After their father is lured from home by an evil prince, Cinder and Ella care for their sisters and hardworking but mentally absent mother. (Names excepted, this take on "Cinderella" has little in common with either Perrault’s original or Disney’s version.)
Cinder toils on behalf of their spoiled sisters, but Ella resists enabling their bad behavior. Their mother barely notices (she now conflates the two as Cinderella) when Cinder leaves to take a castle job on the prince’s domestic staff. Ella soon leaves too, although her goals aren’t clear. While the tale has intriguing elements (everyone has a counterpart that is a tree, and the welfare of both are intertwined), they’re largely underdeveloped. Readers learn little about the rules or foundational beliefs governing this world. What motivates Cinder and Ella to act as they do is unclear. Their actions come across as aimless and arbitrary, despite the intrusive narrator’s heavy-handed points about perseverance and initiative, since readers lack access to the moral compass they follow—or don’t. Much of the pleasure retold fairytales offer arises from their contrast to, interaction with and comments on the original. Here, the lack of a meaningful connection with its original leaves the narrative unanchored and insubstantial.
For a taste of what’s missing, seek out Donna Jo Napoli’s Magic Circle (1993) or Rafe Martin’s Birdwing (2005). (Fantasy. 11 & up)