Black History Month: The Legacy of Brandy’s Cinderella (1997)

I know I am a bit late with this one as we are now done with Black History Month and starting Women’s History Month for March, but I’ve been writing this for a while and didn’t want it to go unpublished.

Of the twelve official Disney Princesses, only one is black: Tiana from 2009’s The Princess and the Frog. But twelve years before that, a made-for-TV musical really made history: with the 1997 version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, young singer/actress Brandy became the first black disney princess. Her Cinderella was recently brought to Disney+ for streaming, allowing a new generation to appreciate this classic and its legacy. 

The story behind Cinderella is quite interesting, and you can read more about it in Kendra James’s 2017 oral history for Shondaland.  Whitney Houston had been wanting to do a diverse take on Cinderella, and it finally coalesced as part of the re-launch of ABC’s Wonderful World of Disney in the fall of 1997. The producers wanted to use a “color-blind casting” approach, resulting in a black Cinderella (Brandy) and Fairy Godmother (Houston) as well as a Filipino prince (Paolo Montalban) with a black mother (Whoopi Goldberg) and a white father (Victor Garber). Cinderella’s stepfamily also has black and white members. No mention of race is ever made, almost to the point of illogicality, as you can see women of many races trying on Cinderella’s glass slipper, which had clearly been originally worn by a black woman. However, the fantasy nature of the story makes it particularly easy to skim over this and suspend our disbelief.

This Cinderella succeeds on so many levels: it’s fun and funny and beautiful to look at, with songs that hit perfect emotional beats.  It is such a satisfying take on the Cinderella tale that I included it in my Top 5 Versions of Cinderella.  And of course, the representation for BIPOC was hugely important to a generation of little girls who could finally see themselves as a Disney princess, or in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

Its legacy can be seen in many ways.  We will soon be seeing another black Disney princess, with Halle Bailey cast as Ariel in the upcoming live action remake of The Little Mermaid.  And another show now streaming owes it a debt as well: Shondaland’s Bridgerton, which cast black actors as members of Regency England aristocracy.

Lady Danbury and the Duke of Hastings in Bridgerton

As a fan of Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series of romance novels, I’ve really enjoyed the Netflix adaptation, and I think the casting decisions are definitely a strength of it.  However, the discussion of race is slightly different than in Cinderella, mainly because there is one.  There is clearly still racism and oppression in this world; part of the plot hinges on the old Duke of Hastings’ desire to continue his line and maintain their place in society.   But I wasn’t sure if the show would address the issue head on until I watched the fourth episode, where Lady Danbury says, “We were two separate societies divided by color until a king fell in love with one of us.  Look at everything it is doing for us, allowing us to become.”

This is a reference to Queen Charlotte, played wonderfully in a greatly enhanced role by Golda Rosheuvel.  The real historical Queen Charlotte has been rumored over the years to have had African ancestry, and while there is really not much evidence of this, it makes a great starting point for a reimagining of Regency England as a more diverse society in a contemporary way.  There are some flaws with this approach to race, as detailed in this piece for the NYT by Salamishah Tillet, but while it is a bit shallow and puts the burden of racial issues on the black characters, it still results in a more representative show and allows some very talented actors to take on now-iconic roles that they might not have gotten in a more traditional casting method.

In general, Bridgerton is more in line with a contemporary approach to casting, called “color-conscious” as opposed to “color-blind.”  The goal of this approach is to acknowledge the historical racial biases and discrimination in the entertainment industry while still striving for representation of BIPOC in media.  Rather than ignore identity, color-consciousness celebrates it.  The poster child for this is the stage musical Hamilton, a play about the white founding fathers that went so far as to put out an open casting call for “non-white actors,” turning American history multicultural.  I think the success of Hamilton, and indeed Bridgerton, which is now Netflix’s biggest show ever, indicates the appeal of this strategy and I’m sure we will continue to see more of it in the future.

After all, as romance author Tessa Dare says, “If the world can agree on nothing else, at least 63 million households can celebrate the Duke of Hastings’ perfectly arched eyebrow.”

Bridgerton's Duke of Hastings' spoon boasts own Instagram page – leaving  fans OBSESSED | HELLO!
Yes, that eyebrow.

Review: Sorcerer to the Crown series by Zen Cho

Don’t you just love it when you find a book that combines your favorite genres?  Fantasy is what I read the most, and Regency romances are my go-to when I want to relax; I get so excited when the two come together!  Historical fantasies set in the Regency period of England are such a treat, and Zen Cho has written an engaging pair of them as her first foray into novel writing.

