Spoiler Free Review: Stepsister

“Go now, girl. Remake the world”

Author: Jennifer Donnelly

They lost. Cinderella has gone off with her prince leaving the rest of the family bloody and destitute. Isabella and Octavia carry on as best they can, limping their way through life, in a village that now hates them for being the ‘ugly stepsisters.’ Can the Fates make this much worse? Yes, because they are about to make a little wager with Chance.

“A door once opened may be stepped through in either direction.”

Madame de Pompadour

I hated this book. I know every book nerd is gushing over this book, but I hated it. If you are going to write a deconstruction of Cinderella, you need to understand Cinderella. I don’t think Donnelly does.

I’m a folklore nerd, I have many books of fairy tales and Cinderella is one of the “universal tales” every culture has some story about a poor, down-on-her-luck girl who is given a magical gift, (often footwear) and captures the heart of some important man.

The oldest European version of “Cinderella” I have is a translation of “Aschenputtel” from the Brother’s Grimm. This version is very clear that the stepsisters “had pretty faces, but ugly hearts, where Cinderella was plain of face, but beautiful in heart” I realize that gets ignored by most media, but as a sequel to Cinderella it would have been an interesting angle to explore.

My biggest problem with this story is that Isabella is this amazing sword fighter. . . because she played at sword fighting as a kid. . . That’s not how swords work! Isabella was never trained at sword fighting and she is missing 1/2 her foot! Sure natural skill helps, but you need training to fight! Training that Isabella clearly never had! It’s unbelievable and cheapens Isabella’s character journey. You can’t just have your characters be good at everything. Characters need to grow, learn and change. It’s called a character arc.

The book is set in France during… When does it take place? Cinderella’s prince is named Charles. He does become King later in the story, so he would be king Charles of France. They also mention that it’s the 18th century. Those two facts do not work. There was a king Charles in the 16th century, there was a king Charles in the 19th century, but there was none in the 18th Century.

For a book that lectures us about knowing our history… I’m sorry, “HerStory” You would expect that it knows something about the topic.

When does this take place?! They do drink coffee, which fits with 18th century France. Still the sisters go on and on about how women are not allowed to be educated, witty, or bold. . . in 18th century France. . .

“you have no idea who I am do you?”

Isabella continues to call Cinderella “Ella” throughout the story. Is that her proper name? I checked the wives of EVERY SINGLE King Charles in French history. The closest name to “Ella” I could find was Elizabeth of Austria from the 16th Century.

She was considered a great beauty, and very warmhearted. . . but she was an Austrian Princess, not a French peasant.

I wouldn’t be harping on this point if Stepsister didn’t make such a big deal about the contributions of women in history while ignoring the women who contributed to French history! I understand what this book is going for, I just really wish it was set in a fictional land.

If you are going to use real history, use real history! You can tell this story with real women in history! Queen Marie and Madame de Pompadour, Mary I and Elizabeth I, Anne Bonny and Mary Reed, (they didn’t have a feud but you could write it) Matilda, and the other Matilda during the Anarchy, Cleopatra and ANY of her sisters. You really want the stepsister angle? We know next to nothing about Hypatia’s family, give her a stepsister!

Read this book if you want. I promise I won’t judge you for it. In my opinion, we don’t need feminist fairy tales. We need better history books. How many of those history references from the last paragraph did you have to Google? Every single name was a real woman who impacted history. They are far more interesting to me that this book.

Source for Aschenputtel:

Tatar, Maria. “Aschenputtel.” Grimm’s Grimmest, Chronicle Books, 1997, pp. 64–73.

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