Welcome to Grace's Reading Corner! This podcast-within-a-podcast is a place where Grace will discuss Dragon Babies-adjacent books she's been reading. This mini episode takes a critical look at Ogre Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, a prequel to Ella Enchanted! We'll be back with our next full-length episode soon & hope you enjoy this in the meantime.
As promised, the blog post this episode is based on is below!
Spoilers throughout for Ella Enchanted and Ogre Enchanted.
I am a near-lifelong Gail Carson Levine fan, with Ella Enchanted making its way into my life around 3rd grade, the year it was published (1997). I followed her closely - or as closely as you could as a child without Internet access - and read Dave at Night and The Wish, then reveled in the release of the Princess Tales novellas and The Two Princess of Bamarre. The Two Princesses came close to achieving the perfect fantasy sweet spot that Ella occupied, with a fascinating and atypical female lead, a delightfully bonkers magical reality, a cadre of fantastical supporting species (including one of my favorite dragons in literature), and a sorcerer who makes comforting cloud blankets for his friends. But Ella came first, and will always hold a special place in my reading history.
Ella Enchanted has reached the sort of universally beloved status among women of my age that indicates just how instrumental it was in raising a generation of voracious female readers seeking disobedience and fractured fairy tales. I credit that book with instilling a good portion of my love of satire and meta fantasy. I followed it with other funny, complex fantasy including the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede, the Chronicles of Chrestomanci by Diana Wynne Jones, and The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett.
Ella Enchanted is a crucial stepping stone to those more challenging works, because it is an exceptionally nuanced and unique YA fantasy that can be read on different levels. The exploration of forced teen marriage, as fostered by an abusively neglectful father (and actively abusive stepmother); the power of language within different cultures; the white nobles' xenophobia and racism toward the residents of Ayortha; the series of aching and unsent love letters from Ella to Char. One of my only criticisms with Ella is just how neatly Levine wraps up the story, with marriages and happily ever afters - a return to the Cinderella form.
Ogre Enchanted has to follow all of this, which is no small feat. And yet it's still disappointing when it fails. While a super enjoyable read, Ogre doesn't do as much as I was hoping to build on Ella's legacy.
Evie's Not-So-Serious Curse
I was concerned by Evie's curse from the start of the book. The foundational element of the story is tough to overcome - maybe I've just suffered through one too many childhood viewings of Shrek, but I am not intrigued by Evie's transformation into an ogre. When comparing Lucinda's curse for Evie and "blessing" for Ella, there's infinitely more conflict and discovery to mine from Ella's predicament of automatic obedience vs. Evie's ogrehood until/if she accepts a marriage proposal.
We as readers are fascinated by how Ella will manage to grow, develop and make her own voice heard when plagued by a spelled obedience that is at its best personhood-stifling and at its worst life-threatening. Will her determination to voice her real thoughts and feelings win out? How will she find subversive ways to express herself along the way? When the curse/blessing is finally broken, it is through sheer willpower and selflessness, as she refuses to marry Prince Char and possibly put his life and the kingdom in danger although she wants nothing more than to be with him. The process of Ella suffering through and breaking her spelled obsequiousness not only entertains the reader, but also brings us closer to a highly developed character and invests us in her journey.
Evie's curse has a different effect. Aside from an ogre transformation being inherently less intriguing than forced obedience, it doesn't provide the same opportunity for character development. Some of this is due to Evie's age (15) and limited world experience. Evie is a teenager, through and through, and Levine uses her ogrehood to exaggerate stereotypical teen traits. Evie is blisteringly hormonal, with a frequent "tingle" that she can't fully assign to either hunger or horniness. She is both obsessed with her appearance yet suddenly self-conscious and concerned about being unattractive, bathing again and again and removing her ogre facial hair. She can't stop thinking about every eligible bachelor as a possible husband - and while this is superficially because getting engaged will free her from her curse, there are flights of fancy that feel more like teenage fantasy than problem solving. Because of these repetitive fixations, aside from her devotion to healing and medicine, Evie doesn't have the chance to display much more of a moment-to-moment personality than hungry, horny or self-flagellating.
