Thursday, June 26, 2014

Review: Ember by Bettie Sharpe

cover art for Ember, featuring a woman's pale, hennaed hands, palms up, cupping the title in letters that evoke a banked fire. The background is black with whirls of smoke.
Ember is fierce, proud, and in firm control of her heart--until she sets eyes on Prince Charming, whose curse compels everyone who sees him to love him.

Ember isn't about to let a spell force her to feel anything, let alone something as soul-destroying as love. A powerful witch, she embraces dark magics to ensure she never, ever falls under the Prince's sway again.

But a look can go both ways. Charming is determined to find the woman willing to resist his curse, and he is every bit as stubborn as Ember.

Let's get a big, fat disclaimer out of the way first off: laid out in its simplest form, EMBER sounds rapey. This is an enormous lie. This gorgeous, affecting novella is a testament to each person's right to choose what will happen to them, romantically or otherwise, and to spend their lives among people who've chosen them with love in their hearts.

Sharpe handles it so beautifully that this 32,000-word self-published novella remains the best thing I've read so far this year.

You can perhaps guess it's a Cinderella retelling, albeit of a darker variety than most. The bones of the fairy tale remain the same, but this version is concerned with female solidarity, agency, and the desire to be seen as oneself. Ember is a less-than-beautiful witch who has turned to the dark arts in her struggle to remain free of Charming's influence. She has a fabulous relationship with her father's second wife and with her supposed stepsisters, all three of whom are grifters and whores who initially intend to live the good life at Ember's father's expense.

They could easily do a runner after Ember's father kicks it, but they choose to embrace Ember as their sister, to take up their old trade so they can remain near her, and to use their influence to help her remain free of the Prince. Each of them is a fully realized character, possessed of depth, agency, and their own unique outlook on life. I loved them so very, very much, both for themselves and because they're unlike anyone I've ever met in a Cinderella retelling. It's not unusual for the Cinderella-equivalent to form a bond with one of the stepsisters, but I've never encountered a version where all four of the women loved and supported one another.

It made me ridiculously happy.

The magic is as wonderful as the characters. It's dark, complicated, messy stuff, and it comes with an important loophole: charms and curses lose their power beneath the full (or nearly full) moon, and they don't work on animals. Ember harnesses moonlight to craft a talisman that'll keep the Prince's curse from affecting her as strongly as it does everyone else, but when he actively seeks her out she resorts to a blood-based glamour instead.

And of course, that glamour fails under the full moon, which is when she meets her love interest: Rian, a plain, friendly fellow who works with the animals up at the palace. Ember can only see him three nights a month, since her glamour hides her the rest of the time, but that gives the two of them more than enough opportunity to form a deep, heartfelt connection. Rian, too, worries about being seen and loved for himself, so his concerns feed nicely into Ember's anxieties about the Prince's pull on her.

That pull adds an extra level of tension to their relationship, especially as the reader is bound to discover what's going on with Rian far earlier than Ember does. It's a testament to Sharpe's skill that this foresight actually makes the story more tense and heart-wrenching. This is dark fantasy, after all, full of witches and whores and curses that force people to fall in love. Curses that could easily lead to cycles of abuse and denigration. There's no guarantee of a happy ending, despite the fairy tale bones. The story features more than its fair share of terrible misunderstandings, heartache, and lost limbs before it reaches its denouement.

It's beyond fabulous. Several times as I wrote this review, I had no choice but to get up and walk about excitedly. Just thinking of it makes my heart sing in the most painful, glorious way.

If you're at all interested in fairy tale retellings, romance, or dark fantasy, you must read EMBER. You must, you must, you must. The e-book is super cheap on most retailers, or you can read the entire thing for free on Bettie Sharpe's website.

2 comments:

  1. Okay then! I will read it because I trust you! I am excited for a retelling of Cinderella where her step-family isn't awful. That's a nice change.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is an excellent choice, though I'll warn you you may find it too dark in places. I know darkness isn't always your thing.

      The stepfamily, though!!!! I'm beyond thrilled with how they all stick together and support one another and basically just be awesome in each others' presences.

      Delete