Author: J.J.A. Harwood
Release date: 18 March 2021
Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tale, Mystery, Psychological
Once upon a time Ella had wished for more than her life as a lowly maid.
Now forced to work hard under the unforgiving, lecherous gaze of the man she once called stepfather, Ella’s only refuge is in the books she reads by candlelight, secreted away in the library she isn’t permitted to enter.
One night, among her beloved books of far-off lands, Ella’s wishes are answered. At the stroke of midnight, a fairy godmother makes her an offer that will change her life: seven wishes, hers to make as she pleases. But each wish comes at a price and Ella must to decide whether it’s one she’s willing to pay it.
The Shadow in the Glass promised a dark retelling of the classic fairy tale Cinderella that would appeal to fans of Erin Morgenstern, and to be frank these were the only reasons I had wanted to pick this book up. Not exactly the combination I had expected, but I saw two aspects I liked and I was game.
Of course, then I had come in with such high expectations. Whether or not Harwood delivered, is another question.
[C/W: maiming of a child, regular references to sexual abuse involving abusive power dynamics, in-depth description of miscarriage that very well may be magically-induced abortion]
After the death of her stepmother, Ella has gone from lady in training to Maid within her household controlled by her lecherous stepfather. Her only salvation is burning candles and sneaking into the library to escape into the world of a book.
One night, she is visited by a shadow of a black-eyed woman who offers her 7 wishes — the exchange being her soul once all seven wishes are complete. However, each and every wish will come with a price and Ella must decide if the price is worth paying.
I am glad I discovered this book. I’m usually into dark books in general, but there’s just something I always appreciate with twisted retellings of classic fairy-tales. The Shadow in the Glass infuses the classic Cinderella story with a layered, sensual, and embittered flavour. Harwood spares no time for nice yet empty platitudes, preferring to jump into the dark and destitute reality of Victorian London instead. Gone is the often-preached message of “kindness and valor triumphs over all,” and what is left is a darker, more humane story of passion, desperation, desire, and power.
Eleanor, or Ella, is such a riveting character to read. Her background, while reminiscent of the Cinderella archetype—a kind girl hurled into life of destitution and abuse—with all the expectations readers familiar with the classic tale might have for her, hints at a more twisted side that becomes more apparent as the book goes on. She does project the classic traits of being kind and caring to the people she loves, but yet in her lies a darkness buried deep within that begins to surface the moment she gets seven wishes (well, six that she seeks to use anyways) on her hands. Ella cares deeply for her friends, loves passionately, and wants desperately. Ella’s journey is a breathtaking race full to the brim with tension, passion, and desperation. What happens when her desires, both selfish and selfless, rapidly flourish to a rate she can’t control? Temptations are abound, of course. A combination of circumstances, desires, and blooming passion eventually drive Ella’s life to a series of decisions that come with their consequences — and this drives home the question what lengths would one go to for their happily-ever-after, and would that all be worth it?
One of the many things Harwood does well in The Shadow in the Glass is how she engages with her influences in this story. The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus aptly becomes the catalyst to Ella gaining her Faustian bargain of seven wishes for her soul. This book is, to me, one of the more successful takes on the concept of Faustian bargains as it borrows many influences from the original work, yet comes together on its own. There are several moments throughout the book where the parallels between the two become apparent, but The Shadow in the Glass strips away the philosophical and religious grandeur from Dr. Faustus and taps into its more human potential. I found this to work incredibly well in Harwood’s favour as I was able to sympathise more with Ella and understand the temptations she fails to resist. Brought together with the dark and destitute reality Victorian London pose to women of lower social status, The Shadow in the Glass presents an exploration of darker Cinderella archetypes while giving its protagonist ample reason to desire a more active role in her wishes. The vibrant prose and sense of magical realism, while reminiscent of Erin Morgenstern’s works (in a good way), also make way for mysteries, speculations, and multiple readings into what truly happened in this scenario. Was there truly something supernatural involved? Was the truth a lot more mundane then we might think? We’ll never truly know (although if you ask me, I’m in team supernatural), and there’s just something alluring about it.
The Shadow in the Glass had a lot going on in one package, and it all came together with a sense of a twisted beauty. I am honestly surprised at how much I ended up liking this book. Harwood pulled out all her stops for her debut delivering such a unique, dark, chilling, and deliciously sensual book; and she also manages to blend her source materials sophisticatedly to build a brilliant, vivid story of her own. Passion, desperation, and desire run high in The Shadow in the Glass, and with every tick on the clock the tension gradually ramps up until Harwood swings her last heart stopping blow.
I will leave this review with this one question to keep in mind for future readers who plan to pick up this book: who, truly, is The Shadow in the Glass?
The Shadow in the Glass is indeed a Cinderella retelling, but make no mistake: it’s creepy, it’s undeniably gothic; and it’s clear happily-ever-after is not without cost, at least not here.
Dare to make a wish?
The Shadow in the Glass is now available for pre-order, set for official release on 18 March 2021.
Thank you HarperVoyager UK for giving me an advance review copy of The Shadow in the Glass! I am grateful to have been provided a review copy in exchange for an honest review.