Ella Enchanted is a clear reworking of Cinderella, and Ogre Enchanted a less straightforward retelling of Beauty and the Beast. But the missing component is Evie's internal journey. She doesn't start out as a bad person like the spoiled prince in Beauty and the Beast - she's a teenage healer who views all of Kyrria's different races as equally deserving of her medical care.
Ella's journey is completely internal, and Evie's completely external. I don't believe that every protagonist needs to achieve moral growth, or even change. But the curse does need to have a narrative point, and I'm not convinced that there is one as far as Evie's character is concerned. She ends up entering into the same engagement that was the reason for her curse. She does get to practice medicine on a wider scale and play a significant role in averting plague, but she knew from the start of the book that she wanted to be a lifelong healer and was always professionally focused.
All that said, while Evie's curse might not have the same fundamental richness as Ella's, Levine did make good use of its potential. The curse allows for an interesting exploration of the "other" in a traditional fantasy setting. Evie as an ogre is outside of "polite" society, and her former friends and community have a violent mob mentality toward her, even after she saves hundreds of lives during a deadly outbreak. They continue to view her as a predator. To add to her otherness, Evie is also forced to undergo her trials from a much more modest standpoint than Ella, who is born into a wealthy family and household. Evie has to turn to her resourcefulness again and again just to be able to find the copious amount of meat that she needs to sate her ogre appetite, rather than being able to rely on status or wealth.
Evie's time with the band of ogres is the most interesting part of the book, and where I felt Levine was having the most fun. The ogres of Ella & Ogre Enchanted are compelling ones, especially compared to typical ogres of fantasy. They are deeply intelligent and cunning and have a vast command of languages. Being able to actually learn how the ogres' persuasion works was fascinating after the touch of ogre culture we get in Ella Enchanted. Evie's description of creating a space around fear with her voice and filling it with pleasant feelings is well written and the concept intriguing. The ogres' difficulty of coexisting with seemingly every other race - including a mysterious bone-deep dragon rivalry - makes for a great read and an examination of an oft-overlooked fantasy group. The violence and abruptness of the ogre band's end was horrifying, as is the desecration of their remains. Because we lose our ogre time about halfway through the book, the memory fades, and the story doesn't quite reach that height again.
The Problem with Lucinda
Lucinda is undoubtedly another strength of Ogre Enchanted. She is infuriating, illogical and wonderfully reckless, and the book's noble settings are populated with so many kind and thoughtful characters (other than my main monster Sir Peter) that I thrilled every time she popped into the room. Other than Peter and Eleanor, she's also one of the character callbacks to Ella Enchanted, as she's the source of Ella's blessing. I want a hundred books about Lucinda's desperate attempts to improve the world.
Ogre Enchanted's problem with Lucinda is that she gets something right - Wormy and Evie do get married, and while Evie wasn't ready for that yet at Wormy's first, foolish proposal, they ultimately give Lucinda her way and prove her proposal meddling effective. If Lucinda hadn't shown up for the first proposal, she wouldn't have cursed Evie; if Evie hadn't been cursed, she wouldn't have gone on a journey of self-discovery and meat stick eating; if she hadn't gone on that journey, she wouldn't have realized that she did/does/could love Wormy. And since she spends the majority of that time away from Wormy, I'm inclined to believe the first tense is accurate - which means that Lucinda was right all along to encourage her to accept.
I may be splitting hairs but when a fairy is doing something so profoundly problematic as forcing women to accept any marriage proposal that comes their way, regardless of the circumstances, there needs to be a bit more of the narrative devoted to at least attempting to get that character to realize their issues. Nobody tries to engage with Lucinda logically, or mention that marriage as an institution has been historically used to trap women in unsafe, unhealthy and unwanted situations (even weirder because Ella Enchanted does explore forced teen marriage through Peter's attempts to marry 14-year-old Ella off to a much older Earl). And maybe that's because she's insane, but I was hoping there'd be at least some kind of attempt instead of the "throw my hands in the air she's a wacky proposal fairy!!" attitude that every character up to and including the protagonist seems to adopt.
Really, I was just hoping for more Lucinda - a creative curse at Wormy and Evie's ultimate, successful proposal; an unkind blessing at their wedding. She is an absolute psycho and I don't understand how she can exist - which is kind of what an evil fairy should be all about. Which brings me to my next point.
