*This is a picture of the book cover and the photo does not belong to me, but the author.
Title: A Curse of Ash & Iron
Author: Christine Norris
Publisher: Curiosity Quill Press
Release Date: May 21st 2015 (first published September 2nd 2014)
Genre: Science Fiction, Steampunk, Fantasy, Fairytale Retelling
Benjamin Grimm knows the theater is much like real life. In 1876 Philadelphia, people play their parts, hiding behind the illusion of their lives, and never revealing their secrets.
When he reunites with his childhood friend Eleanor Banneker, he is delighted. His delight turns to dismay when he discovers she has been under a spell for the past 7 years, being forced to live as a servant in her own home, and he realizes how sinister some secrets can be. She asks for his help, and he can’t refuse. Even if he doesn’t believe in ‘real’ magic, he can’t abandon her.
Ellie has spent the long years since her mother’s death under the watchful eye and unforgiving eye of her stepmother. Bewitched and hidden in plain sight, it seems no one can help Ellie escape. Not even her own father, who is under a spell of his own. When she sees Ben one evening, it seems he is immune to the magic that binds her, and her hope is rekindled along with her friendship.
But time is running short. If they do not find a way to break the spell before midnight on New Year’s Eve, then both Ellie and her father will be bound forever.
My First Thoughts:
Steampunk fascinates me. I love science fiction to begin with, but something about mixing old with the new and creating something totally different is amazing. The back reads like a fairytale, specifically like the Cinderella tale with different twists, which I’m excited to find out for myself.
Eleanor Banneker, Ellie, is one of the main characters of this adventure. In this story, she is definitely the Cinderella, but she is nothing like the Disney Cinderella most girls are familiar with. Daughter of the social elite, she is stripped of her identity and the life she would have lived due to a spell that was cast upon her. For seven years she worked as the maid to the home in which she lived, doing her stepmother’s every biding while the world, including her father, forgot about her. Except for her childhood best friend: Ben.
Benjamin Grimm, no not the alter ego of the Thing from Fantastic Four, but a young man born into the lower working class of society, is the only one who can see through Ellie’s enchantment. During the working day, he works in either the bookstore that his mother owns or at the local theater as a simple stage hand. By night though, he tinkers in his shop making all sorts of wonderful designs meant to wow the audience with illusions, because one day he wants to leave Philadelphia and become a famous Illusionist. When he recognizes Ellie, it seems like fate was on her side and she decides to ask for his help to break the enchantments on her father and herself. Though Ben is more than willing to help his childhood friend, he doesn’t believe in all of the magic hoop-la that Ellie does and believes there is a more logical reason for her life’s misfortune. Could he be Ellie’s Prince Charming? Or is there another that plays that role in this story?
One role that is filled for sure is the evil stepmother, who is played by Olivia Banneker. The former governess of Ellie, Olivia has only wanted what was best for her daughter, Rebecca, and herself. When she marries Ellie’s father, she jumps feet first into the world of the social elite, trying so hard to fit in with the people she had once coveted. But how she obtained what she once coveted is a mystery, a mystery that could be explained by magic and secret meetings with an enigmatic stranger.
Then there is Rebecca, the younger stepsister to Ellie, who gets to live the life that Ellie had dreamed of as a child. The younger girl seems quiet and out of place in the world in which her mother so wants them to live in. But inside that quiet mind is a tinker and possibly something more.
This book took me by surprise. I have read retellings before but this one is fantastic and cleverly written. Ellie is not your average Cinderella, she tackles her curse without the help of a fairy godmother. Instead, her best friend helps her not for money or love, but because of the friendship they had as children. It was wonderful to watch Ellie go from a young girl that just took what was given to her, to a young woman that took her life and problems into her own hands. Ellie was strong, but willing to ask for help and receive it, and she didn’t have a complete bitter and hateful attitude. Ellie had grace and knew when to lash out her fiery tongue.
Ben was a wonderful character. I loved reading about his illusionist projects and how they worked; it was definitely a fascinating read. He was so devoted to helping Ellie, and it was nice to watch his character grow as they worked together to break the curse. Some of the other characters, like Rebecca, surprised me and it was amazing to see how the author had written them into the story.
For a retelling, it didn’t really scream retelling to me while I read. There were some of the major themes that were taken from the original ideas, but other than that the author made it her own story, which is what you’re supposed to do. In fact, it was when I ran across these themes that I reminded myself that this was a Cinderella retelling! The steampunk tones were very well done as well. Some stories that are ‘steampunk’ want to drown the readers in it with all this extra detailing that might not actually be steampunk. In this story, the steampunk is very subtle; actually it’s easy to miss if you are unfamiliar with it.
Norris does a good job recreating this historical world and adding some of her own twists to it without disrupting the flow too much. I will admit, the story was a little slow in the beginning, but after the first few chapters it really picked up and the last hundred or so were a rollercoaster! The story had so many twists but a lot of clues as well, and the author actually left a lot of the mystery up to the reader to figure out before revealing things later on. It was refreshing actually being able to use my brain instead of having the author spoon feed me everything.
If you love history and going back in time, this book may be for you. There’re some tidbits of history thrown in that aren’t common knowledge, but the author actually explains them at the back of the book. Also something rather interesting, the author actually named her characters, at least their first names, after some of her ancestors that she has found. In fact, she was related to a Benjamin that worked at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia.
If you like slow burn romance, or romance that kind of takes a back burner to the story, then you’ll enjoy this one. The love in this story is very slow, and unlike Disney and other stories, Ellie doesn’t jump into it all like a cannonball.
If you like your heroine to be strong, but not a bitch, then you’ll like Ellie. She takes on her problems and tries to fix them in whatever way she can. Ellie is clever and isn’t a crybaby that waits for Prince Charming to come rescue her. She is a woman conscious of her world and the environment around her, and she decides what she will do with her life.
This was a fantastic book and very well written, definitely one of my favorites of late. The only thing keeping it from getting a full 5 out of 5 is the way the author would switch scenes or point of view between Ellie and Ben. Occasionally, Norris would stop in the beginning of an action or conversation that the reader never experiences later. Personally, I don’t like to end scenes with a loose piece of dialogue, but that’s just my preference. The other thing that hurt the rating was that the author kept every reveal secret until the last possible second, which is fine for the bigger reveals but it got a bit annoying for all the smaller revelations. I’m all for allowing the reader to think for themselves and try to figure it out on their own, but sometimes I want to know word for word what this letter said or who surprised them and such. But other than those, this book deserved every point it got because it was a fascinating Cinderella retelling with some magic and a bit of steampunk!