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Review: Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

Review: Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

‘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…’

Stepsister is, without a doubt, my favourite read of the year so far. Not only is it a fairytale retelling, which is, I’m sure I don’t need to say again, one of my favourite things to read, but it takes the more fixed elements of the original story and injects new life into them without completely breaking away from the conclusion of the Cinderella story. The writing is simply beautiful, with the natural cadence and rhythm of the language something that struck me time after time as one of its strengths, its short chapters – particularly their conclusions – an element that aid it in being a brilliantly poetic novel. To be completely honest, there is something almost on every other page of this book that I would love to talk about in detail (maybe I’ll come back to this once it’s been released!), and there are so many beautiful lines that I could write at length about Stepsister, but I’ll try to keep myself to a few things that I enjoyed the most.

Isabelle is one of Ella’s (Cinderella) ‘ugly’ stepsisters, who we are introduced to just as her mother demands that she cuts off her toes to make her foot fit the glass slipper (one of the elements that is often left out of retellings these days). What life has been like for Isabelle since her mother married Ella’s father is visited through a series of flashbacks throughout the novel that focus on how she has changed since she was a girl, revealing events that influenced her and ultimately led to her becoming the young woman who treated her stepsister so awfully. This is done without making excuses for the choices she makes, but shows what led to her growing so angry and frustrated with the world, contrasting who she was with who she is in the wake of Ella’s departure with the prince and the nature of who she is having been revealed to all. One of her biggest misconceptions about herself is that life would be better for her if she were more like Ella, both in temperament and appearance, and so she sets out to try and do good deeds and be a ‘better’ person – with the cryptic help of the fairy queen, whom she hopes will make her ‘pretty’. Isabelle’s journey is not an easy or obvious one, for even she doesn’t entirely comprehend what she is attempting to do, and her gradually growing to understand and reclaim herself, embracing who she really is, is one in which you cannot help but root for her.

I absolutely adored Tavi, Isabelle’s sister. Tavi, who is fiercely clever and wants to immerse herself in maths and science in a world that refuses to believe that women are intelligent enough to do so and won’t entertain the idea of it, considering study of such things to be not appropriate for women. Tavi behaves in an ‘ugly’ way because she has given up on a society that has tried to make her everything she hates and does not want to be – there is no way that she can find any fulfilment in the ‘traditional’ role of a woman that her mother and the men around her wish her to take on. For Tavi, the world is a cruel and unkind place that she has given up on, tired of seeing men with less than half her intellect succeed and be valued in ways that she will never be. She doesn’t fit and has surrendered to it, her sadness driving her to an anger that has her determined to drive people away with her attitude and sharp tongue. Tavi is ugly to the world and everyone in it because it has been so to her.

The use of the Fates, and Chance and his entourage, is another aspect of the novel that I thoroughly enjoyed. The crafting of the maps and inks, particularly the names of the inks and who is willing to use them (there is a line about ‘defiance’ towards the end of the novel that I adored, but I won’t go any further into for fear of spoilers) is a delightful nod to many mythologies, while being unique in its execution. The Fates and Chance are actual characters within the story and get to interact with the more human ones (who don’t comprehend who they are truly speaking with), meddling in the lives of those whose lives they believe they have the power to manipulate. There’s a lot to unpack here about free will and destiny, which is skilfully explored over the course of Fate and Chance’s battle for the paths of Isabelle’s life. Tanaquill (the fairy queen) is not the benevolent figure that one might have been expecting and the story is all the better for it, her presence an uncompromising demand that Isabelle examine who she is and what she truly wishes to be. If I’m correct, Tanaquill is not the only nod to epic poetry and the work of playwrights within the text, and her depiction here as a dark and sharply beautiful figure of female power is in excellent keeping with the original text and the time in which in would appear the novel is set.

As mentioned before, there is a lot more I would love to discuss, particularly concerning the relationship(s) between Isabelle, Tavi and Ella, but, as I don’t wish to spoil the story, I’ll settle for saying that the twists on the assumptions that can be made about the original text are some of my favourite things about the story.

Stepsister is out on May 2nd! Thank you, Hot Key Books, for sending me a copy!