Once upon a time there was a girl whose mother died and father remarried. Her stepmother, who had her own daughters, was very cruel and made the girl work in the kitchen. They called her Cinderella because she sat among the ashes in the kitchen...
We all know the beginning of this fairy tale, and, of course, that she goes to the ball, meets a handsome prince and so on. And there are many versions of it across many cultures, including a Native American version. Sophie Masson has used the Brothers Grimm story, Ashputtel, rather than Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon, which is the one most of us know, including the pumpkin coach and fairy godmother. Ashputtel, and Sophie Masson’s heroine, Selena, use a hazel tree connected with her mother’s grave, and a bird. And Selena comments wryly that she has to get to the ball on foot!
This novel includes the cruel stepmother and sisters, the weak father who doesn’t defend his child and the ball at the palace, but this is only a jumping-off place for the main story. In Ashberg, a part of the Empire, magic has been suppressed for all but an organization known as the Mancers, since a rebellion a century before nearly killed the Emperor. Anyone remotely suspected of being magical, whether a werewolf or a “moon-sister”, is collected by the Mancers and never seen again. And Selena’s mother was a secret moon-sister.
When she arrives at the ball, the Prince is not as wonderful as he is supposed to be and, trying to escape him, she meets his best friend Max, a much nicer young man. When both of them end up in the Mancers’ prison, they find themselves escaping across country with a female werewolf, a Mancer child and a huge young man in whose barge they have hidden. But Max has his own secret and Selena finds herself being forced to do something she doesn’t want to do, in order to save his life...
This isn’t the first fairy tale Sophie Masson has used as the base for one of her enchanting novels. Clementine, for example, set Sleeping Beauty during the French Revolution and a century later. My own favourite, Cold Iron, took the British version of Cinderella, Tattercoats, and set it in Elizabethan England, mixing in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night Dream. This novel is set in an imaginary country, but the era is nineteenth century. There are newspapers and photographs and steam trains.
And it works. Selena (appropriate name for a young “moon sister”) is not the passive Cinderella of the fairy tales. She stays in that house both because her dying mother made her promise not to leave her father and because, without money, she knows she won’t get far before she’s caught and dragged back. When she is alone and having to plan ahead, she shows intelligence and courage.
It’s interesting, really, how much like Cinderella the current paranormal romance is. You know - ordinary teenage girl meets gorgeous paranormal guy, falls in love and is rewarded by his return of her love. That, or she saves his life and finds out she is the Chosen One and then he falls in love with her. But Selena is a believably strong heroine and while there’s a hint of Chosen One, she has to put up with an awful lot before things work out for her, and she’s only Chosen because there’s nobody else available at the time.
I finished this in a couple of hours, being caught up in the almost non-stop action and delighted by the beauty of the language. Yet it’s easy, comfortable reading and should appeal to girls from about fourteen up.