To Kill a Fairy Tale Retelling: Outgrowing the Source Material

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 outrightly 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:

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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!]

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