Set the Story You Know Aside in “Cinderella Is Dead” – Book Review
Cinderella Is Dead by Kalynn Bayron says no more fairy tales – only fiery tales of resistance and magic.
I was provided with an ARC of Cinderella Is Dead via NetGalley and Bloomsbury in exchange for fair review. All opinions are my own.
Cinderella Is Dead is the first novel I’ve read from Kalynn Bayron. From start to end, this retold fairy tale had me enchanted. Everything, from the core themes to the characters to the action, kept me turning pages as fast as I could. It’s a fantastic example of how to explore and deepen a story that’s been told for centuries.
Though the tale of Cinderella is one that’s come under fire in recent times for being un-feminist, it’s one that has always meant a lot to me. The original Cinderella’s struggle to free herself from a traumatic family situation, and her strength in remaining kind and hopeful despite that struggle, is one that’s brought me a lot of comfort. I went into this book super excited, and with the usual tinge of trepidation at experiencing a beloved story in new hands.
There are a lot of little details that warmed my heart to see, moments where the original tale is woven through. I particularly liked that the story was set in an alternate version of France, a nod to the famous 1697 version of the story written by Charles Perrault. This simple choice easily allowed me to picture the aesthetic of the story without the need for lengthy prose, allowing the story to stay character-focused. I also liked that the main character’s last name was Grimmins, recalling the version of the story recorded by the Brothers Grimm. Neat little touches like that just make me happy as I read, letting me know that the author’s eye is on the details and making the book feel more intricately constructed.
Cinderella Is Dead does rework a lot of the context of the fairy tale. However, it still concerns itself with the same issues as the original, and opens up a nuanced and contemporary discussion about what can be done when overbearing authority figures cannot be trusted.
If the original Cinderella could be read as a message of understanding for those who have frozen when caught in terrible circumstances, and been unable to safely defend themselves or leave, Cinderella Is Dead is instead a message of inspiration and action.
The protagonist of the story, Sophia, is fiercely aware of herself and what she wants. She burns like a brand through the clouded confusion of the people around her. She knows what she likes and dislikes, what she will and won’t stand for, and what she needs to do. Her drive to be truly herself is what defines her.
The options in a high-stakes scenario are flight, fight, or freeze; Sophia flies and she fights, but she never freezes. Through the loss of loved ones, the loss of her family, the loss of a roof over her head and food on the table, Sophia never freezes. Though she accepts help, she never waits to be saved. If the original Cinderella story says with understanding, “It can be like this,” Cinderella Is Dead answers fiercely, “It doesn’t have to be.” It feels cathartic to read about someone who refuses at every turning point to feel powerless.
It’s through not only Sophia but also all the other characters in the story that Kalynn Bayron explores the effect of living under an oppressive system. In real life, as we know better than ever in 2020, different people will have different priorities and reactions when bad things happen, and that’s what Cinderella Is Dead captures.
There are characters who try to do everything properly and follow the letter of the law. There are characters who betray others around them to save themselves. There are characters who try to defy the authorities in small ways, feeling too much loyalty to those in power to truly bring about change. There are characters who openly fight, and refuse to back down.
Not every character gets a happy ending, and with their narratives Bayron makes strong statements about what a person can expect from trying to appease or battle a system that is biased against them. Rather than being cut-outs – only simple representations of the point Bayron is making – each of these characters is real, emotional, and desperate. Though the book isn’t too long and most of the focus is on Sophia herself, the personalities of the side characters are drawn in quick, bold strokes. Through them, the themes of the story are delivered with a profound social understanding.
The book centers itself around societal struggles and structural inequality. Focusing mainly on misogyny and homophobia, Bayron delivers upward punch after upward punch.
Sophia is a queer character and the way that her queerness is written feels so good to read. Because she knows her own mind so well, her feelings are clear to her, and they don’t seem wrong to her. Usually, I avoid fantasy books in which homophobia is present – there’s enough of that in real life – but here, it’s written with intimacy and understanding. Sophia is a brave person, but her attraction itself isn’t portrayed as so brave, something to make straight people clutch their chests over the tragedy – her attraction and love simply exist, and are beautifully written.
The romantic relationship that gets built over the course of the book is wonderful, growing slowly after an initial burst of instant chemistry. There’s nothing I love more than a relationship that seems to set two characters free – these are two characters I want to see together, because they liberate each other.
There are some great moments of wlw/mlm solidarity in the book, too. Though Sophia never expects help, she does receive it. It’s just another way in which Bayron so adeptly shows the effect of living in a society under oppression; friendships that would otherwise have blossomed easily are made complicated, and options that would immediately occur to me as the reader don’t enter Sophia’s mind for some time because she’s just not used to looking to a stranger for so much as a shred of solidarity or mutual aid. It subtly illustrates how Sophia’s resourcefulness and practicality have been honed in a world constantly and specifically biased against her.
There are no characters in the book who are canonically outside the gender binary, and since it’s written in a world so divided by gender, I would have loved to have seen a greater exploration of that. There are also a few instances of using “men and women” rather than “people” to speak about everyone. However, there is a moment in which a character questions their assumptions about Sophia’s body that feels trans-inclusive.
The thing that I love most about Cinderella Is Dead is the way it strikes a chord so strongly with our current balance of power in the English-speaking West. There are many more conservative fantasy stories that take the route of presenting an evil villain who wants to change everything, while the heroes fight to maintain the status quo.
Instead, Kalynn Bayron presents a world where the evil villain wants to maintain the status quo, and it’s the heroine who fights for radical change. Sophia herself doesn’t change hugely as Cinderella Is Dead goes on, and this is one of the strengths of the book. In her world full of villainy and lost people, Sophia knows her mind and knows what’s needed. It’s clear from the start that the world around her needs to shift, not Sophia herself. She’s not perfect, but she’s fighting to free herself and people like her. It feels fiercely right that in this story, rather than bend with the wind, she instead plants herself and says no, you move.
Perhaps most of all, Cinderella Is Dead is a story about consequences – the consequences we face for trying to be ourselves, and the consequences we can give to those who think themselves above them.
Author: Em Rowntree
I’m a non-binary writer, teacher, and cat-lover from the UK.
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