Before Midnight by Cameron Dokey
Cameron Dokey‘s contributions to the Once Upon a Time series are undoubtedly the finest, but her retelling of Cinderella is initially a little hit and miss. The series as a whole involves writers taking a recognizable fairytale and tweaking it a little into something that is still familiar but which provides a different point of view. This can involve changing the setting or the time period, removing all the magical elements that make up the original tale, or simply fleshing out the characterization.
Dokey takes all three approaches in her take on Cinderella, setting it in an unspecified time and place (though everyone has French names) and expanding more on our heroine’s relationship with her father and step-family. Born to Etienne de Brabant and Constanze d’Este, Cinderella is here named Cendrillon, and her birth is the reason for her mother’s death. Shunned by her father, Cendrillon is raised by her elderly nursemaid alongside a foundling that her father brings home a few days after her birth: a dark-haired youth named Raoul who takes up a job as a gardener.
Cendrillon and Raoul are as close as siblings growing up, though both harbor wishes that they’ll one day have a proper family: that Cendrillon will earn the love and acceptance of her father, and that Raoul will find out who his parents are and where he came from. Neither wish seems likely to come true, and the plot thickens when Cendrillon is introduced to a new step-family right around the same time that political intrigues in the kingdom grow more tense. Believed to be a simple serving girl by Chantel de Saint-Andre and her daughters Anastasia and Amelie, Cendrillon is contented enough to be treated as one, until circumstances become impossible for her to hide her identity any longer…
Books in the Once Upon a Time series are not particularly good books by anyone’s standards, but then they’re not pretending to be. They provide quick, light entertainment, and a new twist on your favorite old fairytales. Like candy floss at the fair, they’re cheap and colorful, but don’t have a particularly long lifespan. It goes without saying that these books do not contain mastery over plot, character and language.
For instance, chapter one of Before Midnight informs us that a mysterious wind extinguishes all the fires in the household, only for the nursemaid to take the newborn Cendrillon down to the still-burning kitchen fireplace to warm her a few pages later. The word “wish” is used excessively, as either a noun or a verb (I kept count; at one stage it’s repeated twelve times in nine paragraphs), and Dokey seems to have something important to say about the subject, though I have no idea what save that wishing is Very Serious Business.
At times the circumstances and language borders on Gothic melodrama: everyone talks portentously, lightning strikes and destroys the tree that grows over Constanz’s grave, pumpkins are used as an analogy for mourning, Cendrillon’s eyes are described as being “green as asparagus” and there’s love at first sight for almost everyone involved.
Yet we get onto firmer ground with the introduction of Cendrillon’s step-family. Dokey’s treatment of Chantel, Anastasia and Amelie is intriguing considering that none of them are presented as the villains. Chantel has been forced into a political marriage with Cendrillon’s father, and bears no grudges toward her stepdaughter (in fact, for a long time she doesn’t even realize that she has a stepdaughter), and the youngest, Amelie, soon comes to love the estate. Anastasia is initially the shrewish sister, but even she is revealed to have hidden depths when a secret love affair comes to light. Rather, it is Cendrillon’s father who is presented as the unfeeling adult, along with another biological parent who remains off-screen for the entire book. Portraying Cendrillon’s stepfamily as a sympathetic unit that eventually forms a strong bond with the heroine is probably the greatest contribution Dokey makes to the story, and it’s certainly more poignant and real than her eventual romance.
As with all the books in the series, Before Midnight is a quick read that provides a new perspective on an old fairytale, and in a trait that is unique to Dokey, she keeps you guessing as to whom the main character is eventually going to fall in love with.
One pet peeve of mine that pertains to the series as a whole is that the once-beautiful cover art done by K.Y. Craft, portraying the bodice of the protagonist and several details from the fairytales, has since been replaced with generic beauties in big frocks. Lame. The girl on the cover of Before Midnight doesn’t even resemble the character as she’s described in the books, and though one is not supposed to judge a book by their cover, the evocative art of the original bindings was certainly more appealing than the reprints.
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