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.
Offering a dark take on Cinderella, J J A Harwood’s debut novel The Shadow in the Glass provides a compulsive and twisted fable that underlines the message ‘be careful what you wish for’.
Seventeen-year-old Ella used to be ‘Miss Eleanor’, adopted daughter of the beloved Mrs Pembroke. With her benefactor’s death however, she is forced below stairs – reduced to being the lowly ‘Ella’ and at risk from both the lecherous attentions of her former stepfather and the cruel bitterness of Head Housemaid Lizzie.
Ella’s escape from her new life of drudgery and servitude is the library. In stolen moments late at night, she locks herself away and disappears into books. But when she picks up The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, a visitor appears. A black-eyed woman who promises that she patch together Ella’ tattered dreams and grant her seven wishes – for a price. Entering into a Faustian pact, Ella soon discovers that the power of the black-eyed woman is all too real – and that there are consequences to making your wishes come true.
Combining elements of Marlowe’s Faustus with the folk tale of Cinderella and then setting them against the backdrop of Victorian London, The Shadow in the Glass is a darkly sinister tale with a complex protagonist. Whilst I sympathised with Ella and her situation, I struggled to warm to her – although I found her story no less compelling because of this. That J J A Harwood has managed to retain this interest in the fate of a character who is, in many ways, unlikeable (and, for me, became more so as the novel progressed) is a testament to the pull of the plot, which sees Ella being increasingly forced to enact her Faustian bargain – and increasingly tormented by the consequences of having made it.
The novel is a little slow to start – Harwood takes time establishing Ella’s situation and introducing the household she is living within, as well as her background and her former life above stairs. But once the pact has been made and the black-eyed woman introduced, the pace picks up rapidly as Ella finds herself making a wish, only to suffer the unintended consequences and be forced into calling on her black-eyed ‘fairy godmother’ to try and overcome these. By the end of the novel, the action is relentless, with Ella increasingly finding the events she has wrought spiralling away from her – and the reader left wondering if she will ever be able to regain control over her own narrative. There’s also a punchy and sinister twist to the tale that reminded me of Laura Purcell’s Bone China, and made me really question the story that had preceded it.
I did find a few elements of The Shadow in the Glass slightly predictable. The romance – and its consequences – were of little surprise, and some of the moments where Ella’s situation goes from bad to worse did feel like they’d come straight out of a Dickens novel. This is, however, unsurprising given the way in which the novel pays homage to so many genres and, to be fair, the twists that Harwood provides give a unique spin to the more cliché elements of Ella’s story. I particularly enjoyed the way in which each incident is used to examine the overarching theme of power – who holds it, what they do with it, and the consequences of using it maliciously or unthinkingly.
The Shadow in the Glass is a compelling take on an old tale and brilliantly combines elements of fairy tale and folk narrative with the atmosphere of the Victorian Gothic to provide a contemporary twist on a classic story. Although I had one or two minor niggles, the ending provided a brilliantly biting sting and the narrative became more compelling as the novel progressed. Fans of Laura Purcell’s modern gothic novels are sure to find much to enjoy and The Shadow in the Glass marks J J A Harwood out as an author to watch for.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 28 March 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.
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