Narcissists Are All Around Us
I adore Ogre Enchanted's primary villains, Lucinda and Peter. And while Lucinda has delusions that she's helping and enriching the lives of those around her, Peter is explicitly dead behind the eyes. I was struck by the oddity of a fantasy character who wasn't a full-on chaotic evil minor deity articulating that they don't care about the feelings or existence of other people, except as how they can serve as useful. Peter's sociopathy is explicit and articulated several times.
The first is when Evie zEEns him and asks whether he cares for his betrothed, Eleanor -
"I became a merchant for the sake of beauty - and to become rich. I adore Lady Eleanor's outer perfection, which I'd love even if she were as unintelligent as a worm and an unpleasant as a wasp. I'm fond of her family's position and their money. I don't care about anyone's goodness. I made her love me... as I made you."
He follows up with "I surprise myself. I wouldn't kill a person or cause a person to be killed," stunning himself with the realization that he's not a full-blown murderer.
After becoming engaged to Eleanor, Peter tells her "Affection, darling, is for display. When we're alone, I prefer to be unencumbered." He then reveals that Lucinda's "blessing" that they will always keep their promises to one another, his being that he will love Eleanor as much as he loves her right now, means that he will never love her at all.
Peter calls his talents "my kind of persuasion" and he uses them to become crown prince, if only for a brief period. He has his own blessing, whether magical or innate, to bamboozle everyone around him for his own gain. Getting this insight into his true feelings (or lack thereof) provides a unique look at a true narcissist in fantasy.
Ironically, Peter may be the character that gains the most development from the prequel - not because he changes in any way, but because we get a greater understanding of why he is the kind of soulless creature who can so thoroughly disregard his daughter's wellbeing and safety in the years to come.
Wrapping Up Loose Ella Ends
I'm being a bit unfair in treating this book largely as an Ella Enchanted extension rather than its own distinct work - but because the second half of the book is so occupied by Peter, Eleanor and Mandy, it's all too tempting.
Eleanor and Mandy, by the way, continue to annoy me just as much as they did in Ella Enchanted.
I recognize that Mandy's life is probably an endless tedium of people asking that she grant them wishes that constitute "big magic," which she will never perform. But does she have to be quite so stingy and inconsistent, and does everyone have to be quite so eager? Can she relent in situations in which I truly feel she’s being excessively cautious, and can everyone just acknowledge that a fairy has a better grasp of which wises might wreak havoc on the very fabric of their reality and which ones will go generally unnoticed but make you smell a bit better for the next 24 hours? I will forever love Mandy for her many contributions to my obsession with fantasy food, but I couldn't help but feel the same old irritation whenever she was on the page.
While Lady Eleanor may be frustrating, we also gained fresh insight into how she became the doomed woman who passes at the beginning of Ella Enchanted. She makes abysmal romantic choices and while a good hearted and kind person, seems dazzled enough by her own wealth and beauty that she can't be logical about her decisions. We learn how she becomes magically trapped in a loveless marriage, and why she and Peter remain married although they're polar opposites. I may even finally understand why she withdrew the unicorn hairs from her soup bowl - although I'll never be at peace with why Mandy allowed her to do it.
All criticism aside, I am so grateful that this book exists. It's a lot of fun to have a prequel to Ella Enchanted, and I'm now eager to reread it again for the 200th time. While the Kyrria presented in Ogre Enchanted isn't quite as rich as that of its predecessor, the insight into ogre culture was excellently done. I'm hoping for a future book that neatly catalogues Lucinda's widespread destruction and unique penchant for life ruining, and Peter is the fantasy narcissist we all deserve. Evie may be a straightforward character, but her love of healing is unique and her deep-seated goodness rings true. While Ogre Enchanted may not be my favorite work of Gail Carson Levine's, I truly appreciate getting to learn more about one of my favorite fantasy kingdoms, ogre-style.
Miscellaneous Thoughts -
In researching this episode, I discovered Fairest, which is set in Ayortha and which I've somehow never read - how is it? Can't wait to read it!
Is there another fantasy narcissist that I'm forgetting? Wracking my brain and can't come up with one.