Geekerella: Making a Tired Old Trope Great Again

Modern adaptations. Loose dystopian science fiction retellings. Dark fantasy treatments. Cinderella’s story is arguably the most adapted and retold fairy tale out of all the classic children’s tales. In the YA genre alone, there are countless novels (not to mention the never-ending film adaptations) that feature Cinderella staples like the cruel step-family intent on making the heroine miserable, a prince charming waiting to be wooed, a fairy godmother itching to help, and a fallen glass slipper (or some other outlandish footwear) leading the prince back to Cinderella. The formula is so familiar, the story done so many times in so many ways, that it’s almost impossible for a person to have not seen at least one Cinderella-esque story in their entire life.

There’s a reason why Cinderella’s story is so enduring though. A poor exploited heroine struggling for her own chance of happiness despite the odds against her can easily arouse sympathy to even the least romantic humbug in the room. A sprinkling of magic, a glimmer of that “true love” shtick  and a backdrop of a hokey moral (being good and kind always has its rewards), and you’ve got yourself the archetypal escapist fairy tales with a lasting appeal.

However, not all Cinderella stories are created equal. Some faithful adaptations give little to no new material, relying solely on the public’s nostalgic love for the fairy tale, and produce a bland tale. Other loose re-tellings either butcher whatever elements made Cinderella such a timeless classic in favor of adding new flavors and concepts and ruin the story completely. Not to mention the mere fact that Cinderella has been done so many times that people just… get tired of it. Even the most beloved of tales can get unoriginal and uninspired when distilled enough times. And no matter how fancy the decor, how eccentric the appearance, it’s still the same old Cinderella story.

Such was my dilemma with Ashley Poston’s Geekerella. The contemporary young adult novel is about as obvious of a Cinderella re-telling as one can get, the title itself almost unapologetically so. Not even reading the blurb at the back of the book, I knew what to expect. I mean, what else could there be in something so blatant? However, despite all that, I was still intrigued. I had read no reviews of it and wasn’t even familiar with the publishing company that distributed it. Call it my special spidey-book sense tingling but I knew – just knew – that there was something about that book that’s worth checking out. A part of me convinced that I wouldn’t regret it if I give it a try. My instincts were firing off every alarm to get me to splurge just a little bit on this one, unassuming little novel so I had no choice but to comply.

Boy am I glad my instincts are so spot on.

[spoilers ahead!]

Summary:

Anything can happen once upon a con…

When geek girl Elle Wittimer sees a cosplay contest sponsored by the producers of Starfield, she has to enter. First prize is an invitation to the ExcelsiCon Cosplay Ball and a meet-and-greet with the actor slated to play Federation Prince Carmindor in the reboot. Elle’s been scraping together tips from her gig at the Magic Pumpkin food truck behind her stepmother’s back, and winning this contest could be her ticket out once and for all—not to mention a fangirl’s dream come true.

Teen actor Darien Freeman is less than thrilled about this year’s ExcelsiCon. He used to live for conventions, but now they’re nothing but jaw-aching photo sessions and awkward meet-and-greets. Playing Federation Prince Carmindor is all he’s ever wanted, but the diehard Starfield fandom has already dismissed him as just another heartthrob. As ExcelsiCon draws near, closet nerd Darien feels more and more like a fake—until he meets a girl who shows him otherwise.

Once Upon a Cinderella Twist

Geekerella followed the fairy tale formula to a tee. Danielle “Elle” Witticker’s parents died, leaving her with a pretty but catty step-mother and step-sisters. The family’s finances declined upon the death of the breadwinner. Elle is bullied into doing all sorts of menial labor for her step-family, all of whom are ungrateful, even vindictive, to her yet she perseveres because she has no other choice. Our heroine is constantly made to feel like she is an outcast, a stranger, a freak, in her own house no less.

Though this book doesn’t feature magic, Elle still has a fairy godmother of sorts, albeit someone her age, completely normal, but colorful enough to pass as a fairy no less. There’s a food truck called The Magic Pumpkin (dude…) prominent all throughout the book. And a beautiful dress with matching glass slippers (I mean, come on). The climax of the book happens in a masquerade ball in which Elle and her Prince Charming, Darien, meet (though, granted, not for the first time) and dance. Then the midnight curfew. Losing a glass slipper. Even a The Great Big Kiss.

