Nerds and Beyond was fortunate enough to get an advance copy of Kalynn Bayron’s YA novel Cinderella is Dead, which is now available for purchase. You think that you may know the true story of Cinderella, but once you open this book, you will see a world where happily ever after needs no man. This YA novel takes a classic fairy tale and twists it into a nightmare world where magic is a curse, the King is a tyrant, and sometimes a girl has to fight oppression for the happily ever after she wants.
If you haven’t read the book yet, there will be spoilers beyond this point.
The book is from author Kalynn Bayron, who is also a classically trained vocalist. She grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and currently resides in San Antonio, Texas with her family. Ever the writer when she was younger, Bayron write songs, short stories, poetry, and fan fiction. On her website, she describes why she wanted to write stores like Cinderella is Dead.
“I wanted to write, and most of the stories I’d been exposed to only had Black or brown people, like me, as side characters. It wasn’t until I decided to write the books I wanted to see, the ones that showed Black girls in leading roles that my writing came alive, imbued with all the richness of my own culture and experiences, I felt like I’d found what I was meant to do.”
She hit it out of the park with this queer dystopian Cinderella retelling, with the heroine being a determined and brave young Black woman.
This story follows Sophia, a 16-year-old girl who dreamed of being with a princess rather than a prince. Or rather, her best friend, Erin. She never fit in the box she was constantly being pushed into. But because of the assumed fairy tale of Cinderella being swept off her feet by Prince Charming, teen girls have to attend an Annual Ball where men of the kingdom choose from them to find a wife based on their appearance (my blood is boiling as I type this). All because of that fateful “fairy tale” night 200 years ago, this barbaric tradition is enforced, lethally even. On a split moment decision, Sophia takes her chances, runs out of the ball into a forest and ends up in the mausoleum of Cinderella herself, and meets Constance a mysterious redhead. Constance also happens to be the last descendent of one of Cinderella’s step-sisters. Now on the King’s most wanted list, Sophia and Constance go on a journey to right the wrongs of the past and create their own futures. Whatever it takes.
I will admit the book was not what I was expecting. It was that much better! Sign me up for a gay feminist retelling of the age-old, damsel in distress and the man will save the princess story. The main female characters in this book, Sophia and Constance, save and protect themselves while fighting for change. When we first meet Sophia, she tries to get her best friend, who she is in love with, to run away with her to a better life. Right from the beginning of the book, Sophia comprehends that things are not supposed to be the way they are in their home of Merasilles. Sophia knows that she will be the one to save herself from the existence of women having to live their lives as dictated by their fathers and then husbands. Whether by rules of the King, their families, or the Cinderella book that they must be able to resite, the women in the book are prisoners.
That leads me to another theme Bayron touches on: toxic masculinity. The reason the female citizens must be able to recite the Cinderella story is that she is described as subservient, so of course, that is how all women should be (can you feel my eyes rolling). When it comes to the Annual Ball, most of the girls in the story are doing what they must to look beautiful for the men to increase their chances of being selected by a suitor since it is appearance-based. So basically, they are dressing up and getting ready to be “hunted” by the men. Once married, the men then have the right to treat their wives as property and control every aspect of their lives. This is seen with a few of the women Sophia interacts with, later including her former romantic interest Erin and her husband. Unless you are a wealthy man and a man that can get away with everything, you are screwed in this story. This topic is steady throughout since it is the very thing Sophia and Constance are fighting against to change. As a trigger warning, physical abuse is mentioned and described.
But what I really loved about this story is that it not only has two LGBTQ2+ main female characters, a Black female protagonist, but those characters are also fighting for women’s rights and equality. Sophia knows that she wants to be with Erin and is unapologetic about her feelings towards her. Before the ball and running into the forest to escape, another queer character tells Sophia, “Just because they deny us doesn’t mean we cease to exist.” That quote stayed with me the whole book. Even though she never said it outright, it felt like the mantra of Sophia as well. Each time Erin dismissed their feelings or refused to run away with her, there were a few moments of doubt, then internally, Sophia knew what she was feeling was valid and real. With Constance, that was the first time she had her feelings reciprocated with no guilt or sense of what they are doing is wrong. It was natural and right. They also worked together to help the women of Merasilles see that they are worth more than what the men decide. That the King’s rules and laws are unjust, and they deserve a say in their own lives and futures.
Throughout the story, some segments resemble the original Cinderella story. Instead of leaving it and continuing, Bayron takes it and morphs it into the evil they are trying to rid their town. Take, for example, the fairy godmother. Well, she is a witch with a twisted connection to the current King, Prince Charming is not who you thought he was, the love at first sight between him and Cinderella well that was…I don’t want to spoil too much. But there are many more points throughout that breaks the traditional patriarchy and the damsel in distress fantasy. It will make you question every story you have been told.
If there is one book you add to your summer reading list, make it Bayron’s Cinderella is Dead.