“I know all about you,” Char announced after we’d taken a few more steps.
“You do? How could you?”
“Your cook and our cook meet at the market. She talks about you.” He looked sideways at me. “Do you know much about me?”
“No.” Mandy had never said anything. “What do you know?”
“I know you can imitate people just as Lady Eleanor could. Once you imitated your manservant to his face, and he wasn’t sure whether he was the servant or you were. You make up your own fairy tales and you drop things and trip over things. I know you once broke a whole set of dishes.”
“I slipped on ice!”
“Ice chips you spilled before you slipped on them.” He laughed. It wasn’t a ridiculing laugh; it was a happy laugh at a good joke.
Author: Gail Carson Levine
Synopsis: Ella of Frell was given a fairy gift at birth, which turned out to be a curse: she will always obey any command given her. Unfortunately for Ella, this means that if her stepsister Hattie tells her to give up a friend, she has to do it. If an ogre tells her to hop into a pot and cook herself, she must obey. Since Hattie is inclined to make Ella’s life miserable, and ogres are inclined to eat humans, Ella lives always at the edge of great danger—especially when Hattie discovers the nature of the curse.
Meanwhile, good-hearted Prince Charmont finds playful Ella more than appealing. As Ella learns to love him, she must face the biggest danger her curse has brought her yet: the possibility of being exploited to destroy both prince and kingdom.
Notes: For those who—like me—saw the movie before reading the book (yeah, I know), be prepared to find an astonishingly different story. Like most adaptations, however, the movie lacks the depth and interest of the book, though I enjoyed both.
Quirky, lovable worldbuilding sets the stage. In the kingdom of Kyrria, ogres and giants and gnomes and centaurs are commonplace, and they speak in hilarious gibberish likely to baffle elementary school teachers who attempt to read the book aloud. The fun of the world, along with Ella’s and Char’s senses of humor, prevents the book from becoming too heavy. Ella’s predicament rivals the justice of Delores Umbridge for the award of Most Frustrating Fictional Situation, so the laughs are much needed.
Levine follows the popular modern Cinderella story in some ways and changes it entirely in others, but the important characters are all there: silly and grasping stepmother Olga, vicious stepsister Hattie and stupid stepsister Olive, two bossy fairies sharing the role generally played by the godmother, and of course cinder girl and prince.
The primary twist—the obedience curse—makes the cinder-girl’s story a tale of growing into individual freedom and sacrificial strength. Ella has the pluck to accept her plight as something she must live with for the time, while always searching for her escape. Her playful spirit and her knack for the goofy linguistics carry the story, making her positively irresistible as a heroine. It’s not at all hard to understand why Char is so taken with her.
And while Ella is the star of the show, Char isn’t just a stock romantic hero, to be desired merely because he’s royalty. Despite his awkward name, Char proves himself more than a little lovable. Ella must work against a curse to do the right thing; Char works to do the right thing out of the desperation of his own nature. Ella falls into romance; Char falls over himself to romance his girl. He comes alive in the pure-hearted, self-deprecating playfulness he shares with Ella, and there were moments when the pair of them reminded me pleasantly of Elizabeth Bennet bantering with Mr. Darcy. Now, is there a higher compliment for middle-reader fiction? I ask you.
The concept of the magic book that aids the protagonist by spying shamelessly on her friends is an intriguing one, and probably an entire series could be written with that as the central plot point. In this book, it simply serves as a way of conveying information to the reader. Shameless as the spying was, of course, I can’t say I’m entirely sorry for having had a look into Char’s and Areida’s journals.
The ending contains one sentence—six words, really—that stung a little. It suggested, at least to this sometimes-cynical reader, that the author felt it necessary to force her Cinderella story(!) into the narrative that it’s a Very Bad Thing for little girls to want to be princesses. I could think of no other reason for the inclusion of those six words. While I understand not overindulging certain tendencies, there's also such a thing as overreaction. They'll take princess dreams away from our daughters when they stop our sons from making guns with their fingers.
Otherwise, the ending makes sense within the story and is quite thoroughly delightful. It even suggests that a re-read might be nice, and that owning one's own copy might be ideal.
Recommendation: Read it for some good laughs and a happy Cinderella story.