is just irritating. I couldn't stand him.

And then there's Isabelle and Tavi themselves. I mean, Isabelle thinks back over some of thing they have said or done to Ella in the past, and while, yes, they were mean, apart from locking her in her room when the prince came with the glass slipper, they never really did anything that I would consider to be monstrously cruel; it was more like the kind of fights that happen between siblings when they're young. Isabelle and Tavi weren't mean, cruel people - they just had moments where they weren't very nice. But otherwise they're pretty normal? Fairly decent human beings? They're just not the ugly stepsisters I was expecting. I know we get villain origin or sequel stories where they're written so that we come to understand and maybe even sympathise with them as we get the story from their perspective, but they're still the characters we know, we just find out why they are the way they are. Isabelle and Tavi are unrecognisable as the ugly stepsisters we've grown up loathing.

So Stepsister turned out to be quite a disappointment, sadly. It really wasn't for me, but it might be for you, so do read a few more reviews before deciding whether or not you'll read it yourself.

You might also like:

Heartless by Marissa Meyer Sea Witch by Sarah Henning The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff

Over to you graphic

What are your favourite retellings from the villain's perspectives? Do you know of any other books that feature the maiden, the mother, and the crone? Do you enjoy books where being interefere with people's lives? Have you read Stepsister? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

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