Kalynn Bayron’s 2020 Cinderella Is Dead is a standalone fantasy.
Cinderella is long dead but her legend lives on in the fairy tale kingdom of Lille. So does her legacy.
Unfortunately for the women who live in Lille.
Once installed as king, Prince Charming was less than charming. Each new king has been worse. In the last two centuries, since Cinderella died, patriarchy has been the normal state of things. Men may not like the way the kings run things, but at least they are better off than women.
In honour of Cinderella, all women are required to attend royal balls, for as long as it takes for them to find a husband or three times, whichever comes first. Women do not get much say in which man claims them. Those who do not find husbands are consigned to lives of brutal drudgery.
In general, this is not a system attractive to young women. It’s worse for Sophia, who would far rather marry her girlfriend Erin. She is given no choice in the matter. Failure to participate is harshly punished. Sophia would suffer and quite possibly her family would as well.
Sophia’s first ball is even more horrific than she could imagine. Erin is sold off to a brute by her parents. Erin and Sophia’s friend Liv is summarily executed, ostensibly for mildly irritating the king by attending the ball while poor. Sophie briefly finds an ally in Luke, a gay man who is likewise not keen on the current system; he too is arrested and dragged off before he can be of tangible help.
Seeing no choices but bad ones, Sophie flees. Now she is a wanted fugitive in a hermit kingdom from which escape is impossible. The only way out is to overthrow the king … but he is protected by forces she does not comprehend.
She and Luke are not anomalies. She does have potential allies, if she can find them.
I know it must seem unbelievable that Lille’s men would cheerfully tolerate being oppressed by an authoritarian simply because he grants them the right to abuse women. Every spec fic novel is allowed its gimmee and this self-sabotaging meanness is apparently Cinderella is Dead’s.
Poor Luke! I think he made into the text simply to underline the foolishness of relying on would-be Prince Charmings to ride to the rescue. The ones who aren’t actual monsters often prove unreliable. Luke doesn’t manage to evade arrest, let alone contribute significantly contribute to the outcome.
Also unlucky: all the would-be revolutionaries who were a bit less lucky than Sophia, whose untold tales were less novels than very short stories with abrupt, unpleasant endings due to their ignorance of vital, need-to-know information about what they were actually dealing with.
There were moments when I questioned the plausibility of the setting before remembering this is a fairy tale, not some sort of rigorous exercise in secondary-world fantasy. That said, a lot of the elements that had me scratching my head at the beginning of the book turned out to have in-universe explanations. There are reasons for Lille’s isolation, reasons for the centuries of meanness and terrible monarchs, reasons above and beyond narrative convenience.
I don’t think I am the intended audience for this but I think the intended audience would enjoy this quite a bit. It’s something of a downer but solidly written. Readers will want to know what comes next from Bayron.