Description from Goodreads: In the little village of Castle Down, in a kingdom plagued by war, lives a peasant girl called Bella. Blessed with a kind family and a loving friend, she manages to create her own small patch of sunlight in a dark and dangerous world. Bella is a blacksmith’s daughter; her friend Julian is a prince — yet neither seems to notice the great gulf that divides his world from hers.
Suddenly Bella’s world collapses. First Julian betrays her. Then it is revealed that she is not the peasant she believed herself to be: She is Isabel, the daughter of a knight who abandoned her in infancy. Now he wants her back, so Bella is torn from her beloved foster family and sent to live with her deranged father and his resentful new wife. Soon Bella is caught up in a terrible plot that will change her life — and the kingdom — forever. With the help of her godmother and three enchanted gifts, she sets out on a journey in disguise that will lead her to a destiny far greater than any she could have imagined.
I almost didn’t read this book. The cover was uncompelling, for me, and the description sounded like so many other fairy tale retellings that I almost passed it by–betrayal, enchanted gifts, and saving the kingdom instead of just living life and falling in love–but I’m very glad I read it anyways. Bella at Midnight is one of the best young adult/middle school fairy tale retellings I’ve ever read; even better than Ella Enchanted, in my opinion, and just as good as Book of a Thousand Days.
So here is a closer look, examining the narration, content, characters, artwork, world building, and my overall response.
Narration: 4 out of 5. This is one of the best parts. The word choices and perspective of the characters made the time period (fantasy medieval) realistic and cohesive. Unlike many historical novels, I wasn’t jarred by choice of dialogue, syntax, or terminology. The descriptions were adequate but simple, and while some terms might be lost on those who haven’t read much older fiction or history from the Middle Ages, I found in very natural and delightful.
The one thing that kept me from rating this higher was the author’s choice of handling multiple characters’ perspectives. Instead of a third- person-close-narration that changed over the course of the book, we have first person narration, with chapter headings that indicate the point-of-view character, and I found this confusing. I think it can work, as in Magonia, when there are only two POV characters, but here, we had Bella, and Julian, and her step-mother, both stepsisters, and her foster brother (and a few other characters thrown in at times, like her aunt).
I think it would’ve flowed much better if it’d been third person, so we knew who we were dealing with. There would’ve been references to “praying for her niece” or “talking to her daughter” that could have seriously cleared things up. Still, I enjoyed all the perspectives and how human everyone was (including the step-mother and step-sisters).
Content: 5 out of 5. This book is ideal for the younger end of the young adult scale (I’d say, content-wise, that middle-schoolers could particularly enjoy the book). There is a romance, but there is plenty of other plot running around, and I’d say that the focus is more on loyalty and friendship than love and romance.
Another unique thing about this book is that it isn’t that strongly a Cinderella retelling, but almost a story of where some of the Cinderella legends could have come from. She does get dressed up for a ball, and she does have glass slippers, but she also has a magic ring and a foster family. She doesn’t meet the prince at the ball; she grows up alongside him, and her godmother is her aunt. The plot involving her step-family reminded me a bit of The Merchant of Venice, with cargo being lost at sea and a family suddenly impoverished, while the part about her father struck me as resembling Bluebeard. I found this patchwork of stories fascinating, but if you’re looking for pure Cinderella, this isn’t it.
Characters: 4 out of 5. The characters were very well done. With all the perspectives shown throughout the course of the book, you actually understood why the “wicked” characters were acting the way they were.
I did feel that the romance was a bit strained and underdeveloped. Bella didn’t seem old enough to really be in love with Julian, at least,not yet. In a few years, I could see her wanting such a relationship, but at this point, it seemed like she just wanted his friendship back. (Still, I found the ending delightfully amusing and quite sweet…but a few years premature.)
Artwork: Subjective. As I mentioned above, the artwork nearly made me skip reading this book. The red cover, with gold scrollwork and Bella’s red-orange hair contrasting with the green of the ring–I didn’t find it the least bit intriguing. Having read the novel, I now know why the ring was featured as so significant, but since it doesn’t show up until at least halfway through the novel, I think I would have depicted something else on the cover (and chosen a less-clashing color scheme).
World-Building: 5 out of 5. One of the things that truly surprised me was how the book handled religion. Like most set in medieval times, the society seems to be Christian, but it was one of the first recent books I’ve come across where I believed the Christian trappings. The characters didn’t just seem Christian; they were Christian, in word and deed and perspective. They had their faults, and they never quoted scripture or preached, but their concerns and priorities were those of a Christian society, not a society over which Christianity has been overlaid like a veneer.
Overall Response: 18 out of 20, or 4.5 overall. This book probably won’t interest those looking for action and adventure, but if you’re looking for a sweet fantasy-fairy-tale story, set in a cohesive medieval world, I’d highly recommend this one. The narration doesn’t make you feel like you’re reading a “child’s book,” and the plot, while containing elements we’ve seen before, puts them together in a new and enjoyable way.
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Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by pedrojperez, Creative Commons