Gail Carson Levine
Cinderella with a twist — it’s been done before. But in this book, the twist is pretty serious. A rogue fairy, Lucinda, gave Ella a “gift” at her birth — “She will always be obedient,” said Lucinda; she meant it for the best but, as you might imagine, the gift turned out to be more of a curse. Fifteen-year-old Ella’s quest to find Lucinda and remove the curse leads her into the path of plenty of danger and excitement — including a friendship with Prince Char (get it?), the heir to the throne of Kyrria. All the signature elements of the Cinderella story are here — the wicked stepmother, the glass slipper, even the pumpkin coach. But there’s a lot more to Ella’s story, including a refreshingly moral twist regarding the breaking of Lucinda’s inadvertent curse.
Ella tells her story with a charming narrative voice, and Levine’s characterization in general is quite nice. Her portrayal of the nasty stepfamily — the horrid mother Olga, the vain and snobbish Hattie, and the selfish and clueless young Olive — is particularly brilliant. The device of a magical book which allows Ella to learn what is happening to friends and family far away is perhaps not original, yet works well in the story. Levine is definitely not at her best when world-building — Ella’s trek through the countryside, which includes encounters with Elves, Ogres, and Giants, was dull and not very convincing, in my opinion. And, as an amateur linguist, I enjoyed reading about Ella’s gift for and enjoyment of foreign languages, but Levine’s attempts to create these languages on paper were simply horrible. Every word was one syllable, and capital letters and words with no vowels supposedly made the languages look more exotic. Levine is definitely in her element, however, in portraying charming — or not-so-charming — characters and their interactions, and her setting descriptions (besides the traveling ones) were good.
Ella is a stubborn and slightly rebellious young woman — the effects of the curse, no doubt! However, she respects her elders as much as can be expected — her distant, cruel father isn’t much of a role model, so the cook Mandy becomes her authority figure. The magic is subdued, and the fairies in general refuse to perform “big magic” — that is, magic that messes with things beyond their authority or control; the exception to this is Lucinda, who obviously gets quite a few people in trouble and comes to regret it. Morally, though, I especially appreciated the end of the book. I don’t want to give anything away, so let me just say that self-denial and true love are upheld in a very refreshing way. I heartily enjoyed it.
(This book received the Newbery Honor medal in 1997.)