Thursday, July 8, 2010

A New Cinderella Tale: Eloisa James’s A KISS AT MIDNIGHT

I’m a fan of romances with fairy tale themes. Teresa Medeiros, Julia Quinn, Anne Gracie, Elizabeth Hoyt, Judith Ivory, Robin McKinley, Mercedes Lackey—I have fairy tale romances by all of them among my keepers. I have been looking forward to reading A Kiss at Midnight ever since I first read that Eloisa James was writing a Cinderella tale. A favorite romance trope in a novel by one of my favorite romance authors—what could be more designed to delight this reader’s heart? Except—I had this niggling concern. Ever since I researched Cinderella for a grad school paper on Shakespeare’s Cordelia (King Lear), I’ve been bothered by the tendency in American popular culture to apply the term “Cinderella tale” to any story, song, film, real-life relationship, etc. that remotely resembles the fairy tale. I often find myself disappointed, and sometimes irritated, by what I think of as false Cinderellas. How terrible it would be if EJ’s book fell into this group.

I’m happy to report that my concern was for naught.

AKAM is rich in the traditional elements of the Cinderella tale. Heroine with a good and loving heart—check; dead mother—check; absent father—check; heroine as target of step-mother’s venom—check; magical guardian for persecuted heroine—check (Some may disagree on this element, but I’ll argue with anyone that Kate’s godmother is magical.); The Shoe—check. AKAM even boasts a witty transformation of the rats from Charles Perrault’s late-17th-century version, which also adds the glass slipper! EJ acknowledges her debt to Perrault in an afterword. AKAM clearly qualifies as a true Cinderella tale.

The poet W. H. Auden once wrote, “The way to read a fairy tale is to throw yourself in.” I found Auden’s advice easy to follow when I read A Kiss at Midnight. I was captivated from the first page. I was a bit worried about AKAM’s captivation quotient too. I prefer Beauty and the Beast to Cinderella because Cinderella is so good and so patient, so much like the character of Griselda of Medieval fame. (I once won an audible laugh from my Chaucer prof by confessing my loathing for this character.) But EJ’s Cinderella, Kate Daltry, is no patient, submissive Griselda, and she’s no saintly, suffering Disney Cinderella either. In the first chapter the reader sees her as an angry, embattled heroine, who has been the protector of servants and tenants since her father’s death. In fact, it is this concern that gives her stepmother a means of forcing Kate to do her bidding rather than this Cinderella’s meek submission to villainous authority. I loved Kate. From the fierce protector of chapter one to the drowsy princess of the final chapter, she is fully human and wholly enchanting.

EJ adds other twists to her tale as well. Mariana, the stepmother, is appropriately vain, selfish, and vindictive, but she has only one daughter rather than the traditional pair, and this daughter, Victoria, is a far cry from the "mean girls" of the ancient tale. There is a wonderful twist that I won’t mention for fear of spoilers, but if you’ve read the excerpts, you will be prepared for it. EJ’s prince is no closer to the traditional fairy tale prince that Kate is to the angelic Cinderella. I’ve always thought the prince in the usual tale was rather boring. He’s little more than a handsome face, overflowing coffers, and a means to the HEA for the deserving heroine. EJ’s prince, in contrast, is no cipher. Gabriel is arrogant, intelligent, responsible, conflicted, and lusty. The last is important. AKAM is a 21st-century romance novel, after all.

Finally, the feminist in me rejoices that Kate, with her godmother’s help and her mother’s legacy, saves herself. I further rejoice that Eloisa James makes clear that while Gabriel has the power to break Kate’s heart, she can survive and build a life should he make the wrong choice. I rejoice yet again that it is Gabriel who has to prove himself worthy of Kate, not by meeting an externally imposed criterion for beauty (small feet for the traditional Cinders Girl) but by recognizing the supremacy of love.

Can you tell this book filled me with joy? :)

Readers who are fans of EJ’s series may be a bit disappointed that some of the characters in AKAM will not have books of their own. All of the ends are tied up nicely in HEA bows, but I fell in love with one secondary character that I would have been happy to see as the hero of another book. But although it’s her first stand-alone novel, EJ endows AKAM with the intelligence, humor, and pathos readers look for in her books. The story also has the literary allusions, the funny names, and the female friendships that are EJ trademarks. AKAM is distinctly an Eloisa James book, but it’s one with a difference.

I have a tradition of my own that I began with the first EJ book I read. I always note one sentence that stops me cold and sends me back to reread it, sometimes more than once, to glory in its perfection for the scene, for the character. My favorite such moment in AKAM is this one: “He closed his eyes for a moment, and the color of his eyelashes was like the color of regret. With a kind of piercing sorrow, she knew that she would never forget this prince.” Sigh!

I highly recommend A Kiss at Midnight.

I also recommend for other lovers of fairy tales that you participate in EJ’s current contest. Find your dream fairy tale shoe and share it. You can find the details at, and the prizes are terrific (a Nook for one lucky contestant). And, even if you aren’t entering, go over to the Fairy Tale Shoe Flickr Group to see the fantastic entries. Joining EJ’s fans on Facebook will garner you a second chance at a Nook. The details for the Facebook Fans giveaway can also be found at EJ’s web site.