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Sorcerer to the Crown introduces the troubling state of magic in England during the Napoleonic Wars: the land of Fairy has closed its borders, drying up England’s source of magic, and it is up to the Sorcerer Royal Zacharias Wythe to keep magic from dying.  But that’s not easy for the country’s first black sorcerer, especially one being accused of murder and dealing with mysterious health problems, not to mention the appearance of a troublesome mixed-race orphan named Prunella Gentleman who may just change the course of magic forever.

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The True Queen follows up as a companion novel, following a young amnesiac woman from Malaysia whose sister has been lost in the Fairy realm.  Muna turns to the magicians (well, particularly the magiciennes) of England for help and finds herself entangled in Fairy legends with the fate of both worlds at stake.

Overall, this is a solid duology and I’d be happy to read any further books that Cho writes in this series.

Pros:

  • POC and queer main characters that feel natural to the time period
  • Slow burn romance that is kept as a side plot
  • Themes dealing with the colonialism and sexism of the time
  • Dragons!
  • The prose does not feel modern, but rather more fitting to the period
  • A bit of mystery/suspense, but doesn’t try too hard
  • Sorcerer has Cinderella motifs (with Malaysian witch Mak Genggang as a crazy fairy godmother…)
  • Either novel could stand alone, but they also fit well together

Cons: 

  • Both books can be slow, even in the action-y parts.  It took me a while to get through them.
  • The magic system is interesting but not laid out as clearly as I would like, and so one of Sorcerer’s magic-related plot twists came out of nowhere to me 
  • Sorcerer has a terrible cover that is neither appealing nor informative.  True Queen greatly improved in that regard, but I would love a reprint with better, coordinating covers.

Hope you guys can check these out; happy reading!

 

Slightly Subpar Sequels

There’s nothing better than getting sucked into a series where you just want to keep reading book after book.  But for every series like Girl of Fire and Thorns, where I found the second book to be a huge improvement on the first, there is also a series where the quality dips after the first, or the story goes off in a completely different direction.  I read a couple of books recently that, while perfectly fine books, did not live up to their predecessors in my mind.

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Dragonshadow

By Elle Katharine White

I enjoyed the initial book Heartstone (billed as Pride and Prejudice with dragons) earlier this year; however this follow up went in a bit of a different direction and lost my interest.

For a series where the first entry adhered almost completely to the plot points of P&P, the second book takes a hard left and, aside from the characters of the previous book and an occasional “sir,” has no relation to Austen or the Regency whatsoever that I could tell.  The closest connection I could make is Northanger Abbey, both involving a visit to a mysterious house of secrets, but since everything that Aliza imagines at Castle Selwyn is actually true, the lesson seems to have been lost.

As much as I wasn’t crazy about the slavish adherence to P&P in the first book, without the Austen connection the sequel lost one of the things that drew me to the series and became just a decent generic fantasy. (I did like that it incorporates further mythological creatures instead.)  Another issue is that without the P&P backbone, this story is not as tightly plotted and seemed like it was stretched out to make a trilogy. It takes the entire first half of the book for Aliza and Alastair to get where they are going, which seemed like a very slow start to me.

But as a last note, it does take a serious and mature look at some difficult aspects of married life that I think is great for a YA novel to explore.
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Suitors and Sabotage

By Cindy Anstey

This YA Regency intrigue was entertaining but kind of forgettable. I discovered the first two books when I was on a Regency romance kick, and really enjoyed them, but I didn’t really feel anything special about this one. Perhaps the formula is getting old for me? (Though these 3 books are similar, they are more companion novels than a series; there is no overlap in characters and no overarching plotline.)

I think the level of tension and drama was not quite up to the level of the first two books.  For comparison, the first book Love, Lies, and Spies begins with the heroine hanging off a cliff; this one starts with a lovely picnic among some scenic ruins.  It was also less epic in scope, nothing to do with international espionage or even kidnapping, just some vaguely threatening events.

 

Overall, I’d give these two sequels 3/5 stars, while I probably would have rated their predecessors around 4 stars.  While I enjoyed reading them, I doubt I’ll continue with either series, or ever revisit them in the future. On to better books!

Regency Romance…with a bit of Magic

So I recently went on a months-long Regency Romance kick.  It’s been a wonderful escape from everything going on in my life and in the world.

The “Regency” period refers to a time in the early 1800s when Britain was ruled by the Prince Regent (later King George IV), because his father George III was deemed unfit. (This era also includes the Napoleonic Wars.)

Not actual Austen books

Jane Austen is of course one of the most famous authors of the Regency period, and I have read all six of her completed novels many times (my favorites being Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice).  So it’s no surprise that in the twentieth century a whole genre developed around writing similar novels, now as historical fiction.

Georgette Heyer essentially created the Regency romance genre, doing meticulous research to provide readers with accurate information about the period, using the same phrases people of the time would have used, and with the same worldview.  This has spun out into a large, varied genre whose books have varying degrees of historical detail, humor, intrigue, sex, and even sometimes a little magic.

