After a long couple months of YA books that I couldn’t wholly get behind, I went back to the library to return them and then just wandered the aisles for a while. I didn’t have any other recommendations from friends or websites, so I ended up in the children’s section, picking out, somewhat at random, what looked like a fairy tale adventure with a Black protagonist. The back cover told me it was the second in a series, so I grabbed the first book, as well, and went home to see if they were any good. As it turns out, they were incredible. Not only are they some of the best revisionist fairy tales I’ve read, the book I picked up, Disenchanted: The Trials of Cinderella, was also centered on social justice and the ills of child labor. Did I mention I found this in the children’s section?
Minor spoilers to follow!
The first book in this series, Grounded: The Adventures of Rapunzel, took Rapunzel from her tower and introduced her to the world of Tyme, a land of witches, fairies, and magic. Disenchanted is set after the events of Grounded in the kingdom next door. The Blue Kingdom, ruled by the Charmings, is also home to a thriving Garment Guild, an institution of fairy godparents called the Glass Slipper, and our protagonist, Elegant Herringbone Coach.
At the start of the book, Ella, as she’s called, is mainly concerned with her changing family. After the death of her mother, her eccentric inventor father remarried a well-off member of the aristocracy, Lady Sharlyn Gould, who sets up Ella’s father in a workshop churning out inventions for Practical Elegance, their clothing shop, and sets up Ella herself in a boarding school for the rich and affluent—including Prince Dash Charming, future heir to the throne.
Disenchanted is possibly the most creative Cinderella retelling that I’ve ever read—even more so than Ella Enchanted—and author Megan Morrison achieves this by taking apart nearly every part of the classic story. The Charmings aren’t really Charming: the witch from Grounded cursed each generation to only ever have one son, and that son would break the heart of anyone who fell in love with him. This wasn’t some prophetical curse, either; the curse would literally open their mouths and talk for them. Though the family is free after the witch died at the end of Grounded, Prince Dash has no clue how to act or speak like an honest, upstanding human being—even speaking is difficult for him. The fairy godparents don’t act out of the goodness of their own hearts or because they think Ella is good or virginal: the Glass Slipper has turned into a corrupt institution where only the rich families can afford the fairies’ services. Serge and Jasper, two fairy coworkers who eventually become Ella’s fairy godfathers out of luck and circumstance, are trying to change that. And most shocking to me, Ella’s stepfamily isn’t abusive at all; the issues that Ella has with her stepmother and stepsiblings are only part and parcel of the struggles of a newly blended family. Ella thinks Sharlyn’s ruining her life by sending her away from home; Lady Sharlyn thinks she’s obtained the best education for her stepdaughter and doesn’t understand why Ella is so opposed to it. Honestly, this is one of the few positive depictions of a blended family I’ve seen in speculative fiction.
But this book, most importantly, is about Ella’s mission to enact fair labor practices across the Blue Kingdom, and Morrison tackles this complicated issue in a way that’s informative, entertaining, and never preachy. This Ella doesn’t fall in love with Dash at first sight and isn’t a big fan of balls; instead, the two of them are assigned to work together on a project in which they have to create a business plan. When Ella tentatively suggests a messenger service with paid sick leave, Dash demands to know what sick leave is and why it would ever be necessary, and it leads the two of them into a long, complicated discussion through the rest of the book. Ella brings in facts and figures about what constitutes a living wage; Dash interviews his own servants and researches, in broad strokes, the employment policies of the Garment Guild and how it compares to other industries in other nations.
In Morrison’s capable hands, these economic discussions are impressively never drawn-out or boring, and in fact, this anti-sweatshop story is, surprisingly enough, actually a great revisionist theme for Cinderella. The classic Cinderella was forced to toil day and night for an abusive stepfamily, and other retellings have focused on giving much-needed agency to Cinderella, but have rarely changed the conditions in which she lives. Disenchanted remakes the story on a molecular level and gives us a protagonist who has not only escaped a life of child labor but is also fighting to save others from the same fate.
