Mechanica, by Betsy Cornwell, is a young adult steampunk retelling of the Cinderella tale. Mechanica, like other modern fairy tale adaptations (Wicked, Maleficent, Frozen) present a strong female character in Nicolette, who is derisively named “Mechanica” by her stepsisters. Like other versions of the Cinderella tale, the mother dies, the father remarries, and then he dies and Nicolette is left in the hands of her stepmother. The “steps” treat her as a servant and abuse her until she is able to escape and live the life she dreamed about through her long years of misery. There are several variations in this narrative, including the addition of steampunk creations that make this a vivid and memorable tale.
Many modern fairytale retellings have deliberately removed themselves from the traditional framework of the older tales in order to create a different social message.. So it is not unusual for a tale to include aspects of a culture that are in some way important to those who write/read them for children/young adults. Mechanica is no different, although the message goes beyond strong, female role models to include reactions against conventional views of such constructs as gender, socialization, and equality.
If Cornwell were only concerned with retelling the Cinderella story from a feminist perspective with a few steampunk items thrown into the mix, it would not be as fascinating. But the author moves beyond the fairy tale and spins into the narrative the history of Victorian England, and all of its deeds, both bright and dark, without the general trappings or aesthetics associated with the time frame.
The first aspect that a reader familiar with the traditional Cinderella fairy tale will notice is that Nicolette’s mother is a main character in the narrative. In the traditional tales the “mother” is killed off right at the start with barely a full sentence devoted to her existence. But Mother is an important character in Mechanica and her skills as an engineer help to shape her daughter’s life right from the start:
She died when I was nine years old. She was a great mechanic, and a greater inventor. Father made his fortune trading her work in Nordsk and the Sudlands— even in Faerie, before the quarantine. But he did good trade here in Esting, too; her little mechanical insects, set with jewels and forged from precious metals, were cherished in court. By the time I turned six, I had started helping her repair them (Cornwell, 2015).
This is reminiscent of the Jane Yolen story, “The Moon Ribbon,” which is another retelling of the Cinderella story. Both Yolen and Cornwell focus on the fact that the mother provides the income for the family and, upon her death, the father figure squanders the money until he is forced to remarry a wealthy widow with two daughters of her own.
Cornwell adds a new dimension to the tale of Cinderella with the discord between Nicolette’s biological parents. A past military expedition discovered the route to the fey lands, and the officers claimed Faerie as a colony of Esting. Children were taught that the fae were not truly people and the Lord made them to serve the citizens of Esting. The first argument between her parents Nicolette remembers regards this issue:
I had not yet begun to fathom that when Mother and Father disagreed about something, it meant that at least one of them had to be wrong; it had only recently occurred to me that they fought more often than they did anything else. Mother’s lips pursed. “The Fey have grown selfish with their magic, they say,” she said. “They’re not nearly so willing to give it to us as they used to be. I imagine they’ve begun to realize how valuable it is here, much as people like your father have tried to hide that fact from them. They’re not animals, for the Lord’s sake. They can think. And if they keep thinking, it won’t shock me or anyone else with a brain if they decide to rebel.” People like your father . . . She’d always called him William before, even to me. To hear her say “your father” seemed distancing in a way that frightened me, in a way that I didn’t like to think about (Cornwell, 2015).
This is reminiscent of the British East India Company’s colonization of India in the name of England during Victoria’s reign. Rather than recognizing the claim of the native people who lived in an area, English land speculators would “purchase” the property from the East India Company or lay claim to a territory, regardless of the fact that it was already occupied. The people of India were persecuted, warred upon, and cheated out of land and property because the British felt they were superior and it was their obligation to “civilize and spread Christianity” to those nations. Almost inevitably, a revolt occurred. Between 1856 and 1857, war raged in India. Atrocities were committed—particularly against women and children on both sides—and it took a massive influx of troops on the British side to reestablish British control.
Nicolette, as an engineer and inventor, represents one part of the industrial revolution. Like her mother, she creates machines that can take over basic household and industrial chores. One of her greatest triumphs is creating a knitting machine that, with some tinkering, could do beadwork. And, of course, since it is a Cinderella story, she invents new ways to work with glass and creates gear-work glass shoes that become the sought-after fashion accessory of the wealthy, aristocratic ladies.
Fae magic, also known as Ash, helps to power the steampunk-styled inventions. It is like coal or any other power source and is the one “magical” item that all humans can use without needing to understand how it works. Like modern-day electricity; anyone can use it but only individuals who have actually studied know exactly how it is created and what is needed to power our gadgets.
Readers who have a deep understanding of Victorian Era history will enjoy Mechanica. Seamlessly woven among the fairy tale are aspects like The Great Exhibition of The Works of Industry of All Nations (informally known as the Crystal Palace), the birth of the factory system, the production line, and the machine age. The steampunk creations are detailed and fit into the storyline. And, of course, there is a brave heroine who knows that it takes more than a Prince to make a happy ending.