SOMEONE ELSE’S SHOES by Aldrea Alien (BOOK REVIEW)
Content warnings: domestic/family abuse and neglect (not graphic, consistent with Cinderella tropes); fantasy racism; fantasy slavery; multiple mentions of violent punishment/beatings/whippings; imprisonment; discussion of gender dysphoria (though as part of a positive transition experience).
Stepping out in borrowed shoes has never been so dangerous.
Stripped of her inheritance as a child by a greedy stepmother, Alla’s future hovers between drudgery and slavery. Having spent years toiling in the mansion that was once her happy home, tending to her stepmother’s every whim, she has long since put aside any thoughts of a better future.
When a chance encounter in the marketplace leaves her with an invitation to the upcoming ball, her only opportunity to play out an old dream of seeing inside the palace walls is by being someone she’s not. A farce that could see her executed or sold. But will she be able to maintain the illusion once she meets Princess Viktoriya?
I’ve lost count of how many Cinderella retellings I’ve read at this point, but here’s one that really surprised me in the spin it put on the story. Someone Else’s Shoes is only 161 pages long, but it’s a very sweet and compelling read that works on both the romance and fantasy level. I completely fell in love with both Alla, who is kind but also fierce, and Princess Viktoriya, who was just so swoonworthy, and I loved watching their story unfold in a fairy tale way, but I also really enjoyed the glimpses of the wider magical world. It hits the perfect point between familiarity and freshness.
What impressed me here was how deep the worldbuilding managed to run while keeping so well to the bones of the Cinderella story! While it hits all the key points of the fairytale, this is a full fantasy world with some complex and flawed systems in place, and I’m interested to see that this novella is only one of a number of linked books in the same setting – I’ll definitely be keen to read more. In particular, Alla is hated by her step-family not only because she is a reminder of her father’s first marriage, but also because of her elven heritage, as elves are seen as a subclass; this is a world that’s progressive in its gender politics, but regressive in its treatment of certain people. Cinderella as a story often seems to glorify the monarchy, but I was impressed just how far Someone Else’s Shoes was willing to go to subvert that – Princess Viktoriya is definitely not the kind of royal who simply accepts her privilege, and there are a lot of interesting discussions between her and Alla which feel very incisive.
I also really enjoyed the characters – Alla conforms to Cinderella’s kind stereotype but adds a strong streak of desire for justice, and her step-family are deliciously evil. The real stand-out for me, though, was Vik. The ‘Prince Charming’ figure is often a bit, well, boring, as their only role is to be a symbol of a better life for Cinderella. Not so for Vik, who is a fully realised and complex character (and still extremely charming!). Her experience of transition is an interesting foil for Alla’s journey towards accepting her true elven self, but it’s also just well-handled as simply being part of Vik. I found the romance between the two of them completely enthralling, as their personalities just shine together.
If you’re looking for a fairy tale retelling with some real bite to it, then I highly recommend Someone Else’s Shoes. It’s full of interesting concepts and complex characters, all wrapped up in one small package.