Review: The Ugly Stepsister

Book Cover
title: The Ugly Stepsister
author: Aya Ling
pages: 452
format: eBook
buy it: Amazon | Goodreads
rating: 4/5

When Kat accidentally rips apart an old picture book, she's magically transported into the world of Cinderella--as Katriona, one of the ugly stepsisters! Life turns upside down now that she’s a highborn lady and must learn how to survive the social season, including how to get through the door in a huge metal hoop skirt. To get back, she'll have to complete the story, right to the end of happily ever after. But the odds are huge: the other stepsister is drop-dead gorgeous, the fairy godmother is nowhere to be found, and the prince, despite being insanely hot, openly dislikes balls. Can she ever return to the modern world?

This book was just so utterly...charming. I loved it. I was completely hooked by it. And all despite being chock full of tropes and having very little new to offer. ...I can't for the life of me figure out why it worked.

Kat is your typical, ordinary, everyday high school girl who exists in high school limbo between popular and friendless and has every kind of trouble talking to cute boys. The book even opens with her stuttering and stumbling when confronted with a hot exchange student. Totally typical for a YA. And...I...just....loved it? I know, I don't get it either, but the voice and the writing style was enough to make me go "Yup, I believe this, please tell me more!"

The hottie has no part to play in this book by the way, he's forgotten a few chapters later as Kat accidentally breaks an enchanted book (how did she get the book? WHO KNOWS.) and gets sucked into a England-ish, Regency-ish version of Cinderella. Cast in the role of the 'ugly' stepsister. A story where Cinderella is meek, the stepsisters are actually pretty beautiful, and the Evil Stepmother has basically the same plan as Angelica Huston in Ever After.

And again, There's nothing about this I haven't already seen, but Kat's reactions to everything are earnest and adorable. The plot throws in an invisible goblin to explain everything in a plot-dump and....yeah, I'm cool with it? Frankly, having the plot explained lets us get into the fun parts faster and I don't even care that it's a whole chapter of exposition. And it is a fun plot. In order to get back to her own world, Kat has to see the story through to its happy ending, but no one seems to want to play along. There's no ball on the horizon, Elle doesn't seem to particularly want to be rescued, and there's no fairy godmother in sight.

To make things worse (or better), Kat's attempts to bring Elle and the prince together just manage to make Edward interested in Kat instead! Oh no! It's so trite. It's so convoluted.'s fucking adorable. I can't help it. I love these two. Edward is sweet and charming and Kat is flustered and flabbergasted and probably the best saving grace about it is that she admits she's normal by her own time's standards and only special relative to this time. (To which Edward says "probably true, but I like you anyway" and aslkjfjkashdfkjlashdflkjhasdfkjlhasd)
Kat winds up embroiled in a worker's rights movement (it makes sense in context) and the whole thing is thoroughly simplified and compressed and...I don't care. It's a YA, written in a pretty young voice, and it's a B-plot. As a "teen's early introduction to Changing the System Takes Time" it's pretty good.

I just loved it. It was things I'd already seen, but done in a way that exactly suited me.

With a few caveats. (Yeah, you knew that was coming.) The fatfobia is rife throughout this book. There's an overarching theme of "beauty is the ultimate feature" which I can kind of overlook, because Kat's attempting to operate on fairy-tale logic and no one else in the book really goes along with her. But then she also equates "thin" to "pretty" regularly. And not just any thin, but "model-thin," which...nope. There's problematic lines throughout, likely more than I even noticed, but I picked out at least Islamophobia and transphobia. 

That, and, the target age group. Throughout the book I thought that it was aimed at mid-to-younger teens, like 15 ish. I guessed that just based on the voice and the complexity of what was going on, because the character herself is 17. I was happy to see something a little younger; so many YA these days is just NA searching for a label. But then the second book has her at 24 and she almost has sex in the first chapter and I'm going....holy rusted whiplash, Batman. What's the target age group?

IDK, maybe the target is 32, because I'm halfway through the sequel already.

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