Warning: this review contains spoilers
Cinderella Is Dead is a 2020 fantasy novel by Black author Kalynn Bayron loosely based on the eponymous fairy tale. The story follows sixteen-year-old Sophia who lives in a kingdom of Lille, where the civil rights and social expectations of its women are based on the story of Cinderella.
Each year, the girls who have come of age are required by law to attend a royal ball wherein their only goal is to acquire a husband. Any straying from this procedure leads to imprisonment or worse. Though she is discouraged from any treasonous thought, Sophia can’t help but question the fabric of her society and Cinderella’s actual story. All of this is coupled with the fact that Sophia is completely in love with her best friend, Erin. Against her wishes, Sophia is sent to the ball like all the other girls her age. There, she meets Constance, the last known descendant of Cinderella’s family. Constance shares her sentiment that there is more to the story than what has been told, and the two escape together to hunt down the truth. This endeavour, however, may reveal more than they could have possibly imagined and could even cost them their lives.
For the larger part of the novel, I greatly enjoyed it. In most of the YA fairy tale retellings that I have seen, the characters from the original tale are always incorporated into the story as the protagonists. Their story has never seemed to exist within their own narrative. This is probably the first time I have seen a YA fairy tale adaptation where the fable was known by all the characters. It was an interesting concept to see done, to say the least.
Additionally, the novel takes a staunchly feminist lens in its narration. The world Sophia lives in is one that casts men in a much higher social regard than women, almost to a satirical extent. In the story, it is made clear that the reason there are so many bad men is because of the system that the kingdom has lived with for the past two centuries. Sophia wholeheartedly understands that it's not just women who are abused under this system, but several male citizens as well, including queer men and young boys. It was quite satisfying to read a feminist story that does not completely rely on misandry to make a point. Instead, it takes a three-dimensional view and acknowledges that there are several groups in a society that can be oppressed by a prejudiced hierarchy.
That said, there were still parts that irked me in this book. Primarily, I found the story’s narration to be rather simple. Events happened too quickly across the page without much of a second to linger on what was happening. This almost made it seem like the characters were getting out of their situations way too easily. I would have preferred it if there could have been more descriptions to allow the individual moments in the plot to really sink in. In the same vein, the story was more telling rather than showing. In Sophia’s narration, she described things as matter-of-factly as possible, which made it difficult to garner any sort of emotional response to the plot. This lack of feeling behind the description paired with the curtness in narration did not coincide well with the novel’s lack of worldbuilding. The kingdom of Lille is very clearly based on France in location names and portrayal of the monarchy. And though there is mention of month names and one or two cultural events, little is actually known about the world the protagonists inhabit. As someone who reads fantasy novels especially for the author’s worldbuilding, I would have liked it more if there were more cultural details about the fictional civilization besides their worship of the Cinderella tale and misogynistic values.
Additionally, I would have hoped that in a story that focuses on female liberation from patriarchal oppression, the narrative would not lean into the overused trope of demonizing women’s fashion. In the scenes leading up to Sophia’s arrival to the ball, she describes the process of dressing up in a gown and make up. For the better part of the scene, it was described like a torture session. Within the text, Sophia’s repression is meant to be represented by her needing to wear traditionally feminine vestments. This is not completely bad, it is a legitimate reason to hate the patriarchy for forcing women to continuously maintain perfect femininity. However, it does not translate well when the focus is put solely on the clothes themselves. It’s honestly a shame to see the same sexist cliches in a book that is trying to be a feminist retelling. Especially when it is of a fairy tale whose protagonist is only saved through marrying her husband. This is particularly so when nothing is ultimately remarked about them, they mainly just serve the purpose of filling the page.
An aspect of the story that up until this point, I had never seen in a YA novel was a love triangle where all the members were the same sex. The argument could be made that it’s not a “traditional” love triangle as the two members vying for the third’s heart never actually meet each other. However, I believe that it still counts and that the basis of a love triangle should not need to include two members fighting each other. That said, I was a little disheartened to see that there was no satisfying ending for Sophia’s first girlfriend, Erin. The last that was seen of her was her emotional goodbye to Sophia when the latter visits the house of the former’s abusive husband. After that, the only indication of a happy ending for her is the off chance that she was able to escape her situation, though nothing was confirmed. The novel, I find, was wrapped up a little too quickly and I wish it could have been a little longer so as to be fleshed out a bit more.
In conclusion, while this novel was a bit of a quick read, there were still parts that stayed with me. This is a take on fairy tale adaptations like none I have seen before, and I hope that more YA retellings can draw inspiration from this novel’s spin on the genre. Kalynn Bayron is truly a worker of stories I never would have thought I’d need to read until I heard of them. I recommend this novel if you enjoy reading stories with Black female protagonists, queer storylines, herbal magic, Cinderella stories where she didn’t truly live happily-ever-after, old women who live alone in the woods, and a bit of high treason.