Sunday, August 7, 2016

Fumbling Through Fantasy: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (1997)

When Ella of Frell was born, a well-intentioned but misguided fairy named Lucinda gave her a terrible gift: that of unerring obedience to any command she is given. For Ella, of course, this "gift" is a curse, forcing her to take commands from everyone she encounters and making it impossible for her to exercise her own will in any relationship. When her new stepmother and clueless father send her to finishing school, however, Ella runs away, determined to find a way to free herself of the curse, so that maybe, someday, she and Prince Charmont might fall in love.

Ella's story is a fractured version of Cinderella and many aspects of the old tale make their way into this one, including glass slippers, evil stepsisters, a fairy godmother, a coach made from a pumpkin, and a strict midnight curfew, but they are used differently, and sometimes in surprising and creative ways. I like the way the author re-works these well-known elements into a new story, and I also enjoyed the clever ways Ella tries to rebel against the confinements of her curse.

Still, there were things about the story that didn't work for me. I didn't understand the need for the author to create multiple languages when they didn't figure that heavily into the plot, and they were virtually impossible to even pretend to read. I was also confused by Ella's magical book that allows her to see the writings of others. Obviously, it works as a plot device because we need a way to be able to see other points of view besides Ella's at certain points, but I had trouble figuring out why Ella as a character needed to have it, or would want to have it. I also had a strong sense throughout the book that I was being beaten over the head with a feminist message, and that is unforgivably irritating to me.

I am surprised this was a Newbery Honor book, because to me, the writing seems adequate but not necessarily distinctive. (Then again, I looked on Novelist to see what else was published that year, and the pickings were pretty slim, so perhaps it was among the best of the year after all.) I definitely understand why girls who love fractured fairy tales are so thrilled with this book, but as someone who is very reluctant to read fantasy in the first place, this book did not help change my mind too much.

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