Book Review: Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron
“Be very careful what you ask for. Because you just might get it.”
―Kalynn Bayron, Cinderella Is Dead
Ever since I was little, I loved Disney princesses and fairy tales, I mean, what little girl didn't? I wasn't really a fan of Cinderella though (the 1950's version I mean). My favorite princess was always Ariel from The Little Mermaid, followed very closely by Jasmine from Aladdin. The rest were just okay. Recently, I found out that Rodger and Hammerstein's Cinderella (which aired in 1997) was also a Disney creation, which (obviously) boosted her to the #1 spot because I've always loved that version. As a black kid, it was nice to see a princess that resembled me on the screen.
Sooo, when I heard about Kalynn Bayron's book Cinderella is Dead, I just knew that I had to read it because I'm just obsessed with the story of Cinderella and how it's changed over time. But more on my obsessions later. Right now, I want to discuss this beautiful piece of work known as Cinderella is Dead.
What's the novel about?
Cinderella has been dead for 200 years, but her story lives on in the kingdom of Mersailles.
The annual ball, held in Cinderella's honor, is a mandatory event for all eligible women between the ages of sixteen and eighteen. It's every girl's dream to attend, except for Sophia.
She would rather marry Erin, her best friend. In an attempt to flee from the castle on the night of the ball, Sophia finds herself in Cinderella's mausoleum with Constance―the last known descendent of Cinderella and her stepsisters.
When Sophia learns the truth about King Manford, the ruler of Mersailles, it's up to her and her friends to spread the true story of Cinderella and change their kingdom for the better.
What themes are present in the book?
I would say the two main themes of the book are "down with the patriarchy" and women empowerment. Since the two coincide with each other, I don't think it's necessary to separate their explanations. That said, let's break down these two themes.
This may or may not be an outdated way to say it, but the book is all about how the world belongs to men and how women have no power.
The kingdom is run by King Manford who, surprise surprise, has the word "man" in his name. King Manford's laws are supposedly about creating fairy tale endings for the men and women of his kingdom, but really it's all a guise to keep the women under control. The first obvious sign of this comes in the form of the Lille Decrees where rule number four states that:
All members of households in Mersailles are required to designate one male, of legal age, to be head of household, and his name will be registered with the palace. All activities undertaken by any member of the household must be sanctioned by head of household.
This rule is immediately followed by number five, which states: "For their protection, women and children must be in their permanent place of residence by the stroke of eight each night." And this is just in chapter two of the book. From the very beginning of the novel, we know that Sophia's world is not ideal―even without having the full scope of the laws presented in this universe. It's made worse when you discover that your allies are actually your enemies, but more on that later.
From there we find out that all women are forced to attend the ball from the ages of sixteen to eighteen. If the women do not find a match by their third ball, they are "forfeit" (later we find out that this means that they die in order to keep King Manford alive). Men, however, are allowed to attend the ball whenever they want, starting as early as sixteen.
When attending this ball, women must look as though the fairy godmother of Cinderella's story has visited them. This includes everything from hair and makeup to their dress and shoes to their mannerisms. It doesn't matter if obtaining these things leaves families poor and hungry, as long as their daughters don't end up dead. Of course, since the women aren't allowed to complain about who they end up with, even if their betrothed harms them, some of them think that it's better to be dead then suffer at the hands of the kingdom. This is extremely alarming when you look at characters like Morris and Edourd. Clearly, this universe is a far cry from the cute and colorful world of Disney's Cinderella where fairy godmothers make everything better y singing "Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo" (ironically, these words are used at least once in the book).
I think that it's also important to note that there is a lot of blame put on women by other women in the book. The most obvious case of this is the way that Erin treats Sophia when she comes back home from being on the run. And the way Sophia blames herself for the death of a shopkeeper that she tried to help.
I could go into detail about the many other examples in which women are oppressed in this world (husband's taking all the money that wives make, husbands beating their wives, men feeling entitled to any woman they set their sights on at the ball, men talking down to the women, lack of consent between partners, etc.), but the list is so exhaustive, that it would take forever to go through. So, we'll leave this part of the review as is.
In terms of empowerment, we have Sophia who doesn't conform to the stereotypical gender standards and is outspoken about what's wrong with their society. Throughout the book, Sophia seeks understanding about how their kingdom ended up in this predicament. There's also Constance who actively devises plans to fix the kingdom, even when she knows that it could cost her life. Constance creates an entire underground resistance just to try to spread the truth of her family's history and tear down the empire that King Manford built. There's also some empowerment in the shopkeeper that I mentioned earlier who essentially told the King to piss off before she died. By the end of the book, Sophia is ready to start a new regime, this time with the women in charge (or so it seems).
What did you like?
There was a lot to like about this book, but I think the three things that made this story stand out were the dialogue, the pacing, and the sensory detail.
The dialogue in the book is surprisingly simple and pithy. While there are many books where this would be a flaw, I think that it's a strength in Cinderella is Dead. Let me explain. Cinderella is Dead is about the patriarchy and the simple whims of men. The dialogue seems like it's meant to embody that. In other words, men are simple-minded, and the language used reflects that (sorry, not sorry). The dialogue also makes it easy to discern what kind of person each of the characters are. Sophia's dialogue portrays her as a smart alec, while Constance's gives us a glimpse into her combative nature and Liv's let's us know that she's timid and shy. It's also shows us that Luke is thoughtful and that Morris is a piece of crap.