With this narrative cause driving Ella, and later Dash, onwards, it’s no surprise that the book has many great social justice messages. As a person of color who lives on the hellsite that is Tumblr, I was personally charmed by the beginning of Ella and Dash’s Discourse on sick leave. After she briefly defines what sick leave is for Dash, Ella starts in on ad hominem attacks on royals and the aristocracy, and Dash is understandably offended and leaves the conversation. At home, Serge and Jasper, Ella’s godfathers, tell her to try a more facts-based approach, and while Dash is at odds with his father, he does ask his servants about what they have to do when they’re sick. When the two of them return to class, Ella apologizes for her previous outburst and lays out a typical factory worker’s wages and how every cent of it needs to be budgeted in order for the worker’s family to survive; Dash is likewise more open-minded and willing to listen to how the Garment Guild actually operates.
This could be taken as an endorsement of the worst type of rhetorician (the type that goes “See, if you just shut up about your feelings, people would listen to you”), but in fact, the book makes sure to not do that. Serge and Jasper lay out why sources might help convince the prince, but they’re also understanding of Ella’s emotions; Dash finds out that Ella’s mother died in a sweatshop, apologizes for making her prove that the practices which killed her mother actually exist, and apologizes further when their classmates use her mother’s death as another reason to make fun of her. Ella herself comes to realize that there’s value in picking her battles and that her anger can be useful at the right time, with the right audience.
This is a great social justice message, but it’s hindered by Morrison’s surface-level application of race. Morrison clearly describes Ella as a dark-skinned girl with natural hair, and the depiction of Ella on the cover of Disenchanted is the sole reason I picked this book off a library shelf. Ella’s family are dark-skinned as well, and many of the characters in previous book are also characters of color, with Rapunzel’s traveling companion Jack conceivably written as Asian. Of course, not every book with characters of color should be solely about race and racism. But Disenchanted, a book focused on critiquing class and capitalism, should certainly have taken note of racial inequalities in both and addressed them in its otherwise fantastic worldbuilding.
For example, Lady Sharlyn is constantly bemoaning Ella’s choice of clothing (poor) and her manner of speech (low-class), and as an accomplished businesswoman, is one of the first to tell Ella that she needs to not yell so much if she wants to be listened to. These are all things that many people of color hear as part and parcel of respectability politics—the idea that people of color have to act as white government officials want them to in order to get any respect—and it’s something that parents of color often tell their children about as they grow up. But Sharlyn never phrases things this way; these failings are apparently Ella’s alone, and it’s her fault that she doesn’t want to wear non-practical clothing or talk “properly”. Similarly, Ella’s classmates laugh at her for being nouveau riche, not for any other reason. Imagining a world without racism is a fine exercise, but without knowing how the world developed this way, the world and its one conflict are rendered less complex than a truly intersectional conflict would have been. In the end, Ella’s skin color made as little impact on the plot as Serge’s dark blue fairy skin did.
Nevertheless, protagonists of color are still unfortunately few and far between, and though Ella’s ethnicity wasn’t treated with the nuance that I felt it needed, I truly appreciated seeing Ella blossom through the pages of Disenchanted. Looking up the author afterwards, I discovered that Morrison is the co-founder of The Sugar Quill, which was a noted Harry Potter fanfic site back in the day, and I’m even more delighted to recommend this book because it’s by another ficcer turned pro. The Harry Potter fandom, particularly recently, has turned to racebending its main characters and incisively critiquing the social themes of the original Harry Potter books, and while I don’t know if Morrison is still active in the fandom, it’s clear that she handles issues of race, class, and economics as well as the Harry Potter books themselves—even, indeed, surpassing them in explicitly and effectively addressing her concerns.
Disenchanted: The Trials of Cinderella is a truly unique take on the Cinderella myth, and its criticism of labor and big businesses are even more important to consider in this, the Age of Lord Dampnut (the Garment Guild is even called “The Guild That Made This Country Great”). While there are some things I’d love to see more of (will Serge and Jasper ever be together for real???), Disenchanted, and the world of Tyme, is a book I’ll be returning to over and over again. Definitely go read it today!