Mechanica (Mechanica #1), by Betsy Cornwell
If I were a movie, what would I be rated? PG
Any spoilers in this review? Yes. But because it’s based off a fairytale, it’s largely predictable so I didn’t block out any spoilers in particular. I’d have to block out the entire thing, then.
Summary: Nicolette’s awful stepsisters call her “Mechanica” to demean her, but the nickname fits: she learned to be an inventor at her mother’s knee. Her mom is gone now, though, and the Steps have turned her into a servant in her own home. But on her sixteenth birthday, Nicolette discovers a secret workshop in the cellar and begins to dare to imagine a new life for herself. Could the mysterious books and tools hidden there—and the mechanical menagerie, led by a tiny metal horse named Jules—be the key to escaping her dreary existence? With a technological exposition and royal ball on the horizon, the timing might just be perfect for Nicolette to earn her freedom at last. Gorgeous prose and themes of social justice and family shine in this richly imagined Cinderella retelling about an indomitable inventor who finds her prince . . . but realizes she doesn’t want a fairy tale happy ending after all.
My complaint for most books is that it was an okay book, but the potential was all there for a great book. Sadly, that’s my complaint again for this. Frankly, because it was a fairytale retelling, it lost some of it’s magic. I feel like the story of Cinderella it was based loosely on narrowed and brutally cut down on all potential it had to be a good novel in itself. That’s the challenge behind writing fairytale retellings. You want it to be a fairytale retelling—either because you really, really love fairytales or you really like it as a selling point—but you also want it to be original and for there to be unexpected twists.
The beginning of the book was especially interesting, what with the politics and upheaval because an entire race is blamed for an assassination and kicked out of the country entirely. Magic, for all its usefulness, is banned. The interactions between the two races, even in the background and seen through the main character’s young eyes at the time, were interesting. But, again, because it was a fairytale retelling, all the world building and interesting aspects like that took the background and almost disappeared into obscurity as the Cinderella plot took front and center.
So, here’s where that leaves us. For characters: The Steps were about as classically evil as they ought to be in Cinderella retellings. Nic grew over the story, sort of. It was an awkward, gangling growth, but she did grow—mainly in how she interacted with characters. At first, she was uncertain and scared to a certain degree to go out to a fair and sell her wares, but by the end she was doing it almost all on her own and was confident. Her treatment of Fin left something to be desired, but I was ridiculously relieved by her choices. Caro stood out to be somewhat stereotypical, but an achingly good friend, especially in how happy she was for Fin and Nic when she thought they were getting married. That honest happiness, even if she didn’t end up with someone she loved (their relationship was an off-again-on-again kind, apparently), was wonderful to see. Fin… Fin was a copy and paste love interest. I was not at all excited by him. I think he was supposed to be a Special Cookie because of how he viewed magic and wanted a fairy ambassador but as he didn’t actually do anything about it, it was all talk.
Plot: The plot was… everything you expect it to be. It was a bit weak and could’ve done with some fluffing. Like I mentioned in the beginning, I feel like the story suffered because it was so entrenched in the label of “Cinderella retelling.” It missed out on some great world building possibilities and plot options. (Mr. Candery is the boss and I wanted him to come back, dang it. I wanted to see fairyland and actual magic and true blue fairies. Not just speckled skin, dang it!) I really could’ve used more plot, like somehow including the Steps. It was a very slow and lethargic plot, for such an average sized book. It didn’t keep you glued to the pages.
Writing style: The writing was ok. I liked how some of the descriptions seemed purposefully mechanical. Like describing her heartbeat like the “ticking” of her heart or little things like that. It did get a bit repetitive, but it wasn’t terrible overall.
It was a rather solid story, however shakily it stood on a weak and predictable plot. There are two passages I wanted to comment on, though. One of them is from page 264-265. This is while Nic is sneaking into Stepmother’s room while Stepmother is sleeping to put back her dress:
Stepmother never let me do her hair. I straightened Chastity’s and curled Piety’s after every wash, and I had the burn marks on my hands to prove it. But Stepmother insisted she needed no help with her ablutions. She sailed downstairs every morning looking as cold and perfect and iconic as ever.
Was this why, this bit of gray at her temples? It was beautiful, a bright silver gleaming under my candle and in the thin moonlight coming in between her curtains.
And then the Stepmother actually murmurs Nic’s father’s name under her breath. Just as, Nic realizes, she had done at night too while “knowing no one would come” to her. And Nic goes on to say:
I told myself to back away. If I stayed, I would start to care for her. If I stayed, I would start to think about how alone she would be, with only the silly daughters she’d made, after I left. I couldn’t begin to think of Stepmother that way. I had to be able to leave her.
See, that passage was just… it hurt. It was well done. It showed how abusers can be human and how that can confuse the abused and I wish that that angle could’ve been capitalized on. But by the end, the Steps weren’t really in the story. So even the scene where Nic punched Chasity lost it’s punch—ha, see what I did there?—because it could’ve been better built up to. It would’ve made the Chasity-getting-punched scene more intense and emotion filled.
The other scene was on page 259-260, when thinking of Fin being in love with Caro:
All the things I’d learned from novels, from Faerie tales, from Piety and Chastity’s gossiping and storytelling and swooning, silly as they were, had taught me that the love I’d thought I’d found in Fin was the best to be had. That the reason behind all life and all love in the first place was to find someone, love him, and let that love become the foundation of the rest of your life.
And I had found not only a kind, charming, handsome young man whom I could love, but also a prince, the Heir of all of Esting! No story could have asked for a better ending than the one that—just for a moment—I’d thought my love for him would give me.
But what was I, without that ending?
No less me, no less myself. No less loved than I had ever been, not really.
And of course Fin did care for me in his way, in a way that I tried to tell myself might be better, if I could only learn to see it so.
And that, my friends, was the absolute best thing I’d read in the story up to that point, because her obsession with Fin was driving me up a wall. (She met him less than five times in person, but talked to him in her head. So, obviously that leads to true love.) The absolute clarity in that passage! It was the turning point and I loved it. Which made Fin’s later proposal and Nic’s lack of… fury and anger frustrating. Nic fully acknowledged she was in love with the idea of him more than him, basically, and had been building a version of him in her own head that wasn’t true to life. To me, if there was any other way to prove that he wasn’t the one from her head, his proposal was it.
Oh, guys. Guys, the proposal. I’m still furious about it. Fin had the gall to basically say, “Yeah, I’m in love with someone else, but let’s get married for the country! And you can have someone on the side, too!” I was just—he just—argh. The entire thing made me furious! Nic was broken up about the proposal, but at least had the sense to say no. It would’ve been perfect if she could’ve also been furious about it, but her infatuation of him blinded her. She was convinced it was love, though, despite her acknowledging in the previous passage, to summarize, that it wasn’t love and she’d built up a different version of him in her head and…
In conclusion, the potential was there for a really great novel. As it was, it fell flat and was a bit frustrating to read because of how obsessive Nic got over Fin. Definitely could’ve been better.
What some people might be uncomfortable reading about in this book because of personal opinion or belief: There’s no cursing and only a few slaps or punches. The only things people may find strange/uncomfortable would be how the fairy family relationships are described at one point and how none of them have genders. (This isn’t throughout the whole book, but it is mentioned.) Otherwise, someone insinuates that the MC should marry them even if they don’t love them because it’ll be fine and they’ll meet someone else. (I.e., adultery. I.e., let’s have our own honeys on the side and get married in name only. I.e., I’m so glad Nic said no to Fin.)