One of my most disappointing reads last year was Alexandra Christo’s To Kill A Kingdom, the hyped up “dark” retelling of the Disney classic The Little Mermaid. That YA fantasy was such a let down that I felt personally betrayed. Not because Ariel was my favorite princess back in the day, mind you, but because the book was genuinely enjoyable for the first few chapters. To Kill was a gorgeous blend of fantasy and gore – the main character, Lira, literally ripped out a prince’s heart in the first chapter! It was intriguing. It was exciting. And, best of all, it was refreshing. Anti-heroes might be a dime a dozen these days but Lira was outright morally bad that I was convinced that her development was going to be very nuanced.
Thus, my massive disappointment was set up.
Right around chapter 10 when I was reminded in an excruciatingly cringey, convoluted, ridiculous scene that this book was indeed a Little Mermaid retelling – at that point, the book had done a good job in distracting you from its marketing ploy – I knew in my heart how wrong I was. After I finished reading To Kill a Kingdom, I considered writing a review on it but couldn’t really bring myself to put in the effort because I had no special enough feelings for it. I didn’t like it, didn’t really hate it – I just didn’t care about it. And for a whole year I put it out of my mind until one afternoon when I remembered the prince that Lira killed at chapter 1.
You see, that prince turned out to be a really good friend of the other main character/Lira’s love interest, Prince Elian. And you might think that that the simple fact that Lira killed Elian’s friend completely for shits and giggles would throw a wrench in their budding romance… well, you’d be wrong. I was extremely disturbed at how Elian still got together with his friend’s coldblooded murderer. Personally, I don’t think I’d ever even consider being friends with anyone who’d hurt a good friend of mine, regardless of how physically attractive they are. How anyone can not only forgive but also conveniently forget the killer of a good friend is just… it boggles the mind.
Having remembered that messed up factoid, I was dragged back into the story and the more I thought about it, the clearer it became to me how absolutely hopeless the book was after it announced to readers that it was (and could only ever be) a retelling. What bothered me about this book was that I actually do love retellings. In fact, one of my favorite series of all time, The Lunar Chronicles, is a retelling of several fairy tales. And even in cases where I didn’t know for sure that they were retellings, I still enjoyed them. Ella Enchanted, for instance. If you weren’t told in advance that it was a Cinderella reimagining, you wouldn’t know it until halfway through the book.
So where did To Kill a Kingdom go wrong? I wanted to answer that question rather than just roasting the book for the entirety of this post. But in order to understand how To Kill failed as a retelling, I’m going to compare it with a retelling that didn’t, Ella Enchanted. The two are vastly different books (one is YA, the other is Middle Grade) but they are both high fantasy retellings of popular fairy tales that were adapted into Disney classics (which I suspect was the two books’ main source but we’ll get to that in a minute).
First, an overview of the two books in question:
Lira and Ella
To Kill a Kingdom follows the siren princess Lira, infamously known as the Prince’s Bane because while ordinary sirens rip out the hearts of common sailors, Lira exclusively steals the hearts of princes. Lira’s known throughout their kingdom for being just as bloodthirsty and powerful as her mother, the Sea Queen, but when she goes against her people’s tradition of only taking one heart a year – on their birthday – her mother punishes her by turning her human. Meanwhile, up on land, Elian, prince of Midas, spends most of his days scouring the open seas to hunt and kill sirens. Fate brings these two natural born enemies together and they must find the key to overthrowing the Sea Queen.
It’s a safe bet that To Kill a Kingdom is more of a retelling of Disney’s adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid than the original fairy tale. For one thing, Lira is just Ariel in reverse, minus the E. Another, Lira is a redhead mermaid princess, as Ariel as Ariel can be. There’s also the matter of the main villain being this tentacled sea witch who’s evil for the sake of being evil (a dead ringer for Ursula, if you ask me). Honestly, I have no idea why this book leaned too heavily on the Disney version of The Little Mermaid when the original not only had so much more material, it was darker and more messed up than this milquetoast retelling could ever be. Sure, there’s a lot of gore and blood in To Kill, but those scenes are so indiscriminate that they quickly lose their intended effect. Not to mention there’s never any direct consequence for all the death and blood.
Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted is a Cinderella retelling starring a girl named Ella who was cursed at birth by a ditzy but well meaning fairy to obey every command given to her. Naturally, such a curse wrecks havoc in her life but Ella manages to outsmart the curse, disobeying the commands in her own little ways. When Ella’s mother dies, her mercenary father marries a rich lady who has daughters of her own. Ella’s life takes a turn for the worst when her step-family finds out about her curse and abuses it openly. Seeing no choice other choice, Ella runs away to find the fairy who cursed her and force her to free her at last.
