Many thanks to Disney Press and NetGalley for providing an e-ARC of this book.
Everyone heard of this fairy-tale, about a young girl forced to work in her own château as a servant. This punishment was inflicted by her cruel and cold-hearted stepmother. But how this cycle of abuse start and whatever happened to the stepfamily of this young girl after becoming queen? In Cold Hearted, the eight installments of Serena Valentino's freshly New York Times Bestselling Villains series, we go back in time before Cinderella's family reconstruction, to understand how everything crumbled down.
Lady Tremaine possesses a form of independence with an essential amount of money of her own, two daughters quite bossy, a household where servants are treated well, and a massive hole in her life after the death of her first husband. Everythings's rushed and become complicated when she decides to marry a new man, moving to his land and home, in a place where stepmothers are destined to become wicked. Cinderella's stepmother and stepsisters are allowed to tell their version of the story this time, as we learn about their upbringing, friends, customs, and troubles. What makes Cinderella’s stepmother so terrifying is that she doesn’t need magic to be threatening. A sinister glare and hurtful words, without raising her voice, are enough to make her feared and hateful: Serena Valentino portrays her in the most accurate way possible, therefore. Though magic plays a pivotal role in this story, it isn't the only factor responsible for the Tremaines' unhappiness. The backstory crafted for Lady Tremaine, Anastasia and Drizella is based on what makes Serena Valentino’s writing style so admired and magical while creating a unique story: we found ourselves once again in beautiful parlors with French doors or giant ballrooms in dreamy estates with discussions about destiny and how fairy tales are cautionary stories as well as different types of relationships explored between women, all done in a refreshing tone. Though the focus of Lady Tremaine’s story is heavily ( not entirely) based on her love life, it does not diminish her character and give a layer to her motivations. Her reason for her hatred towards Cinderella is revealed, and as you may have guessed, it’s way more important than a story of jealousy and beauty.
The confrontation between a normal world and a magical one finds its place here, as this is the first time a villain residing in the Many Kingdoms didn’t grow up there but rather came to live in it later on. Though I won’t reveal where the Tremaines are from, I’d say it’s another great idea, fitting the personality of Lady Tremaine: stoic, serious, and way too realistic to belong to a fictional, fairy tale kingdom. It’s also unbearable ( in a good way!) that her story feels extremely claustrophobic, as the ambiance of the animated feature did, especially as she passes by symbolic places through her journey to the Château that actually foreshadows what's awaiting her. The roles of fairies and their opposition to witches are furtherly developed while revealing important secrets about Nanny, the Fairy Godmother, and Circe. We also see Cinderella from a different angle and one can't help but feel even more sorry for her.
The special items and characters from the original ( the mice, the slippers) are given a brand new role, and the lack of screentime for the Tremaines in the 1950's movie is counterbalanced by their richly detailed backstory, offering to Anastasia and Drizella an important role at the side of their mother, much like Gothel's sisters in Mother Knows Best. As mentioned earlier, magic isn’t the only factor that created the cold-hearted personality of Lady Tremaine: It is the idea that if someone had helped her the moment, she needed it the most, a lot of things could have been avoided. This is a storyline that started in Mistress of All Evil, was tackled in The Odd Sisters, and find finally its conclusion here. Magic was always present in Lady Tremaine’s life from the beginning, and one can only wonder what could have happened if she had learned to use it to run away from the terrible situation, she found herself trapped in.
The writing style is still extremely visual and emotional, almost as if we were traveling to those foreign lands from home, escaping lockdown to immerse ourselves in new places and allowing ourselves to root for Cinderella’s stepfamily without condoning some of their actions. This book is more heart-breaking and disturbing than dark, but a touch of Mommy Dearest, Grey Gardens, and Great Expectations create creepy well-written scenes that only Mrs. Valentino can pull off. Much like the Evil Queen and the Beast, Lady Tremaine isn’t really given a name but this isn’t something that particularly bothered me, just like I enjoyed Fairest of All and The Beast Within for the same reason. Lord Tremaine and Cinderella’s father, in return, are given proper names, Anastasia and Drizella are granted nicknames, and ‘’Lucifer’’ is also explained as well as his origins.
Though there is a small section in the Fairylands at the beginning of the book, readers are ultimately reintroduced to the Many Kingdoms at the same moment Lady Tremaine and her daughters step foot in it for the first time: this is brilliant storytelling, as it allows the return to this magical place in an original way, after its absence in Evil Thing. Our favorite troublemakers, the Odd Sisters are also back, making an iconic return by paying a small visit to the Tremaines and though there isn’t a lot of pages dedicated to them, their role remains extremely important.
It is fitting to conclude that, though Serena Valentino worked with a lot of supporting people at Disney, as mentioned in her dedication, there’s no doubt the Villain Series was granted its Best-Selling status thanks to her hard work and creativity. Indeed, though this is her eighth installment Mrs. Valentino has already won her spurs a long time ago and we surely all can’t wait to read the rest of her work: Book 9 will hit the shelves during Summer 2022 and three more Villains books have been announced as well as one secret novel and a graphic novel of Evil Thing! There is obviously so much more to analyze and talk about Cold Hearted, but I’ll leave it for a final book review.