Book Review

The Shadow in the Glass by J.J.A. Harwood

The Shadow in the Glass by J.J.A. Harwood is a dark, gothic retelling of Cinderella set in Victorian England. After Eleanor Hartley’s wealthy benefactor dies, Mr. Pembroke, her new guardian, relegates her to service as a maid in the same household where she was being trained to be a lady. Now she spends her days doing grueling, thankless work while also protecting herself and the younger maids from Mr. Pembroke’s drunken advances. The library is her only respite, where she finds comfort and hope locked inside books. One night while reading about Doctor Faustus, a mysterious figure appears to offer Eleanor seven wishes to change her life. The price? Only her soul. What could possibly go wrong?

Book cover for The Shadow in the Glass by JJA Harwood.

It was not like losing a finger, or an eye, or a lock of hair—she knew what she would be without them. If she bartered her soul away, what would she become?

J.J.A. Harwood, The Shadow in the Glass

Despite the fact that Eleanor delights in the magic, mystery, and escape her favorite fantasy novels offer, her real life simply does not compare, so she’s understandably hesitant to believe her wishes might actually come true. She tests the waters by wishing for the fabled glass slippers first, and in doing so, discovers each wish has a price: life. Horrified by this revelation, Eleanor wants to back out of the bargain, but it’s too late. She decides not to make anymore wishes, but a number of unfortunate events force her hand. Instead of making extravagant wishes that might truly change Eleanor’s circumstances, her wishes end up being relatively small, focused only on individual aspects of immediate, arguably temporary problems.

One of my favorite parts of reading this novel is critiquing Eleanor’s wishes: Should we fault her for her surgical approach to wish-making? Would it have been better to make one giant wish that might truly help Eleanor to rise from her station? Maybe. But these questions reveal far more about the reader. Eleanor’s sold off her soul in pieces, and we’re compelled to wonder how she might have done it better. How deliciously horrifying to implicate us in her descent!

A truly good person is a rare and glittering thing—and you, dear girl, are by no means saintly.

J.J.A. Harwood, The Shadow in the Glass

Eleanor rationalizes her actions, even as they hurt innocent people, and she’s repeatedly stunned to learn people don’t actually like her much once they get to know her true nature. She claims all she wants to do is protect her friends, liberate her fiancé from those wishing to control him, and make her way in society as a respectable lady, but she never actually manages to do any of it successfully, in spite of all her wishes. She constantly insists she’s a good person who deserves good things, especially as her decisions become increasingly chaotic and morally ambiguous. In proper gothic fashion, other events that occur over the course of the story can explain the wishes granted, so at certain points, I wondered if there was even a fairy godmother at all. Perhaps the dark spirit that appears to Eleanor is actually a reflection of her own soul.

They say the best villains view themselves as the heroes of their own stories, and without even realizing it, Eleanor transforms into a villain. This forces us to reassess our read on her: Can we still root for her? Are we obligated to hope for her redemption now? Certainly, Mr. Pembroke is a vile character, and a couple young women in the novel are despicable enough to be wicked stepsisters, and the fairy godmother isn’t sweet and doting at all, but what does it mean when our hero can be lined up in their ranks? And what does it mean when we want her to triumph anyway?

It is not love you crave, nor wealth, nor all your pretty dresses. It is power.

J.J.A. Harwood, The Shadow in the Glass

A twisted fairy tale told in seven parts, The Shadow in the Glass is a fast-paced fantasy with familiar characters and themes cast in a dark new light. Enjoyable, surprising, and engaging, Harwood’s spin on Cinderella is sure to stay with you. Eat your hearts out, Brothers Grimm!

Thank you to NetGalley and HarperVoyager for sharing an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


The Shadow in the Glass at a glance

Book details

Title: The Shadow in the Glass
Author: J.J.A. Harwood
Publisher: HarperVoyager
Release Date: May 4, 2021
Page Count: 416

Synopsis

A deliciously gothic story of wishes and curses – a new dark fairy tale set against a Victorian backdrop full of lace and smoke.

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 decide whether it’s one she’s willing to pay…

A smouldering, terrifying new spin on Cinderella – perfect for fans of Laura Purcell and Erin Morgenstern.

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Published by Joya

I spend my free time knitting, baking, gardening, letterpress printing and bookbinding when I can. A cozy nook, a steaming cup of tea, a quiet morning, petrichor in the air, and an inviting pile of books beside me is my bliss.

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