Orphan Maia doesn’t see the point of love when it only brings pain: Her dying mother made a bargain with the evil, all-powerful ruler of their world that anyone who hurt her beloved daughter would be punished; her new stepmother went mad with grief when Maia’s father died; and her stepsisters are desperate for their mother’s approval, yet she always spurns them. And though her family has turned her into a despised servant, Maia must always pretend to be happy, or else they’ll all be struck dead by the curse.
Anax, heir to the Duke of Sardis, doesn’t believe in love either—not since he discovered that his childhood sweetheart was only using him for his noble title. What’s the point of pretending to fall in love with a girl just so she’ll pretend to fall in love with him back? But when his father invites all the suitable girls in the kingdom to a masked ball, Anax must finally give in and select a wife.
As fate would have it, the preparations for the masquerade bring him Maia, who was asked by her eldest stepsister to deliver letters to Anax. Despite a prickly first encounter, he is charmed and intrigued by this mysterious girl who doesn’t believe in love. Anax can’t help wishing to see her again—and when he does, he can’t help falling in love with her. Against her will, Maia starts to fall in love with him too. But how can she be with him when every moment his life is in danger from her mother’s deadly bargain?
A Cinderella retelling in the Cruel Beauty universe? Oh my god, I was so in! When going in, I didn’t even think it would be as good as it turned out to be (I was on a Cruel Beauty high and didn’t think any other book would feel as good any time soon). Hodge has already proved in CB that she can write beautifully rendered morally complex heroines, and this Cinderella is no different. The Maia of this tale is a tortured stepdaughter, yes, but her real prison is her dead mother’s love, who has been haunting her and protecting her ‘happiness’. I am all for women who defy the norm of being good and kind, and Maia was a character who had to be happy, while thinking others to be good and kind, just to save them from the wrath of the demons on her mother’s leash.
Also, another twist in the story is that she isn’t even pursuing the prince (in this case, a Lord) for herself. She does it for her stepsister, whom she first thinks to be a nuisance on her life. Her stepmother is villain of the story, yes, but the characters are like a wild version of Hell Girl, getting their desires in a warped package. There is angst, yes, but justifiable angst – Maia truly can’t care for another if she wants them to live. Her relationship with Anax also builds slowly, from a place of honesty and respect, to understanding what love is. The real character development for Maia is realizing that not all love is cursed and twisted, and finding that a part of it is also letting go. I honestly am so in love with this world, with Arcadia being such a messed up place and those visits from our Gentle Lord. Any more installments in this universe, and I am so ready for them.