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.
The Shadow in the Glass is a dark and atmospheric Cinderella retelling with plenty of teeth. J.J.A. Harwood takes the bare bones of the original tale but spins it in her own unique way, adding a touch of the grit and grime of Victorian London and a Gothic feel which gives it a much more sinister air. I feel like many readers will be taken in by this novel which depicts the realities of life for women in this time period, the choices they must make and the consequences. All tied up with a sprinkle of magic and foreboding.
I went in expecting something other than what this book was, but I was quite pleasantly surprised by what it actually turned out to be. If you could make sense of that confusing sentence then you deserve a medal! I knew this book would be dark, from the synopsis alone you can definitely determine that but Harwood doesn’t shy away from this and embraces it, making for such a chilling and suspenseful story. Like Ella, our heroine of sorts who gradually finds herself making grave choices and dealing with the fallout, as a reader I followed along, reading through my fingers – the tension is palpable and you just know what’s coming but are powerless to stop it.
While this has elements of a dark fairytale of sorts, it can also be read as historical fiction in the way it portrays the Victorian time period. I think this would be a great ‘entry level’ into historical fiction for readers who are trying to dip their toe into the genre or readers who have some familiarity with it but are seeking a modern spin in some ways. Specifically Harwood depicts the life of women, especially those who are less privileged. Now I’m not going to sugarcoat it here, this novel is quite bleak in many ways; from the exploration of sexual assault, power imbalance and desperation many of the characters face. However, I feel like this realism added to the book and it sets up the overarching story of Ella seeking an escape and then the whole wish element really well. It’s understandable why she makes some of the choices she does, even if some of them aren’t exactly agreeable or morally sound.
I really did feel for Ella and the other girls; Aoife, Leah and Daisy as they were forced to navigate their daily toils and labour as well as protecting themselves from the vile master of the house, Mr Pembroke who has a reprehensible reputation. I feel like many readers will feel the same sort of empathy and anger that this was so normalised at the time and while again, it doesn’t make everything Ella does okay – it adds nuance to the conversation at least. In such dire straits, I think anyone would be hard pressed not to make some wishes if a fairy godmother suddenly appeared, I think this element was well done and added so much gravity. The bargain is very faustian for sure. Ella realises that not all is as it seems with the wishes and she faces a dilemma each time she indulges which leads to some pretty wild consequences…
There was also a dash of romance, with the relationship between Ella and Charles, the Pembroke’s son who she grew up with but hasn’t seen in years due to him studying at Oxford. I thought they were cute together but the whole time you just knew that it was doomed from the start because of their different stations in society.
Overall, The Shadow in the Glass is a twisty, complex retelling of the classic tale, with small moments of whimsy and light which I would recommend to readers who enjoy retellings that are on the darker side.
Until next time,