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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