Dark Fairy Tale Queens 1-3
I’m going to mess with the format a little for this one. Usually I break my reviews up into a summary, what I liked, and what I didn’t like, but because this is a novella collection, I’m just going to go one installment at a time.
The Dark Fairy Tale Queens series starts out with a pretty simple concept. What if Cinderella were the villain of her own story? That’s not to say that this story has a hero; the wicked stepmother and stepsisters are just about as wicked as ever, and the idea seems to be that abuse is cyclical and breeds more of itself.
That’s a fascinating yet intuitive take on the Cinderella story that I’m amazed I’ve never seen done before — even as a kid, Cinderella’s goodness always struck me as improbable under the circumstances — but dwelling on the themes makes this version sound quite a bit more serious than it actually is. The actual experience of reading it is, in a word, wicked. There’s simply no better way to describe it.
It takes a very special story to make me follow a truly unlikeable protagonist, let alone a whole unlikeable cast, and I’m not normally a fangirl for evil queens who are actually evil. In a world where women are so casually vilified for things like wielding power, having informed opinions, and challenging the status quo, I tend to prefer reimaginings that treat traditionally evil female characters as misunderstood or at least morally gray. In Valle’s hands, however, Cinderella’s shallow, vindictive, manipulative self-indulgence is more readably fun than I ever would have thought possible.
This book is like what would happen if Cinderella were a Telltale Game, and after playing through it a few times with the intuitive good decisions, you decided to pick all the options that make everyone behave as badly as possible just to see what would happen. The story turns out substantively pretty much the same, of course, but the tone and the details are night and day. That’s where Sinful Cinderella is at its most deliciously clever, the way it tours through every essential cosmetic beat of the fairy tale, from pumpkin to ball to slipper, but with a completely different set of motivations that actually make more sense than the original.
Possible downsides: some of the dialogue outlining the themes of love and hate and evil feels a bit on-the-nose, and there’s an assault that can be read as retribution for Cinderella simply daring to go to a party looking killer (hardly one of her actual “sins”), but if you squint just right it kind of blends into the gloriously chaotic train wreck of how much everyone in this universe sucks.
In this continuation of Dark Fairy Tale Queens, Snow White is making plans to run away with her boyfriend, Hunter, to escape her stepmother, the wicked queen Cinderella. But she won’t be satisfied with just making good her escape; first she wants revenge on Cinderella for killing her father (never mind that he was a monster, it’s the principle of the thing), and she wants a love apple to share with Hunter, a spell that will keep their love strong and fresh for the rest of their lives, no matter what.
She’s going to need it, because unlike everyone else in the Dark Fairy Tale Queens universe, Hunter is decent, right through to the core. As much fun as this series’ heroines’ twisted minds can be, Hunter is a breath of fresh air, not to mention an ever-tightening reel of tension, as his childhood sweetheart love for Snow grapples with his dawning understanding of just how venomous she is.
When Snow makes Hunter promise to kill the pregnant Cinderella for her, she finally drives just enough of a wedge between them to set in motion a phenomenally awkward love triangle between stepmother, stepdaughter, and the sweetest man in the kingdom.
Meanwhile, Cinderella’s magic mirror has shifted its seductive attentions to the new fairest woman in the land, calling Snow’s worst nature even closer to the surface, and Cinderella’s fairy godmother ties the series closer together with a reappearance as a peddler of magic apples.
Possible downsides: Because Sneaky Snow White deviates more from the structure of its source fairytale, the pacing is a bit unconventional and treads water in a few places. Snow White also rather uncomfortably describes one member of the Dwarves (a rape gang that had previously chased her through the forest) as “a bad apple, but loveable.” Then again, she’s comparing him to herself while planning to cut open her stepmother and steal her unborn baby, so her judgement on what makes a person lovable can be assumed to be as fractured as the fairy tale she inhabits. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I realize this may be a deliberate comment on how only male characters usually get to fill the “loveable asshole” archetype, often while being assholes far beyond the point where they should qualify as loveable. Complaint retracted.
This is a story about what Rapunzel would be like if her narrow education at the hands of an evil witch and total lack of social awareness had taken her in a rather less princess-like direction. Raised in a tower by the previous book’s Snow White, this Rapunzel is an especially bratty teenager who’s determined not only to see the world but to claim her birthright and crown herself queen. At the same time, she’s compellingly pitiable, desperate to have a “friend” with no concept of what that means, and unlikely ever to find out given the universe she was born into.
This installment is also so much more than a Rapunzel revisiting. While Sneaky Snow White’s deviation from its main fairy tale inspiration and incorporation of multiple tales caused some growing pains for the series, it pays off big time in Rotten Rapunzel. The story mash-ups accelerate around an original plotline with a will of its own, switching up roles and taking advantage of repeating fairy tale tropes to distill a non-repetitive dose of the most iconic bits. This novella alone contains threads of Rapunzel, Snow White, Cinderella, The Snow Queen, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, and possibly some foreshadowing for Jack and the Beanstalk. I might even have missed some, and they’re all working together as if they were meant to all along.
If you love Into the Woods but wish it had a bit more Game of Thrones mixed in (the meanness and scheming, not the R rating), you’re going to adore Dark Fairy Tale Queens.
Possible downsides: There’s what seems to be a classic Fake Nice Guy character here whose arc feels underserved and unresolved. He spends the story doing bad and ill-advised things to impress a girl, who’s made it abundantly clear she’s not interested, and whining about how she won’t give him a chance. Rapunzel even falls into the trap of telling this girl how horrible she is for “tormenting” him (the girl is incidentally horrible, like everyone in this series, but not for saying no when she means it). Of course, Rapunzel is also a socially stunted megalomaniac who’s planning to magically roofie said Fake Nice Guy for her own use, so her opinions on this don’t count for much. Still, I wish the plot had dealt with him in a more conclusive way, even if only by letting him win and unmasking him in the process. On the other hand, letting him flounder pathetically in the background without ever being all that important arguably has its own sort of justice to it, and there might be more resolution coming down the road. I guess we’ll just have to wait for Bad Beauty to find out!
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