The Ugly Stepsister | Unfinished Fairy Tales #1 | ISBN 9781511956727 | Aya Ling, 2015 | 3.5 out of 5 Points
“When Kat accidentally rips apart an old picture book, she’s magically transported into the world of Cinderella–as Katriona, one of the ugly stepsisters! Life turns upside down now that she’s a highborn lady and must learn how to survive the social season, including how to get through the door in a huge metal hoop skirt. To get back, she’ll have to complete the story, right to the end of happily ever after. But the odds are huge: the other stepsister is drop-dead gorgeous, the fairy godmother is nowhere to be found, and the prince, despite being insanely hot, openly dislikes balls. Can she ever return to the modern world?”
I love fairy tale retellings with a focus on minor characters or villains, so I absolutely HAD to have this book. I’ve read one book about the ugly stepsisters from Cinderella before, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire, and even though it was a very impressive and interesting take on the fairy tale, I have to say that it was a little hard for me to understand at the time (my English has improved majorly since I’ve read it). In comparison, Lin’s take on the theme is easy to read and even has a kind of happy end – which is kind of predictable, since this book is a young adult fantasy story.
A PROPER PUNISHMENT FOR BOOK DESTROYERS TBH
The concept of this book is basically ‘What if a modern-day girl was sucked into the Cinderella story’ –not as Cinderella herself, but as one of the ugly stepsisters. Except in this story, neither of the stepsisters is really ugly. Kat, who now has to ‘repair’ the story which she accidentally destroyed by ripping apart a fairy tale book, is faced with an older sister who is so beautiful that she doubts the prince will ever notice plain little Elle over beautiful Bianca.
(On a side note: I like this version of the story especially because there are no ‘ugly’ stepsisters in the original story. The sisters, as described by the Grimm brothers, are beautiful, but proud and vain and evil of heart. That same thing can definitely be said of Bianca.)
In any event, Kat has to find a way to repair the story while also trying to fit into the strange world she has fallen into, while a servant of the goblin king (who enchanted the book in the first place) keeps checking in on her. She makes friends with Poppy, a country bumpkin, helps Elle’s poor family, becomes politically active and accidentally makes the prince fall in love with her because of how unusual her behavior is. The suspense of the plot is well-done, Kat’s conflicts are believable and actually make you turn the pages just to find out how Kat is going to get out of her dilemma. The way she does solve her problems is pretty ingenious and for the most part quite unpredictable for a YA romance novel. I also have to say that I wasn’t quite sure how the story would end, since Kat’s conflicting desires are extremely convincing and there doesn’t seem to be a perfect solution for all of her conflicts. And, spoiler alert, there isn’t. Which actually adds to the story overall, even though I did hope for a perfect happy ending… But you know, sometimes not getting what you want can actually be better for you, I guess?
HARD-WORKING HEROINE SEEKS SENSITIVE PRINCE FOR ETERNAL HAPPINESS (OR NOT?)
Kat is a solid heroine. Her family (her single mother, her and her little sister) is pretty strapped for money, she’s got some self-esteem issues, she’s a tiny bit clumsy, but not in the absolutely exaggerated way a lot of heroines in YA I’ve read have been. She doesn’t get magically transformed into a confident, elegant new self when she enters the story world – she actually has to learn how to walk on heels and with creoles, how to dance and how to generally blend into this world. She has to actually work on it, but she does learn to blend in, her character does develop. Especially in her conflict regarding Edward, the prince who she fell in love with, even though he is meant to be with Cinderella, you really see that she is a well-rounded, fleshed out character. Her thought processes are very understandable and honestly, it’s just fun to watch her make progress in her mission to restore the story. She is also a very kind person who seems to be genuinely interested in the welfare not only of poor people (this sounds a bit strange, but it’s not such a big feat to be against child labor when you’ve been born and raised in the 20th/21st century), but she also shows genuine concern towards people who are outsiders, like Poppy or Lady Gregory, which gets pretty well rewarded later.
