This is one of three fairy tale retellings by Sophie Masson that are only tangentially based on a traditional tale, the others being The Crystal Heart (Rapunzel) and Scarlet in the Snow (Beauty and the Beast). Moonlight and Ashes (2012) tackles Cinderella, and is quite possibly the best of the three. Incorporating elements of the story that are usually forgotten in retellings (such as the magical hazel tree) and Masson’s own imagination, it’s a fun and unpredictable fantasy adventure.
Selena is a sixteen-year-old girl living with her spineless father and wicked stepmother, as well as two stepsisters who take great pleasure in making her life miserable. If you can get through the endless self-pity of the first few chapters (the story is told in first-person narrative) and a relatively straightforward retelling of the Cinderella story (Selena attends a royal ball in chapter ten) then the book really comes into its own, with plenty of adventure and intrigue.
A series of increasingly strange events sees Selena on the run with a court noble and a werewolf girl, traversing the countryside with palace guards in pursuit. Guided by visions of her deceased mother, Selena begins to learn more about her own magical heritage while discovering a plot against the royal family — one that only she can thwart.
Masson does a great job of creating backdrop of this invented world, with a history of moon-sisters (good witches) in a catastrophic war with Mancers (men who use magic for authoritarian ends, though it’s not quite as clear-cut as that by the end of the story) that has upset the balance of the land in a way only Selena can set right.
Throw in a few prophecies, a secret identity, some clever twists and a satisfying ending, and Moonlight and Ashes is a great example of how to do a fairy tale retelling well. It has to be similar enough to its source material that you know what it’s adapting, but also take the story in directions you weren’t expecting.
Some parts of the story feel a little superfluous in hindsight (Olga never actually turns into a werewolf, despite many circumstances in which it would have been very helpful for her to do so) but it’s a quick, fun read told with Masson’s usual lovely prose and creative ideas.