Georgette Heyer

As I said above, for Regency Romance, there is no better place to start than the works of Georgette Heyer.  I am currently working my way through her thirty-some historical romance novels, and there are so many things to love.  She comes very close to Jane Austen in her dry wit and love of the ridiculous in her characters.  I am constantly laughing as I read them.  I love that she writes with 8367225such historical detail; I’ve learned so much about the culture of that time.

I also love that she has many varied plots and characters: she has some Gothic novels, some mysteries, settings in London and in the country, main characters that are young and silly, or older and more sensible, couples that have known each other forever or have just met.  Her romance is very clean, usually with some kisses at the end.

Here are a few of my favorites so far:

The Grand Sophy: The second of her novels that I read, and the one that got me hooked.  Sophy is a tour-de-force main character, the kind of person that can manipulate everyone around her into doing what’s best for them.  The ending gets a little ridiculous, 11727810but it’s so funny you won’t care.

The Quiet Gentleman: I liked that this one has some mystery in it as well as romance; the main character suffers several attempts on his life after returning home to claim his inheritance.  It was pretty easy to figure out who the culprit was, but I still enjoyed it.  I also liked that the heroine is very unromantic and sensible—a girl after my own heart.

Bath Tangle:  This novel features several couples, all with varying (but entertaining) 11689134personalities, and it is set mostly in Bath as the title implies.  I really enjoyed the interplay between as the characters as they all struggle to figure out what they really want.

The Alastair-Audley series: The three main books in the series (These Old Shades, Devil’s Cub, and Regency Buck) are absolute classics.  The heroes are not always particularly likeable, but the heroines are always capable of handling them.  These books probably have the most history in them, too, dealing with many important figures and events of the day.  The first two are actually set in the Georgian period just before the Regency which gives the series even great scope.

Lester Family series by Stephanie Laurens

The Reasons for Marriage • A Lady of Expectations • An Unwilling Conquest • A Comfortable Wife

24406970This is a series of “reformed rake” stories all centering around one family.  It’s not really necessary to read them in order, but I liked that they were all connected, and many of the same characters appear throughout.

The first book, The Reasons for Marriage, was probably my favorite.  It features an apparent marriage of convenience that turns into something more.  I particularly liked that the heroine Lenore was intelligent, independent, and even a little introverted; her eventual pregnancy is also part of the plot, which resonated with me currently.

These are actually the first Harlequin romance novels I have ever read, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed them.  Though more racy than Heyer’s novels, they are fairly tame in terms of adult content.

I also started reading Laurens’ Cynster family series, and those are much more explicit in a bodice-ripper style.  As I told my husband, I was 7% of the way into the first book and there was already a hot shirtless guy running around.  For reasons.  Anyways, the Cynster books are not as much my cup of tea, but also feature some entertaining characters.

Love, Lies, and Spies by Cindy Anstey

25320766I loved the intrigue and adventure in this recent, lighthearted YA romance.  It was just wonderfully fluffy and charming.  I also loved that the heroine Juliana is a scientist trying to get her work published!

The book was nothing particularly groundbreaking, but it was entertaining from the very first chapter.  The main couple was very cute.  There was quite a lot of stuff like Miss Telford had very nice eyes and a nice smile but Spencer wasn’t going to think about that right now.

The author also published another YA Regency title this year, Duels and Deceptions, which I have on hold at the library and hope to read soon.

Now…onto the magic!

Newt’s Emerald by Garth Nix

24737347On my quest to read more of the authors from the twisted fairy tale anthology I enjoyed last year, I uncovered this gem (pun slightly intended).

This one has all of the charm of a Regency romance, plus dangerous magic, adventure on the high seas, and assumed identities thrown in, too.  It was a wonderful mix of genres; I think it leans a little YA also.

The first chapter, in which Lady Newtington’s (Newt’s) emerald is stolen, read a bit like a short story, and then the rest of the book kind of goes off in a different direction in searching for the emerald, with a bit of shift in tone.  It was a little weird, but the book was so entertaining it didn’t bother me much.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

This is the first in a series about a family of sisters that have some talent for glamour, aka8697507 magic, which is kind of considered a womanly art.  I really, really liked how the concept of illusionary magic was done here; it was interesting and could easily be explored further in the series.  Although the tone is more adult, I don’t recall anything more than a bit of kissing.

However, the characters and plot were rather average.  I read this several months ago and can’t even remember all that much about it.  The heroine Jane was interesting enough, but I did not take to the hero at all, finding him at turns boring and confusing.

So, in short, I don’t plan on reading any more of the series.

Do you guys have any favorite Regency stories (of any genre!) to recommend?