Who doesn't love a good fairy tale? I'm convinced that my love of romance in general dates back to the stack of well-thumbed fairy tale books of my childhood -- Grimms, Anderson, and their descendants and variants.
I must say I struggled a little bit with this book in the beginning. I don't think I've ever run into so many parentheticals and nested parentheticals in so few pages before:
It was going to be hot-- California, too-dry-to-tolerate, fifty-bottles-of-Gatorade hot-- but it wasn't hot yet. Still, she hoped she had on enough sunscreen (even if it did make her smell like a weird chemical coconut). She had her hands on her hips (which hadn't expanded [much] since she was a beautiful young girl, who caught the eye of every man) as she surveyed the stunningly large building in front of her...
The first couple of chapters are riddled with paragraphs like this, in both the heroine and the hero's viewpoint. My guess is that this sort of stylistic choice was employed to add the light-hearted, gossipy, "wacky" voice, in kind of a satiric version of an omniscient narrator, or a parent-to-child effect as though the story was being read aloud. I found it a little overdone/awkward, but it eased up relatively quickly.
While this is really a story about the heroine, I found the hero's arc to be very appealing. He starts out feeling defeated and past his prime, divorced and powerless. At times, this characterization even teeters toward unattractive, but his character progression saves him. In letting the people he loves shine on their own, this prince discovers true power, true magic. Charming is one of the better-drawn beta heroes I've seen, re-imagining his strength from the shallow "sweep you off your feet and into the sunset" style hero to the kind of man who provides a bedrock and battles villains, but stays out of the spotlight most of the time.
Stepmothers get a bad rap in fairytales, let's face it. Really, "step-mother" is shorthand for "amoral greedy woman who comes to a bad end." In this day and age of mixed families, it's time for an update.
I once read about a stepmother who listened to her stepchild relate a fond memory of something she'd shared with her mother. The child mis-remembered; it was something that had happened with the stepmom. But this particular biological mom was not the fairy-tale, loving, sadly deceased parent; she was alive and unwell and was not very capable of creating fond memories. My friend, the stepmother, in one of the more selfless gestures I've ever heard of, said nothing, allowing the child to re-imagine that lovely memory with a woman who really, really didn't deserve it...because it made the child happy.
All this is by way of saying even the best stepmoms-- you know, the ones who don't lead the kids out into the woods and dump them, or make them pick cinders out of the fireplace ashes-- have it tough. Grayson imagines a dark, intriguing backstory for this particular stepmother-- sometimes I was more interested in the backstory than the story-story.
Frankly I'm always a little leery of a story where the main character is an author; frequently it feels a little too self-referential. On the one hand, I can see how "telling her story" and the analog to the problematic (to the heroine) fairy tale genre makes it an obvious choice. On the other, it's... a little obvious. And a little self-referential.
And if you're tired of bitter unsatisfied women being cast as the villain, don't look to this book for any major changes. It seems that yesterday's Princess is today's Witch, with Charming's ex cast as the villain of the piece.
I thought the most interesting piece of the plot was the glimpse we got of the darker magics of the Kingdoms, but that element was a bit player at best. Still, it served to play up Charming's brains and protectiveness, which helped balance his slightly over-done "geek" element, and there's a seed or two that might come back in other books in Grayson's fairy tale universe.
Overall I enjoyed this character-driven story, mostly because it takes me back to my childhood enjoyment of fairy tales. It's a story about second chances, and the message is a real one: you have to work for your happily-ever-after. I thought it was uneven in places and sometimes felt like it was trying too hard; but it soon hit its stride and pulled together a readable reminisce with characters you'll root for.
Note: a review copy was provided to me by Sourcebooks.