Stepsister: Can the “Ugly” Stepsister Become the Hero?

4.5/5 Stars

Author: Jennifer Donnelly

Publisher/Imprint: Scholastic

Edition: Paperback ARC, 342 Pages

Hardcover Publication Date: May 14, 2019

A Spine that Shines? Quite Well!

*This review is based on an ARC edition received from the publisher. All quotes used in this review come from the uncorrected proof copy. These are my honest opinions. Thank you.*

“Change is a kiss in the dark. A rose in the snow. A wild road on a windy night.”

Chance, Stepsister ARC

Initial Thoughts

Wow. Stepsister is a wonderful retelling about Isabelle, Cinderella’s stepsister. At first, the story starts off quite dark, along the lines of the original Grimm’s fairy tale. And the reader wonders whether this poor stepsister will ever get her happy ending. Can the “ugly” stepsister become the hero of her own tale? Surprisingly, the answer is yes.

There are so many aspects that I enjoyed about this story. There is a French setting, a feisty horse, a fairy queen, magical gifts, and even a mischievous monkey! Despite the story’s dark beginning, there is a nice touch of humor throughout.

I also loved the positive message about beauty not being all about a pretty face. It is encouraging to watch the character growth of Isabelle as she comes to realize that her future could change.

I was impressed with the good balance between flashbacks and the present. The flashbacks are really useful in understanding the main character.

I also appreciated the short chapters. I love it when books have short chapters. It makes you feel as if you’re flying through the pages!

I found it quite interesting that the Fates and Chance are personified as real characters in the story. The three Fates create maps that chart the course of each human life. If Isabelle wants to alter the path the Fates have carved out for her, she must reassemble the broken pieces of her shattered, embittered heart and find the strength to become more than just “pretty.”

“Love is pain. Love is sacrifice. The sooner you learn that, the better.”

Maman, Stepsister ARC


The author fleshes out the characters quite well. Here is a brief overview of some of the main ones.

  • Isabelle is the stepsister the book focuses on. She is protective of Octavia, her sister by blood. Neither of the sisters are considered ladylike by their society’s standards. Isabelle quotes military commanders, like Alexander the Great, in her head during times of trouble. Octavia is really into mathematical calculations and science. Her experiments often cause trouble, but Octavia means well. Donnelly is extremely successful in making the reader care about both Isabelle and her sister, and she manages to reverse how we would normally think of the stepsisters. The two are treated quite badly after word gets around about their former treatment of Ella. The atrocious actions of some of the villagers truly shocked me.
  • Ella is not exactly what she seems, either. She gets her prince, but there’s a secret she’s been keeping locked up inside of her. Not something you would expect.
  • Maman gains sympathy from the reader when she mentally falls apart. She doesn’t get the wealthy marriages for her daughters that she had been aiming for, and it causes her to break down.
  • Felix is Isabelle’s love interest. He is sweet and handsome. He worked for Isabelle’s family a long time ago when they were children, but something happened that tore them apart. Who knew the “evil” stepsister could fall in love? I was totally rooting for them!
  • Chance is a mischievous Marquis who attempts to help Isabelle change her fate. He is locked in a never-ending battle against the three Fates.
  • Fate, aka “the crone”/Tantine, is a magical being who takes the form of an old woman in order to prevent Isabelle from changing her own path, driving her toward her doom.
  • Volkmar is the human “bad guy,” who has invaded France and intends to kill everyone remaining in his path. Isabelle must find the courage within herself to stop him and save her country from destruction.

“Ghosts are not the dead, come back from the grave to torment the living; ghosts are already here. They live inside us, keening in the ashes of our sorrows, mired in the thick, clutching mud of our regrets.”

Stepsister ARC

Final Thoughts

Here is the main reason why I didn’t give the book a full 5 stars. Despite my enjoyment of the short chapter length, there were several scenes that perhaps felt a little too speedy. In certain moments, I wished the narration would have slowed down slightly in order to allow the reader to dwell there longer. One of these scenes is the one in which Isabelle first meets Volkmar, the bad guy. It is very, very short, and I wasn’t quite sure how Isabelle knew who he was? Unless I’m mistaken, he doesn’t explicitly announce his identity to her. She just seems to know who he is. The other scene I wish were longer is the battle at the end of the book.

I should also mention that in some moments, the narration becomes slightly teachy – drawing attention to itself in order to get its message across. Whether you enjoy this type of writing style may somewhat impact your enjoyment of the story. Personally, it didn’t bother me too much, as I understand that fairy tales do sometimes utilize this type of narration.

But overall, Stepsister is well done! I certainly intend to check out some of Donnelly’s other books. If you enjoy fairy tale retellings, you should definitely give Stepsister a try when it comes out on May 14th! Happy reading!

*Content warnings: Violence, self-mutilation (Isabelle cuts off her own toes), derisive comments towards women

Spines that Shine

7 thoughts on “Stepsister: Can the “Ugly” Stepsister Become the Hero?”

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