The Cinderella elements are so blatant that you already know where the story is going and how the author is going to incorporate this element or that element later on. But, and this is where it surprised me, the predictability of the story was more endearing than annoying. By knowing the significance of a certain plot point, the outcome was inevitable and I felt more a sense of foreboding than anything. I knew what was coming but at the same time I didn’t know how it’ll pan out since this book knows how to twist a Cinderella cliche enough to make it recognizable yet not draw too much attention to it to still make it fun.

The best example that I can think of is the Magic Pumpkin food truck. The very fact that it has a pumpkin on its name (and it’s a vehicle to begin with), of course you’re going to assume – correctly – that it’ll be the main transportation of Elle to the ball, er, con. It’s almost impossible to not expect it. But early on Elle and her friend Sage tell us that they can’t use the food truck because they’re not allowed to so they opt to buy nonrefundable bus tickets. Introducing this already gives us an idea that something – most likely bad – will happen to Elle and her tickets, forcing her to drive the pumpkin instead.

Retrofitting a Classic

Accordingly, Geekerella has its own twist on the classic tale. Although a modern retelling with a social outcast heroine is far from original – I’d hazard that almost all modern Cinderellas feature a socially unpopular heroine – this book’s focus on fandom and geek culture gives it at least some novelty. Setting the big ball in a multi-fandom convention, making the “Prince” a teenage heartthrob playing the role of a sci-fi prince, and putting cosplay into the spotlight so a glass slipper is far from being the most outrageous article of clothing really gave the book authenticity – not just as a Cinderella tale but also as a passionate love letter for nerds everywhere.

As well as this book heeded the Cinderella formula, it also subverted certain points in an interesting and fresh manner. The focus on Prince Charming (Darien Freeman) not just as a side character with a lot of screen time but as a main character in his own right was much appreciated. Darien (and basically every character in the book with a few exceptions for minor characters) had depth and reading chapters in his point of view was enjoyable. I also really appreciated how Elle and Darien fell in love with each other before they officially met at the ball, though that’s because I’m a huge critic and disbeliever of love at first sight.

Speaking of, the secret pen-pals aspect worked really well. You could clearly see how the two main characters bonded and, eventually, fell in love. Considering the problematic environments of the two – Elle in a toxic family with nowhere to go, Darien in the precarious position of replacing a much beloved sci-fi luminary with a die-hard fandom – it’s easy to see why they’d find solace in just venting to a complete stranger.

Another interesting take was the refitted “Fairy Godmother” character in the form of Sage. What’s interesting about her is that she’s not a wise, older lady who happens to befriend Elle at some point but Elle’s teenage co-worker who’s also a lonely outcast. I particularly liked this change because 1.) it gave our heroine an actual friend, 2.) friendship stories don’t get enough attention nowadays, and 3.) it actually makes sense, especially since most of the story involves cosplaying and fandom and a well-meaning grandma or aunt just isn’t the right person to fangirl with when you’re eighteen. I’m not saying adults don’t fangirl/fanboy or understand geek culture, of course. It’s just that when you’re a teen, it’s nice to bond with someone of the same age over something as dorky as an old sci-fi show.

Look to the Stars. Aim. Ignite.

It’s true that the book piggyback rides on a tried and true formula but even Shakespeare drew inspiration from old giants of literature. Yes, it’s cliched. Yes, it’s been done before. But does that make the book any less unique? Not really. What makes a story unique isn’t just the general premise but the sum of its parts. Geekerella had a familiar foundation, composed of solid elements that made it strong. Lovable and sympathetic characters gave the story the heart to propel it forward. The different point view gave the overused trope depth and insight. And even though you know how it’s going to end, the journey you take along with the main characters is too enjoyable and exciting to dampen the experience.

From the opening chapters alone I could tell that Geekerella was going to be an enjoyable read. It’s ripe with cliches and is often predictable as hell but there’s just something so endearing about it that you can’t fault it for them. Five Magic Pumpkin food trucks out of five for this adorkable book.

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