Edward, the Prince, is also pretty alright. Kind of cookie-cutter as far as YA love interests go, but he doesn’t patronize Kat, he listens to her opinions, and him falling for her feels very organic and believable. He is a very cute guy, and I understood why Kat likes him as well, even though I was slightly annoyed with pretty much all other girls swarming around him (I generally don’t like it when girls and women are portrayed as irrational and superficial, but well…) I loved Poppy, the unrefined country girl who becomes Kat’s best friend in Story World, and I really liked that she has her own pretty well-developed story. Elle, on the other hand… Well, Elle is there, I guess? She’s a very bland character, to be honest. Her personality is basically ‘I am just a lowly servant and why are you so kind to me oh thank you so much’. I didn’t find any real reason to root for her, to be completely honest. That’s a bit of a shame, since I’m pretty sure the author could have made something more out of her if she’d had tried – Ling shows with Kat and Poppy that she can create pretty well-rounded characters.
Bianca, our main villain of the story (next to her mother), is pretty much a love to hate kind of character. She is vain and proud alright, but she is also not stupid. It’s pretty obvious that she has no real chance to get Edward, since he seems to generally go for different qualities than beauty and refinement, but she is definitely very effective in thwarting Kat’s attempts at moving the plot along. I’d still say that Kat’s main problem isn’t Bianca, but her own growing feelings for Edward, but still, as far as antagonists go, Bianca does a decent job.
The next section about world building is going to be a lot more critical than what I’ve written up to now, so I’m just going to throw my least favorite character into the last paragraph of this part of the review. Krev, the goblin, is basically Kat’s ‘guide’ in the story world. He explains to her what happened and what she has to do, he reports back to the goblin king who enchanted the book (and to the queen), and at the end he actually helps Kat out. But good lord, what an annoying, useless, bland character… He doesn’t really seem to have a personality apart from ‘This is fun, I’m going to treat your life like a reality show’, he doesn’t advance the plot at all before the very last scenes, and he just seems SO forcedly funny. He basically seems like a gimmick to lighten up the story a bit and add some humor, but it just comes out heavy-handed and unnecessary. He is basically the joke nobody laughs at, but the person telling the joke doesn’t notice that nobody’s laughing so they just repeat the joke over and over and over again…
RUBY RED AND KING LEON? SERIOUSLY?
As we’re already on the topic of annoying gimmicks: I just HATE it when authors ‘invent’ a new world, be it a fantasy world or a story world, by basically just taking an existing place and giving things new names. England becomes Athelia, Scotland Lochden (??? Really???) and Greta Green becomes Ruby Red. How subtle. How clever. How original.
I’m not quite sure why authors keep doing that. I have two guesses, though. The first one is that they want to create a new world, but they’re just neither creative enough nor willing to put in the work to actually create an original world. The second is that they actually want to use a different time period, but they don’t want to put in the work to actually research that time period, so they just paste a thin film of ~alternative world~ over the stereotypical image they have of a specific time in history.
Let’s be completely honest, there are not that many anachronistic issues in this book. I guess the feeling is supposed to be Victorian, and all in all, Ling actually portrays the time pretty accurately, I’d say. There are a few minor details, like people using the phrase ‘black tea’ (it’s just ‘tea’ in Britain, ‘black tea’ just means you’re not taking milk), people of high standing dipping their scones into teas in public, and one person from the story world using the phrase ‘cool as a cucumber’; but I was pleasantly surprised that Kat didn’t actually suffocate in her corset once it was properly put on.
There were also some parts of the story where basic logic gets thrown out of the window in favor of drama, for example when a character who has suffered a major head wound and is said to never be able to function properly again holds an extremely coherent and never-ending death bed speech. Just… No. Why. Don’t do that.
And just a last bit of nitpicking about coherency and story-intern logic. Most of the names in the story are very, well, time-appropriate. Henry, Edward, Clair, Poppy, Bianca, Katriona… All sound dignified and historical and stuff. But then Ling names the king of her alternate England ‘Leon’. ‘LEON’. What kind of name is that?? I tell you what it isn’t: It definitely isn’t the name of any kind of British royalty. There are Leons in 19th century Spain, Italy, and even France – but those are very distinctly not British places. And I dare anybody to come at me with ‘But it’s not Britain!’. They have scones. There’s a place named Ruby Red there. They have a season. If ‘Athelia’ isn’t Britain, then Middle Earth isn’t proto-Europe.
All in all, though, if you can deal with the awkward, lazy world building, the story is actually really fun and engaging. The ending is quite unpredictable, the conflicts feel real, and most of the characters feel pretty well fleshed out. The Ugly Stepsister is a fun, satisfying read, and even though the plot has its hiccups, it’s refreshing to find a YA romance story with a non-perfect ending. This is also the reason why I’m not going to read the second book in this series – I just really feel that the story is finished.
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