The Shadow in the Glass, JJA Harwood – Book Review

Hello Humans! Who is ready for a good old-fashioned retelling? I know I’ve been feeling the itch to get back into the retelling sphere and what better thing to explore than a Cinderella retelling? It’s time to review The Shadow in the Glass.

Goodreads Summary:

Once upon a time Ella had wished for more than her life as a lowly maid.

Now forced to work hard under the unforgiving, lecherous gaze of the man she once called stepfather, Ella’s only refuge is in the books she reads by candlelight, secreted away in the library she isn’t permitted to enter.

One night, among her beloved books of far-off lands, Ella’s wishes are answered. At the stroke of midnight, a fairy godmother makes her an offer that will change her life: seven wishes, hers to make as she pleases. But each wish comes at a price and Ella must to decide whether it’s one she’s willing to pay it.

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It’s been quite some time since I’ve read a Cinderella retelling – in fact I think I might not have read one…I’ll have to check my records. Suffice to say I don’t feel as burned out on Cinderella as I might do on other stories. So I went into this book with a reasonably open mind excited to see how this Victorian setting for the fairytale might play out.

On the one hand I can see a lot of good things about this book. I liked the way the story worked with the setting, keeping Ella as a servant but in a very different way to how she is in the main book. I thought that putting her in a setting where there is some friendship and comradery amongst the maids was a great way to twist the fairytale and often a great emotional tool within the story – it’s one thing for Cinderella to be hated by everyone in the household but it’s so much more powerful for her to be liked and then to have that attitude shift. I think that in a lot of ways it was very clever to change the villain of the piece from the wicked stepmother to the lecherous man of the house. It certainly did make for a scary start to the book and a good explanation for why things become quite as dramatic as they do get.

I think this is partly where my personal preference comes in, I happened to read this book in the same week as a lot of news stories around women’s safety were circling and I think that perhaps reading a book about a person who is constantly at threat of sexual assault in a house full of other women also at risk was perhaps not the best timing. I also tend to not love stories that have that as a focal point – which might be different for you – so make of that what you will.

Personally, I think I could have liked this book a lot more were it not for two things. For one thing I don’t think I found the narrative particularly empowering – and it didn’t necessarily need to be – I just wanted everything to turn around and even if things didn’t necessarily have a happy ending that the bad guys would get their comeuppance somehow. I won’t say how this story ends but I have to say I didn’t find it particularly satisfying.

The other issue I had was with Ella as a character, she is set up within the story as a lover of books and of fairytales and I find it very hard to believe that a person with such a grounding in that kind of story would not be very wary of wishes in any form. For me that’s rule number one – if you’re a woman in trouble and someone offers you wishes you better make those wishes iron clad and confirm the potential costs and ramifications up front. While early on in the book I could understand Ella acting both out of disbelief that things might happen and also desperation at her alternatives later on I just started to feel like she wasn’t acting in her own best interests and it was mildly frustrating.

I suppose that could have been intentional, with the story acting similar to Victorian moral tales about little matchstick girls and how we shouldn’t make pacts with the devil but to then also make the book about women getting control over their own lives and bodies it didn’t quite gel for me.

I won’t say that I had a bad reading experience while reading this book. The writing is fine, the setting is fine. I enjoyed the descriptions of clothes (despite rolling my eyes at the (debunked) idea that corsets were horrible things that no one liked wearing). This book just didn’t give me the payoff at the end that it really needed so instead of feeling cathartic and emotional it felt more frustrating.

My rating: 2/5 stars (was my gut reaction – it’s a high 2 star though)

I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley – all opinions are my own.

The Shadow in the Glass is out now!

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