Mechanica by Betsy Cornwell

I’ve been talking about Mechanica for years, so you may have been under the impression that I already read Betsy Cornwell’s novel. I hadn’t. I met Cornwell because she and I went to the same MFA program at the University of Notre Dame. To be supportive, I pre-ordered Mechanica, a 2015 feminist steampunk retelling of Cinderella. If you’ve read and reviewed a retelling of a classic fairy tale, it’s likely I recommended Mechanica in your comments.

Several reviews on Goodreads claim the novel is terrible and boring. I have theories about that. The style of writing is decidedly formal, not conversational like many young adult novels today are. There is no current slang, dialogue is brief and infrequent, and social media’s nonexistent. It’s a style of writing that feels formal compared to The Hate U Give and Dumplin’, reading more like Anne of Green Gables or A Little Princess. For those who say “nothing happens,” I answer that loads happens, and the plot progresses on each page. The only difference is we don’t progress via dialogue the way current YA is often moved forward. The protagonist doesn’t sit and wonder how other people feel about her; she’s working and creating. I can respect that readers may not like the style of writing, but to say “nothing happens” is inaccurate.

This young adult novel is about Nicolette, daughter of an inventor mother and salesman father. When Nicolette was a girl, the kingdom of Esting had a stable relationship with the people of Faerie, a country across the sea that Esting colonized over 200 years ago. Nicolette hears claims that “Esting’s dominion over Faierie is not peaceful” and that “the Fey are not truly people.” Unlike the Disney Cinderella story, Nicolette’s parents disagree frequently, and neither seems the perfectly loving parent. Their disagreements about Fey people and magic are exacerbated when two members of the royal family are poisoned by a Fey flower that can cure Fey croup when used correctly, but is deadly when one consumes too much. The king puts a embargo on anything coming out of Faerie, Fey products are transitioned to black markets, and Fey people must hide or leave Esting.

Then, Nicolette’s mother contracts Fey croup, and without the banned medicine, she dies. Her father marries a woman with two mean but beautiful daughters, and he dies as a soldier. Despite the stepmother being independently wealthy, Nicolette is forced to be the servant when the beloved housekeeper, half-Fey Mr. Candery, is fired and returns to Faerie.

Disney’s Cinderella is one of my favorite movies, and so I was always looking for similarities and departures. Instead of mice and birds to help, Nicolette receives assistance when she discovers stored away little mechanical bugs her mother created. In particular, they learn to run Nicolette’s coal-powered sewing machine. Other mechanical devices help Nicolette complete her chores expediently. Her “Steps” don’t know, of course, and this leaves Nicolette time to create in her mother’s old workshop. But her mother’s mechanical bugs and a tiny coal-powered horse seem more than helpful: they may be alive, thanks to some Faerie ashes, ashes Nicolette doesn’t understand.

Other similarities to the Disney version — horse and carriage, glass shoes, a prince, dancing all night — are all there, but with fun twists that brought more emotional depth than the animated story. There is a ball that showcases some inventors’ works, and the following day is a Royal Exposition of Art and Science. That exposition is what Nicolette cares about because if she gets enough attention, she may secure a patron and finally move out of the Steps’ lives. I enjoyed the turn away from love at first sight and toward emphasis on science and business endeavors.

Mechanica is decidedly feminist. After she is convinced to go to the ball and dances all night with the prince, she isn’t love struck, she’s mad. No one cared about her inventions (including the mechanical horse and glass carriage she created and rode up in) because they were just looking at her dancing and wishing they had their own romantic royal moment. And though Nicolette could leave and work as a servant for another family, she wants to exit her home with dignity instead of running away. Thus, she crafts items to sell and saves up to buy parts to build her invention for the exposition. No fairy god mother to sing it all into existence, just hard work, creativity, and intelligence.

