I seem to have gone a bit crazy with this month's TBR Challenge. I'd picked out Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey, but then I was prompted to buy Jeffe Kennedy's (writing as Jennifer Paris) Petals and Thorns -- an erotic retelling of Beauty and the Beast -- and I just happened to have gotten Lila DiPasqua's trilogy of sexy fairy tales, The Princess in His Bed. Truly, an abundance of fairy tale romances.
What I've realized this week is that I like the heroine in a fairy tale romance to be working out her own destiny, even if she needs 400 pages to do it.
Because I like a proactive heroine, I generally prefer Beauty and the Beast variants. Beauty has stuff to do and choices to make in the process of falling for the Beast. Heck, if even Disney can see that, I think it's safe to say it's a universal standard. By contrast, Disney's Cinderella isn't even her own Fairy Godmother. She's a bit of a sad sack, scrubbing away at the hearth and not showing a lot of gumption.
Which is why it's ironic that I liked Eleanor, Lackey's Cinderella, much more than Amarantha, Kennedy's Beauty. (DiPasqua's heroines fall somewhere in the middle, active mostly in getting themselves into sexy situations they never intended.)
In Petals and Thorns, Aramantha is very passive in the process of becoming the Beast's bride and unwitting BDSM partner. (Don't worry, I won't get any more graphic than that.) I'd have enjoyed the story more if she'd enjoyed the Beast more.
Eleanor has good reason to despair, but then she starts the process of pushing on her magical constraints long before her Fairy Godmother shows up. Yes, there's a ball and a poufy pink princess dress, and a three-fingered glove in place of the implausible glass slipper -- all the elements of the original fairy tale are there, they're just embedded in a fantasy feminist historical novel about magic.
I love Mercedes Lackey's depictions of Girl Power, I really do.
As you may know from other Promantications about Lackey's Elemental Masters series, the protagonists are masters of the four elements, earth, fire, water, or air. In P&A, the magic necessary to bind Eleanor is devious and complicated. Alison, an evil stepmother truly worthy of that adjective, is an Earth Mage who uses Dark forces to secure Eleanor's fortune for herself and her two daughters.
Reggie's an okay hero, even if he calls his mother "Mater," but the story is rightly Eleanor's. And it's a long story -- this is not a quick read even if you skip, as I did, the subplot about Alison's machinations. Eleanor slowly learns that she is a Fire Master, but completely untaught. She'd been planning to go to Oxford (even if they didn't confer degrees on women at the time - she's sure they will eventually); instead, she has to learn about magic from the fire hearth up.
(For some reason this education involves the Waite-Rider deck of Tarot cards. As I say, it's a long book.)
Mostly, though, P&A is about the importance of women at a time when men were being mowed down in the fields and trenches of France. Lackey weaves historical detail in with her fantastical magic. The end result is didactic, admittedly, but fascinating.
I will say this: I don't identify with Lackey's heroines on any emotional level, but I do admire them. They get the job done. So while their happy endings don't pack quite the same emotional punch as, say, The Black Beast of Belleterre, Mary Jo Putney's retelling of Beauty and the Beast, it's a pleasure to spend time -- yes, a long time! -- in the presence of an intrepid woman who educates herself while she's waiting for her dream of going to Oxford to open up again. (SPOILER ALERT: She does go to Oxford at the end.)