Are you a fan of fairy tale themes in romance fiction? Do you prefer those faithful to tradition, or do you like to see an author tweak the conventions? What are your favorite fairy tale romances?

Note: In the interest of full disclosure and to appease the FTC, I hereby state that I received an ARC of A Kiss at Midnight at no cost. As most of you know, I’m a moderator at the Eloisa James/Julia Quinn bulletin board. Neither the free book nor the mod status affected my review of this book.


PJ said...

Wonderful review! I read this story (in one night) before sending it on to the person who will be reviewing it for our blog and now I can't wait to buy my own copy so I can go back and savor all the delicious aspects of this book that I've been re-living in my mind. I adored A Kiss At Midnight! For my money, it's one of Eloisa's finest.

Janga, if the secondary character of which you're enamored is a relative of the hero, I have good news for you. He's getting his own story in a novella that Eloisa is currently writing! :)

Janga said...

Thanks, PJ! This was a review I loved writing. In fact, I self-plagiarized some of it, stealing from the message I wrote EJ in my first excitement after completing the book.

I know most of us who read ARCs end up buying copies once the book is released. I think that practice is likely to become even more common with eARCS on the rise.

Manda Collins said...

Lovely review, Janga! Makes me even more eager to read it's subject for myself!

Janga said...

I'm glad you liked the review, Manda. Let me know when you've read it and we can dish about our favorite bits. :)

Kim said...

This book is awesome! Janga, you hit on something that totally amazed me. Its most definitely 100% an Eloisa James novel. But it's also so different from anything she's written.

Fabulous review!

Eloisa James said...

Hi Janga,

I just connected your lovely review to my Facebk page -- I hope that's OK! I couldn't resist. You really got it (such a pleasure for an author). hugs, Eloisa

vi said...

What a lovely review! I am so glad that this is a standalone. I already read to many books that are in a series.

MsHellion said...

Janga--and I mean this with love--you are a WENCH. A cruel, heartless wench who is torturing TWO AND A HALF WEEKS (perhaps longer, considering how backwards my town is) before I can get my hot little hands on this book. I've only been DYING to read this book for at least 6 months and your review of the book has only made the pain that much more unbearable!

There. Now that's done--what a wonderful, effusive though undoubtedly deserved review.

I love fairy tales in my stories. I'm more a beauty and the beast fan, and of the fairy tales that romances are usually based off of (Cinderella, B&B, R&J), Cinderella is my least favorite. For the reason you state: she's so NICE and so PATIENT. And she's so beautiful. Usually the beauty in B&B is somewhat subjective. It's never subjective with Cinderella...and how can you like anyone that virtuous AND fair? You can't.

irisheyes said...

Awesome review, Janga. I can't wait to get my hands on A Kiss At Midnight.

I love all fairytale-like themes but I think I'd have to side with Hellie on this and say Beauty and the Beast is probably my favorite. I just love when someone who is or feels so unlovable is proved wrong.

On the other hand, Disney's Cinderella ranks as my most watched Disney film. Go figure... maybe it's the mice! LOL

Gannon Carr said...

Janga, I completely agree with you about AKAM---absolutely loved it! I'll be reviewing it at The Romance Dish later this month. It's moved to the top of the list as my favorite EJ novel.

That line you quoted really struck a chord with me as well---just gorgeous!

quantum said...

I have pretty well given up on Eloisa, as the books can only be downloaded by readers in North America. After this review though, I'm just going to have to get a hard-copy to read!

I'm not really sensitive to fairy tales so probably haven't registered these analogies when reading romance stories. I will be on the look out now though.

Fabulous review Janga. *smile*

Janga said...

Kim, I knew I could depend on you to share my enthusiasm. :) Thanks for dropping by.

Janga said...

Eloisa, I'm delighted that you connected to my blog. Thank you for giving us another keeper.

Janga said...

Vi, I'm a series addict, but I agree that it's lovely to have a stand-alone book for a change. Thanks for visiting Just Janga.

Janga said...

Sorry for the torture, Hellie. I just couldn't resist. (grin)

Somehow I'm not surprised that you share my preference for Beauty and the Beast, but I think you'll love EJ's Cinderella. And since more fairy-tale books are part of the plan, maybe we'll get an EJ version of Beauty and the Beast too.

Janga said...

Irish, I bet it is the mice--and maybe the birds--that account for your many viewings of Disney's Cinderella. I loved the movie as a child. Can you believe that movie is 60 years old? But when I again watched all the Disney movies with the oldest grand, Belle was far and away my favorite.

Janga said...

Gannon, I'll keep an eye out for your review. Reviwers who agree with me are my favorites. :)

As much as I loved AKAM, I still think A Duke of Her Own is EJ's best, and I doubt that any book--by EJ or anyone else--will ever surpass Pleasure for Pleasure in terms of my attachment to the characters. Mayne's the only hero for whom I wrote a poem. LOL!

Janga said...

Q, I don't think fairy tales play the same role in the lives of most boys as they do in the lives of most girls. My nephews learned more about fairy tales from the video game Kingdom Hearts than they ever did from the originals.

I hope you do find a copy of AKAM. I think you'll really like Kate and Gabriel.