Series: Five Hundred Kingdoms #1
Published by LUNA on July 1st 2010
Source: my personal collection
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Also by this author: The Serpent's Shadow, The Gates of Sleep, Phoenix and Ashes, Home from the Sea, Steadfast, Elemental Magic:, Blood Red, House of Four Winds, The Lark and the Wren, Owlflight, From a High Tower, Owlsight, Owlknight, Closer to Home, Hunter, Closer to the Heart, Take a Thief, A Study in Sable, Closer to the Chest, Beyond
In the land of Five Hundred Kingdoms, if you can't carry out your legendary role, life is no fairy tale...
Elena Klovis was supposed to be her kingdom's Cinderella - until an accident of fate left her with a completely inappropriate prince! Determined not to remain with her stepfamily, Elena set out to get a new job - and ended up becoming the Fairy Godmother for the land.
But "Breaking with Tradition", was no easy matter. True, she didn't have to sleep in the chimney, but she had to deal with arrogant, stuffed-shirt princes who kept trying to rise above their place in the tale. In fact, one of them was so ornery that Elena could do nothing but change him into a donkey.
Still, her practical nature couldn't let him roam the country, so she brought the donkey - er, the prince! - home to her cottage to teach him some lessons. All the while keeping in mind that breaking with tradition can land everyone into a kettle of fish - sometimes literally!
And so begins a whole new tale....
In the Five Hundred Kingdoms, life is like a fairy tale – in some cases, literally. The Tradition, a powerful, magical, but impersonal force, shapes the lives of some lucky or unlucky individuals to follow well-known tales. But sometimes the circumstances don’t quite work out. And not everyone wants to become a tale. . .
Take Elena Klovis, or as she is better known in her town, Ella Cinders. Her story is eerily familiar: father remarried and subsequently died, stepmother and stepsisters are cruel and abusive and have turned Elena into an unpaid servant. But her sixteenth birthday passes without incident, then her eighteenth, and her twentieth… no ball, no prince, no happy-ever-after. So when the money runs out and Madame Klovis and her daughters flee before their creditors descend – leaving Elena behind – Elena does the only practical thing she can think of, and tries to hire out as a servant at the annual mop fair.
But there is another option, one she is completely unaware of. Instead of being sent to the ball by her Fairy Godmother, Elena is apprenticed to become a Godmother – one of the powerful magic-users, like Wizards, Sorcerers, and Sorceresses, who try to steer the Tradition and keep the darker tales from coming true. Because for every Cinderella, there’s a Ladderlocks, whose would-be suitors die in droves attempting to breach her tower. For every successful Hansel and Gretel, there are a pair of Babes in the Wood. The Tradition draws on many folktales, and not all of them have happy endings – and even when they do, the cost is often much too high.
I really like this book, for all it is a little overlong and bloated, particularly in the middle. The concept of the Tradition isn’t one I’ve come across anywhere else, and the way Lackey makes use of fairy tales for both the story and the very fabric of the world is a lot of fun. I love Elena’s passion for setting the world right, and her sadness and frustration when even her best isn’t perfect. I love her cottage (it’s bigger on the inside!) and the Brownies who serve and sometimes advise her – they’re individual characters, and have their own roles to play. I like Elena, too; she’s practical and creative, quick-thinking and strong-willed, and she doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
Lackey spends a lot of time on Elena’s training and early work as a Godmother. That section could have been tightened up, but despite the length I find it interesting. Frankly, mingling the everyday and the fantastical is one of Lackey’s strengths as a writer, as is worldbuilding – in particular, creating magical systems that make sense and have a cost. Both of those are on display in this section, and the details of how and why the Godmothers do their work always manage to keep my attention.
In the final half or third of the book, Elena takes on the redemption of a prince she has turned into an ass. Or rather, he already was an ass – she just makes it obvious (and a punishment), by turning him into a donkey. Again, Lackey spends a long time on Alexander’s. . . re-education. He is arrogant, chauvinistic, and distinctly lacking in chivalry or courtesy toward anyone lower in rank than himself. Frankly, the more you get to know him, the less redeemable he appears, and when it does start to occur, you may think it’s too much, too quickly to be believable. He doesn’t turn around on his own, though – something happens that jump-starts his conversion, so pay attention, because it’s easy to miss the significant of the moment. (C’mon, that wasn’t a spoiler – it’s obvious he will become one of the good guys eventually. This is a fairytale, even when it isn’t a recognizable one. That’s what happens in fairytales.)
The final climax and denouement, a battle against an invading evil sorcerer, also go by very quickly — almost too quickly, given the loving detail expended on the rest of the book. The final section could easily have taken up half a book, given more development and page time. But that’s a minor quibble; the real fun of this book is in the characters and the worldbuilding, not the pacing.
If you enjoy fairytale retellings that don’t stay very close to the original story, you should give The Fairy Godmother a try. And if you like it, there’s a whole series of these books, all taking place somewhere in the Five Hundred Kingdoms, but focused on different main characters in each book. Every book contains a hint of romance, but it’s never the main focus of the story; it’s part of the plot rather than being the plot – and often a rather small part of the plot, at that. (There are a few mildly sensual scenes in The Fairy Godmother, so I don’t recommend this for middle-grade readers.) Not all the books live up to this one, but some are pretty good – check out One Good Knight (St. George and the Dragon meets ancient Greece, and there are some surprising subversions of various fairytale and mythic tropes) and The Sleeping Beauty (which contrives to twine the stories of Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and the Germanic Siegfried mythos – plus a lot of humor and one heartbreaking scene.) And have fun!
Challenges: Fairytales: “Cinderella”, and at least half a dozen others; Witches and Witchcraft
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- Fairytale Challenge 2015
- Witches & Witchcraft Reading Challenge 2015