So here’s the thing. I read Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly a year ago and loved it. It was a solid Cinderella retelling, with some good twists, a wider cast and personifications of concepts like Fate and Chance. And perhaps I went into Poisoned with expectations that couldn’t be met, but I just couldn’t love it in the same way.
Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication Date: 20th October 2020
Ownership: eARC provided by the publisher
Rating: 2.5 stars rounded up to 3
About the Book
Princess Sophie will never make a strong Queen. She is too kind – too weak – and a source of frustration for her stepmother, who has had to show how ruthless she can be in order to be taken seriously in a world where kings rule. When Queen Adelaide realises that Sophie could be her own weakness, she orders her huntsman to cut out her heart. But when Sophie appears to survive this attack, she has a choice – to sit and await her own fate, or to take action and search for her heart and see for herself how ‘weak’ kindness truly is.
I really wanted to enjoy this so much more. I love a good fairytale retelling, especially when it brings much more of the original, gruesome narrative back into it, when it adds snippets from local folklore, sets the tale back in its origins and makes it a feminist story all about discovering one’s own worth.
And it feels like Poisoned technically delivered all of that, in a story with lots of rushing around and taking action, but the overall feel for me was a bit, ‘meh’.
First off, I found Sophie hard to love. She was very much the naïve, kind-hearted kind of princess that would sing to the birds if this book had a musical number. Yes, she does grow a little as the story progresses – she learns that kind can be tough, that caring isn’t weakness. But I’m not really sure what she gains from that, except for a stronger sense of self-worth. Her relationship with male characters is basically the plot of Frozen too, which didn’t really add anything more valuable to her character, especially as all of her other male companions had to keep saving her after she had bumbled into some other problem as a result of her naivety.
There were plenty of imaginative twists to the original tale – I initially really liked the inclusion of Fear stealing hearts, but found the way that this was hammered home became tedious after a while, especially when more random Four Horsemen characters arrived for no apparent reason.
And by that point there had been some extremely strong references – read: lifts – from Into the Woods.
I initially enjoyed the Darkwood setting – in the first half of the story it felt as though there was something there. But the characters spend so much time walking running and bumbling through the woods, backtracking and retracing steps that I began to find it a bit bizarre that these woods were so ‘scary’ when people are just wandering around in them all day long.
When we met the seven ‘dwarves’ it seemed as though they would become key players in the story, especially with their giant spider cook and large ladybird housekeeper?! Instead we have very little to do with them for the rest of the book, and they all appear to be made from the same mould.
I liked the inclusion of a wide range of creatures – kobolds and trolls and pixies – but yet again they’re there in the background but not really present. And there are other creatures – makabers and waldichts – that, as far as I can tell, are just German translations of English words. I was excited to find new and weird Germanic folklore creatures, but instead I think they’re just made up?
And once the main bad guy had been defeated in a melodramatic manner, then everything got a bit ‘you are our Queen now, we will do anything you say!’ – which is just … selective feminism. It’s feminism for Sophie, but not for anyone else. She might be kind-hearted and considerate now, and slowly become corrupted by power later on. Who can say? It’s a bit of a lazy ‘happily ever after’.
I was also hoping for more about the Queen. I’ve read some good retellings where the stepmother is rehabilitated in some way. In this, she seems to stay evil. I like the twist on ‘mirror mirror on the wall’ (‘who will bring about my fall’), but aside from that, Adelaide was just presented as irredeemably evil, although with some good reasons for what she had become. Where is the sisterhood in that? With such a backstory, she would have been a prime protagonist.
Basically, it’s a light fairytale retelling. It has some grit, some substance, plenty of action, is pretty accessible and a lot felt original. But it is probably more middle grade in its telling than YA, and in many ways feels like a story that skims that surface, rather than reaching anything meaningful or deep, and was very blatant in its message. I think I just expected more – in my opinion, a retelling like this just can’t be all about the protagonist to truly class it as feminist. Otherwise it’s just one-upmanship in through a different means.
2.5 stars rounded up to 3.
I received an eARC of the this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.