Ella Enchanted, while it definitely had its Disney-esque moments, took more inspiration from the original Cinderella fairy tale, at least that’s what I believe. Unlike To Kill A Kingdom, Ella Enchanted was a great retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale because it was bold enough to take the story in an entirely new direction while fully recognizing what made the fairy tale so enduring. It was a good retelling that took the source material and added its own flavor and style so it ended up as a good story that could stand on its own.
Ironically, the middle-grade fairy tale retelling didn’t rely too much on the Disney version of the tale, even though its audience presumably would have picked up on it more. Meanwhile, the YA one that’s billed as a dark fairy tale, took its cues mostly from the extremely sanitized adaptation, despite its promise of a darker version of the story.
Now, with that quick overview of the two retellings, here is my hypothesis: To Kill a Kingdom had the aesthetic of a dark Little Mermaid but trapped itself in a saccharine Disney mold where nothing has any actual weight or consequences. So it couldn’t be as bleak as it promised because it still had to adhere to the Disney Happily Ever After™ and it couldn’t be as light and fun as its source material because it had sirens who killed innocents sailors (and monarchs).
Basically, the story outgrew its source material.
Advantages of Fairy Retellings
In recent years, retellings have become quite popular in YA. It’s not hard to understand why since a lot of us who grew up on a steady diet of fairy tales have often wished the story wouldn’t end (even if it did end happily ever after). Fairy tales are just so enduring that no matter how many times they are told, their stories are as enjoyable to experience as the first time.
Naturally, at some point you also can’t help but wonder what the story would be like if we could change things up a bit. What if Ariel was a killer siren instead of a curious mermaid? What if Cinderella was a cursed girl instead of a subservient heroine? The fairy tale would change drastically.
Retellings appeal to so many people because fairy tales, no matter how you spin it, are products of of their time. They are moralizing, often problematic, and terribly flawed stories. These flaws are covered up and given a great polish as they are adapted to a new audience but not all of them are easy to sweep under the rug. The main advantage of a retelling is that they upend the story entirely to tell a more nuanced fairy tale.
Ella Enchanted, for instance, has a creative twist on the chief complaint for the Cinderella tale: the heroine’s unflinching submissiveness. Cinderella, especially in the Disney iteration, comes off as a doormat, obeying her malicious step-family’s beck and call without question. Yes, the moral of the story is to be kind always but it’s such a simplistic view on things that it’s downright toxic, encouraging passivity rather than advocating doing what’s right.
In this retelling, Ella’s subservience is a curse that she has no control over. She has to obey any command given to her. However, unlike the passive Cinderella in the movie, Ella’s anything but subservient. She’s smart and witty, always finding little ways to trick her curse, even if it’s something as simple as not standing still when told to hold a bowl of grapes. More than that, Ella also has Cinderella’s kindness and empathy, without going overboard with it. In this way, Ella Enchanted took Cinderella’s weakness and made it into a strength. The retelling acknowledges not just the fairy tale’s appeal but also its flaws and because of that it was able to tell a Cinderella story without being confined to a sanctimonious tale.
To Kill a Kingdom, on the other hand, seemed to miss its mark entirely.
What makes the tale of The Little Mermaid such a classic is because we’ve all wondered what life is like on the other side, we’ve all wanted to go on an adventure to a world we know almost nothing about. Ariel is such a popular Disney princess because of her fearless spirit, her love for exploration. Lira, on the other hand… well, apart from wanting to rip out princes’ hearts, doesn’t really have much of a desire for anything. She doesn’t like the human world and isn’t even curious about the other side. When she is thrust into adventure, she’s a passive character unbothered by her alien surroundings.
And I know what you’re thinking – well of course Lira wouldn’t be as spunky and high-spirited as Ariel – To Kill a Kingdom is a dark retelling of The Little Mermaid. Emphasis on dark. Ariel’s adventurous nature wouldn’t be a good fit for a story about killer sirens and pirate princes. But, you see, by failing to capture the essence of the source material, there doesn’t really seem to be a point in To Kill a Kingdom being a retelling in the first place. And yet it forced itself to be just that.
Moreover, besides creating a grim and dark Little Mermaid aesthetic, To Kill a Kingdom doesn’t really do much to improve the original tale. In my humble opinion, The Little Mermaid’s main flaw was Ariel’s fixation with a human boy she’s never actually met. Sure, Prince Eric turned out to be a decent fellow but what if he wasn’t? The original prince sure as hell wasn’t, and yet the mermaid dropped everything to be with him anyway. In To Kill a Kingdom’s case, Lira and Elian’s romance wasn’t much to write home about either. It was basically every other typical YA heterosexual pairing. Mainly, the two… banter. They banter therefore they’re in love. Screw connecting to the other person in a deeper, emotional level – quips and bickering is peak romance.
