Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Reviewed by: Niamh Ennis, Leixlip Library
Stepsister takes the original Grimm Tales version of Cinderella and turns it on it’s head again. Isabella and Vari are the two step-sisters of Ella and their mother is keen to get them married to the prince. Isabella and Vari are forced by her to do unimaginable things in this attempt, but the story ends up the same – Ella becomes betrothed to the prince. But that’s not the beginning or indeed end of the story. Isabella is a tomboy who has little interest in gowns or glass slippers while Tavi is more drawn to mathematics than boys. Their mother has been trying for years to get them married off, afraid of what will become of them if they don’t. While guilty of a lot of meanness and selfishness regarding their step-sister, pressure from mum and a secret of Ella’s didn’t help Isabella’s venom and envy from growing. She could be better, but she needs some guidance on the path. Enter Fate, Chance and a fairy queen called Tanaquil and it becomes a fairy tale with some character development and a modern twist.
While this story is as guilty of fairy tale solutions and in some cases under-developed characters as the original, Donnelly has attempted to fit a couple of stories into less than 400 pages and admittedly only a few too many characters. While in some ways the simple and repetitive nature of the telling takes from the more hopeful elements of the plot, one has to remember that it is still a fairytale and is intended for young adults, which I have not been in a good few years. All critique aside, this is a very well laid out plot, where no magic element (or indeed any idea contained in the opening quote) are superfluous. It’s also an ode to not fitting inside a gendered pink box and excels at presenting likeable and empowering women out of two previously awful step-sisters. Most of the side characters are both enjoyable and help the plot and the inclusion of an almost celtic magician in Tanaquil is fantastic. The only thing I would change would be to make Fate and Chance ideas rather than people (as their characters edge on the side of ridiculous) so there is more time to focus on Isabella’s quest and what it eventually leads to. Given that the author has put so much effort in creating her own detailed series of political events that occur, including a new king, a war and various battles and alliances, it seems a shame to loose some of this to the however timely banter and hijinkes of Fate and Chance.