"The air whistles in and out between his broken teeth as he lies to [her] face....He runs the tips of his fingers over the exposed skin of [her] shoulders....He smells like wine and sweat, and all [she] want[s] to do is get away from him."
I don't have much to say about the pacing except that it's really good. None of the areas lagged, I wasn't bogged down with too many details nor did I lack the context needed. Bayron did an excellent job in making sure that the story was entertaining while maintaining a steady flow.
The sensory detail was best when it came to describing Cinderella, Morris, and King Manford. One of my favorite descriptions happens during the ball when Sophia talks about how "The air whistles in and out between his broken teeth as he lies to [her] face....He runs the tips of his fingers over the exposed skin of [her] shoulders....He smells like wine and sweat, and all [she] want[s] to do is get away from him."
There are plenty of other things to like about this book, but these are the three that caught my attention.
What, if anything, did you dislike or wish the author would've done differently?
There are only a few things that I wish the author would have done differently in this book. Three of them are character-related, and one is just the overall vibe of the book.
Character Related Items
First, can I just say that I 100 percent loved the character Luke Langley. Seriously, he was such a genuine person and I wish that Bayron would have used him more efficiently. I'm not sure why she cut his presence in the novel short, or why she didn't develop the relationship between him and Sophia more, but I think it was a missed opportunity. I would've liked to see how the story played out if Luke were an additional companion.
The second thing that I wish that she'd done differently was Cinderella's role in the story. For a book titled Cinderella is Dead, I expected Cinderella to make a larger physical presence. Yes, the entire story revolves around her fairy tale, and yes, the scene in the mausoleum where they bring her back to life to discover the truth does feature her as a physical presence, but I felt disappointed that there wasn't more. I guess I was expecting Cinderella's spirit to help guide Sophia on this journey as opposed to the visions that she had. I think it would have added an interesting dynamic to the overall plot.
I love a good love triangle as much as anyone, but I'm not sure that I understood the purpose of the one between Sophia, Constance, and Erin. It seemed unnecessary to me, especially because the story would have been just as well-written, if not better, if Sophia's thoughts had only been preoccupied with one or the other. When reading, it's obvious that Sophia cares about Erin, that she loves her even, but there isn't enough interaction between the two of them to make me think that they should be together. After all, Sophia spends most of the book with Constance. So, to me, it would have made more sense to have Constance be the object of Sophia's love and have Erin be the best friend that helped Sophia discover that she liked girls.
The last thing that I would have changed about the story was how in your face the message of "down with the patriarchy" was. This one is kind of difficult to list as a con because I can see both sides of the argument. As a writer, it's difficult not to let your own world views and biases sink into your work.
Toeing the line between too much messaging and not enough can be difficult; and, when it comes to the world of Cinderella is Dead, I understand that the line is easy to blur. I also think that while it's beneficial to show things like abuse and lack of consent in novels, this novel went in the direction of too much messaging (though there are probably other reviews that discuss how it didn't go far enough). This argument could probably be made for some of the other books that I reviewed as well, but it just seemed more of a prominent issue in this one. Anyways, the one thing that I do know is this: The best-told stories are the ones where the author's message is subtle.
So, if Cinderella wasn't your favorite Disney movie, how did you become obsessed with her story and this book?
Although Cinderella wasn't always my number one favorite Disney movie, I was obsessed with this book because her fairy tale was one of my favorites; I just didn't care for the "Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo" 1950 cartoon version.
Like I said earlier, the Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Impossible" 1997 musical version is my favorite (and, admittedly, Ever After and A Cinderella Story starring Drew Barrymore and Hillary Duff respectively are my #2 and #3 fave reiterations). In undergrad, I loved modern-day renditions of fairy tales, which is why I sat through the entirety of ABC's Once Upon a Time); but my love for the story really came into play a few years ago when I was in grad school.
I was writing a paper on Disney and its impact on fairy tales for my ethics course and stumbled across Charles Perrault's Cinderella, which seems to be the earliest ones recorded on paper. From then on, I learned a ton about the origins of stories like Snow White, The Little Mermaid, and yes, Cinderella.
When I taught at a community college, I also planned to incorporate Cinderella into the lesson (mostly because I really love the Rodger and Hammerstein's version and wanted to sing "Impossible" in the classroom), but there were more important lessons to cover, so I had to put it on hold.
Anyways, my whole point is that I was obsessed with purchasing this book because it combined two of my favorite things: black female protagonists and fairy tales.
How many stars would you give this book and why?
I love books that are steeped in classic fairy tales, and I think Bayron did an excellent job with this one. However, because of the character relationships and over-the-top messaging, I give this book four stars (which means that even though it wasn't amazing, I really liked it).
Kalynn Bayron will be releasing her new novel, This Poison Heart, on June 29, 2021 (It's only a month away!), so be sure to purchase it. (Plus, the author is offering a free Absyrtus Heart enamel pin to those who pre-order the book. I'm not sure what kind of plant or item that might be, but it sounds cool!)
Also on June 29, 2021, the Cinderella is Dead paperback will be released with a bonus chapter in the point of view of Constance AND a sneak peek at This Poison Heart.
You can purchase the books and learn more about Kalynn Bayron and what she's up to by checking out her stunning website!
Want to read more reviews by me? Check out this review of Tweet Cute or this one about Concrete Rose.
Need help with writing? Check out some of my Tips and Tricks, beginning with "5 Ways to Create a Character."
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