Friday, March 27, 2015

Bella At Midnight by Diane Stanley

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In the little village of Castle Down, in a kingdom plagued by war, lives a peasant girl called Bella. Blessed with a kind family and a loving friend, she manages to create her own small patch of sunlight in a dark and dangerous world. Bella is a blacksmith's daughter; her friend Julian is a prince -- yet neither seems to notice the great gulf that divides his world from hers.
Suddenly Bella's world collapses. First Julian betrays her. Then it is revealed that she is not the peasant she believed herself to be: She is Isabel, the daughter of a knight who abandoned her in infancy. Now he wants her back, so Bella is torn from her beloved foster family and sent to live with her deranged father and his resentful new wife. Soon Bella is caught up in a terrible plot that will change her life -- and the kingdom -- forever. With the help of her godmother and three enchanted gifts, she sets out on a journey in disguise that will lead her to a destiny far greater than any she could have imagined.
(278 pages)

So, I love The Silver Bowl books (link goes to my review of The Silver Bowl). I've had this earlier book by Stanley on my radar for a while, but it got buried under all the other books that were on my radar (i.e. it fell to somewhere in the middle of the infamous Goodreads "to read" pile). A month ago I made a Top Ten post listing ten books I can't believe I haven't read, and this was right near the top. I requested it right after posting the article, and read it in one day - as soon as I could wrestle it away from my mother, another Diane Stanley fan!

As an earlier work than the Silver Bowl series, you can see that Stanley's writing skills were still developing; the writing isn't quite a crisp as in her later series. However, considering how amazing those books are this really doesn't hurt Bella at Midnight very much. I initially thought the technique of telling the story from so many different POVs, switching every chapter between everyone from Bella to seemingly random people off the street, was clumsy and distracting. I soon realized, though, that the technique fit the story perfectly as all the threads began to weave together into one big, tightly knitted story.

Bella is a very interesting character, especially in comparison with the original Cinderella. Where Cinderella began life with a loving father but no real family outside of that, Bella grew up believing herself to be the peasant daughter of a loving couple. She has two siblings, village friends, and of course her best friend Prince Julian right by her side. When she is brought to her birth father's home to be lonely, abused, and neglected (not to a truly abusive state, but still pretty cruelly), she is homesick more than anything else. She doesn't dream of marrying a prince and riding off into the sunset; all she wants is to be back with the family who loves her. I love this, because at the end of the day it isn't wealth that matters to her: it's people. How can you not love a character with priorities like that? I won't pretend she's going on my list of "most memorable heroines" (if I were making that list, which I'm not), but she's definitely a engaging and sympathetic main character.

This is a fun, humorous twist of a classic fairy tale, one that I'm glad I read but I probably won't be in a huge hurry to reread. If you're looking for a well-written fairy-tale spinoff that messes everything up the time period and the happy ending, then this is most definitely the book for you!

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