Oh, and the whole thing with Ariel’s voice being taken away by Ursula so she couldn’t talk to Prince Eric? I thought To Kill a Kingdom was gonna have something like that too since sirens and humans have different languages and Lira very well couldn’t try to communicate with the Siren Killer with her native tongue unless she wants to be killed but apparently Lira can speak the human tongue too? Of course, probably so she could banter with Elian. Of course.
Here lies To Kill a Kingdom’s greatest failing: it doesn’t seem aware of its source material’s strengths or weaknesses. It just wanted to be a retelling without having the advantages of a retelling. And no clearer is this disparity than in… that scene.
The Chapter To Kill a Kingdom Died
As I said at the very beginning of this post, I really, genuinely enjoyed To Kill a Kingdom at the start. I liked Lira’s bloodthirsty personality and was intrigued by Prince Elian’s sideline as a siren killer. Things were set up rather nicely and I was looking forward to where the story was headed. Until, of course, I remembered that this book was a Little Mermaid retelling. And boy, it really beats you over the head with it once it got going.
The chapter where everything went south for me was chapter 10, when Lira and Elian met for the first time. To fully describe my utter frustration at this one scene, let me give you a detailed rundown of the chapter and the story so far: Lira killed a prince even though she wasn’t supposed to and her mother, the Sea Queen, tells her that she has to rip out the Siren Killer’s heart as penance. A quick aside because I cannot get over this: the prince that Lira killed? He was the Elian’s good friend, an innocent if there was ever one, and Lira killing him for no other reason than she wanted to… never gets addressed. Elian doesn’t seem to find the murderer of his friends so abhorrent that he not only forms a friendship with her but a romantic relationship. Ok.
But I digress. Anyway, Lira swims over to the Elian’s ship and the prince coincidentally is walking all alone by the port. Before Lira can make her move, a mermaid – different from sirens as they are more animalistic – hisses at her, telling her that the prince is her prey. The two scuffle and it gets the attention of Elian who recognizes Lira’s signature red hair as the Prince’s Bane. Somehow Elian falls to the sea and the mermaid eagerly drowns the guy for herself. Lira, pissed, kills the mermaid, effectively saving Elian’s life. Somehow – and I cannot emphasize how somehow-ish it was – the prince’s prone body washes over the sandbar so Lira drags herself towards him. She gazes at his beautiful face, of course. Before she can rip out the guy’s heart, guards come for the prince (conveniently shouting to be heard rather than sneaking up on the distracted siren) so Lira has to run away.
Several questions: why did Lira, an experienced predator, go out of her way to make herself as vulnerable as she could possibly be on land? Why didn’t she just drag Elian back into the water? The mermaid was already dead so she didn’t have any other competition to worry about. It would have been easier and faster to drag the guy back into the sea too because of the current. Why did Lira, against all her instincts as a killer, do this dumb thing?
Why, so the book could recreate this iconic scene from the Little Mermaid scene, of course.
Never mind that a scene as hokey as this makes no sense in a supposedly dark fairy tale. Never mind that it broke the grim and serious tone that it had established ten chapters previously. Never mind that it was such an unnecessary scene that it doesn’t even get mentioned again. To Kill a Kingdom just had to recreate it because… it’s a retelling.
After that chapter, I couldn’t take the book seriously. How could I when it demonstrated that it was willing to let convoluted scenes like that happen all for a cheap homage to the Disney movie it tried to be but also wasn’t? And considering how this book ends, I was right not to take it seriously. The book seemed to drop its dark and gritty atmosphere the moment Lira was on land. There was hardly any blood and almost no adventure – the quest for the deus ex machina was so formulaic that it was like watching Dora the Explorer. Man, the Disney movie was darker!
A lot of people loved To Kill a Kingdom, and I can understand why. The writing, when it was good, was really effective and the premise truly was full of possibilities. Unfortunately, the pedantic idiot that I am couldn’t look past the fact that the story clearly outgrew the original fairy tale at the very first chapter yet refused to admit it. And I get that a fairy tale retelling is easier to market, especially with such a dark twist to it, than a high fantasy adventure but I really feel that the premise was strong enough to be its own story.
To Kill a Kingdom could have been great but it chose to be safe instead. And that’s a real shame.