Based on what I’ve read about Betsy Cornwell’s books, her feelings about romance and sex are decidedly accepting, so I wasn’t sure how Mechanica would conclude, given there is a prince and other characters with whom Nicolette may fall in love. Or does she even have to fall in love? Also, the Fey people are all queer; they have no gender and prefer the pronouns fe/fer. If an Esting person wants to disrespect a Fey person, they use he/her and ignore the preferred pronouns. I appreciate that Cornwell nods to LGBTQ issues without trying to make the Fey a specific population. In fantasy and science fiction, it’s common for authors to use race, gender, or sexuality to represent a larger societal issue and do it offensively (e.g. villains are yellow, black, or red aliens).

The novel ends with its tootsies on the edge of a precipice. What I didn’t realize is that another Cornwell novel, Venturess, is the sequel — and that Mechanica doesn’t answer all of its own mysteries! I have to know about the war between Esting and Faerie, what these mysterious ashes are that seem to bring mechanical objects to life but are possibly dangerous, and if romance will be a part of Nicolette’s story. Gah! Off I go to the library to get the next book.

23 comments

  1. This sounds amazing. Esting and Faerie sound like England and Ireland. I’ve never seen Cinderella, or any Disney retelling of other people’s stories, but this sounds very faithful to the version I read in Grimm’s Fairy Tales many years ago – in a feminist, steam punk sort of way. Sounds ideal for any number of the women in my family.

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    • Many of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales are quite violent, and once you’ve been raised on a steady diet of Disney fairy tales, it’s hard to get through the original! If you recommend Mechanica to anyone, be sure to let them know about the follow-up novel, Venturess. My review is coming Thursday.

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  2. I love fairy tale retellings when they’re done well, and this one sounds really interesting! I’m glad to hear the heroine is feminist, and it sounds like the more formal prose may be a nod to the traditional nature of the original story it draws from.

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    • I figured she wouldn’t care so much about a prince because this is a feminist twist, but I was surprised that she refused to leave the home in which she was raised because she didn’t want the “Steps” to be able to say she ran off or left without dignity.

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  3. This sounds interesting! Glad to see that the novel deals so thoughtfully with feminism and LGBT issues, and that it offers a different kind of reading experience than many YA novels.

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    • One character scolds Nicolette because most of her inventions are related to domestic duties, but Nicolette points out that because women are relegated to domestics, they don’t have time to dream and do, so her machines help with that. I really liked that moment.

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  4. This sounds like a fascinating retelling! I love the idea that Nicolette is more interested in her inventions than falling in love with the prince and that she works at it instead of having a fairy godmother who simply waves a wand to make it all happen for her.

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  5. This sounds good! I like what you say about the writing style, as I find the very sparse, modern, dialogue-heavy style off-putting in a lot of recent YA novels (earlier YA fairy tale retellings by e.g. Robin McKinley were written very differently!)

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  6. Sounds interesting! I like the idea of a YA book with an older-feeling writing style. Everything today is “voice-y” and I’m not always invested in that. At least not when I keep reading it over and over.

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    • Yeah, I don’t like that first-person conversational style either, which bums me out because so much great fat fiction is coming from YA. I’ve found a few great YA novels centered on fat characters, but the books aren’t wildly popular.

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      • I think it’s really difficult to pull off. I just read With the Fire on High and the voice was great! It felt fresh and real, like an actual teen, not someone trying to talk like a teen. But not everyone’s Elizabeth Acevedo, sadly. I think a bunch of teen voices sound either inauthentic or over-the-top sarcastic, like, oh yes, what we know of teens is they’re all immature and obnoxious??? I just want to plead, “Please, please talk to an actual teen.”

        I have to admit I can’t think of any YA with fat characters aside from Dumplin’. It’s definitely an area for YA to think about as the community continues to push for diverse characters.

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  7. “tootsies on a precipice”-love that!!!! What a great and thoughtful review this was. It can be difficult to review books of authors we know, so very well done here.

    This sounds like an interesting one, I really enjoy re-tellings actually, they are no easy feat, but so entertaining when done well!

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  8. This sounds wonderful! I love retellings, and I have no problem with formal writing reminiscent of Anne of Gables or A Little Princess. I’m going to check this one out. It might be a good option for my twins, who are reading a lot of YA these days.

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