Mechanica by Betsy Cornwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a delightful retelling of Cinderella, complete with magic, the fey, and one of the cutest mechanical animals I have yet run across. (I would pay good money if someone could make me a little glass-bodied, gear-driven horse.) The story is also a feminist updating of the traditional fairy tale, complete with a heroine that ends up, not with the prince, but with her own workshop and an independent life.
The basic setup is loosely the same--Nicolette's mother is a famous inventor who also uses Fey magic in her inventions, and dies when her daughter is only nine years old. Nicolette's father remarries, and the "Steps," his new wife and her daughters Piety and Chastity, come onto the scene. Nicolette's father also dies shortly afterwards, and the Steps promptly make Nicolette their house servant. But upon her sixteenth birthday, Nicolette discovers her mother's hidden workshop, and all the mechanical animals she left behind--including the miniature horse Jules--and she sets a goal for herself: start selling her inventions, find mentors and investors in the city, and set up her own business, just as her mother had.
Some other reviews have called this book boring. I don't see it at all. Nicolette is an inventor, and the minutiae of how she builds things is an integral part of the story. The only thing I think is lacking is a better defined antagonist--the author tries to use the Steps to fill this role, but the two daughters are fluffy and forgettable, and the stepmother, in the end, comes off as pitiable instead of nasty. The business about the Fey, the source of Nicolette's mother's magic, could have been better integrated into the plot, I think. There are elements of colonialism and discrimination that could have heightened the conflict and suspense. The ending also sort of peters out, with hints about a coming war with the Fey. I suppose this means there's going to be a sequel, but it seems like the last few chapters of the story could have done with a bit of tightening up.
I do want to commend the author for not bogging down the story with the romance. This is a thoroughly modern Cinderella, after all. Nicolette turns down her prince and does not regret it, and the central relationship in the book is her friendship with Caroline. (And also, I suppose, Jules and the various mechanical insects.) There are some faults with this book, but in the end it's lovely, and well worth seeking out.
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