Charm. Book Review

CharmCHARM by Sarah Pinborough

Gollancz, hardback £9.99, eBook £4.99, 208pp

Reviewed by Chris Limb

“Didn’t you wonder for a moment how foolish and self-absorbed a man must be to only recognise the woman he claims to love from her foot fitting a shoe?”

Most traditional fairy tales don’t stand up to close examination. Quite apart from the thin characters and weak plots, most of the values espoused therein are old fashioned narrow-minded and unjust. This is fair enough when you consider what the world was like when they were first written, but becomes more of a problem when modern adaptations – whether via panto or Disney – stick so closely to the script that they’re in danger of indoctrinating another generation of children with their traditionalist rhetoric.

Charm on the other hand is a contemporary revamp of Cinderella that tackles these issues head on and exposes them for what they are. Whilst some of the racier sequences mean this that this is very much not a book for children it is an adaptation that retains all of the key features of the traditional tale – the classic fairy tale kingdom with all fixtures and fittings intact – and yet forces the reader to look at them in a very different light.

As you’d expect, Cinderella is indeed the drudge of the family at the centre of the tale. However, her dreams of being swept off her feet by the handsome prince are revealed for the shallow and selfish fantasies that they are; furthermore as the story progresses it appears that she doesn’t really care who she steps on to get her own way… Far more sympathetic is Rose, one of the “ugly sisters” who is being bullied into actions she doesn’t really want by a domineering mother. Of the two women, Rose may actually be the wife the handsome prince actually needs. The prince himself is as vain and stupid as the more discerning fairy tale aficionado has always suspected – but his uncaring cruelty comes as more of a shock.

The original story itself is actually rather flimsy – so the author wisely uses it as merely the first half and when the glass slipper is restored to its rightful owner it’s far from a happy ever after moment. It is now that the intrigue really begins. Once installed in the castle Cinderella begins to realise she may have made a terrible mistake in her rush to grab what she thought she wanted at all costs.

What is the motivation for the Fairy Godmother’s magical gifts – and what price might Cinderella have to pay? What does the prince get up to at night? The second half of the book is tightly plotted and takes a number of unexpected turns resulting in a new version of a well-known story that is somehow still full of surprises.

There is always the sense that fairy tales all take place in the same world and here this is confirmed when Charm cleverly integrates several of the dangling threads left over from Poison, the previous book in the sequence in a very satisfying manner.  Furthermore there are still enough unanswered questions left dangling to make the final volume, the forthcoming Beauty, a read as essential as this one.