We all know the story of Cinderella — the fairy godmother, the ball, the glass slipper — but her wicked stepsisters’ lives have always been a bit less illuminated. In The Wicked Ones, National Book Award-winning author Robin Benway (Far From the Tree) offers a new perspective on the familiar fairy tale.
The Wicked Ones is the first book in Benway’s Dark Ascension series for Disney Press focusing on its most famous villains, and we’ve got the cover and an exclusive excerpt to share today. First up, here’s a bit more about the book and its (misunderstood?) characters.
There’s no rivalry like a sibling rivalry… find out the true story behind the Disney Villains’ wicked stepsisters Anastasia and Drizella in this opening instalment in the all-new Dark Ascension series “Blood is blood…and one way or another, we all bleed.” Drizella and Anastasia only know one thing for certain: they will never end up like their mother, Lady Tremaine. When their father left them as young girls, he took what was left of their family’s fortune and their mother’s dignity with him.
A few years and one deceased stepfather later, the only version of Lady Tremaine that Drizella and Anastasia know is a bitter and cruel head of house. Anastasia and Drizella have promised themselves — and each other — that they’ll be different. They’ll find love, see the world, and never let their hearts go cold. But both sisters are all too aware of what it can mean when cast into disfavor with their mother, and fuelled by Lady Tremaine’s tendencies to pit the daughters against one another, Drizella and Anastasia are locked into a complicated waltz of tenuous sisterhood. On the cusp of the royal debut party — their one chance to impress the Prince and live up to their mother’s expectations — the sisters at last get a glimpse of what life could be like outside of Lady Tremaine’s intentions: Drizella discovering a love of science and Anastasia sparking a secret romance.
But never underestimate the power a mother whose greatest talents lie in manipulation, and the sisters may learn that even the cruelest of hearts can spill blood. This first book in the new Disney Villains Dark Ascension series by National Book Award-winning author Robin Benway explores the complex sibling rivalry between the two wicked stepsisters from Cinderella that turned them into the characters we know today.
Here’s the full cover, by Nathanna Érica, followed by the excerpt!
Anastasia makes it out of the kitchen ten seconds before her mother appears in what she refers to as the breakfast room. It’s really just the dining room, but neither Drizella nor Anastasia is dumb enough to argue with her about it. And technically, they do eat breakfast in there.
Anastasia has seen other parents greet their children on the street, meeting them in the schoolyard or looking after them at the market. She’s seen the way other parents’ faces light up when they spy their children, the smiles that go all the way up to their eyes, the way their cheeks get rosy with joy and love and tenderness. They sweep them up into their arms for hugs and kisses, and Anastasia can almost feel the warmth. It makes her teeth hurt sometimes, her body aching to feel that kind of heat, that level of safety.
Anastasia’s mother is not that kind of parent.
She stalks into the room this morning like a woman unaware of how rundown her house is, like the drapes aren’t literally hanging on by threads and there aren’t mice skittering throughout its walls. After their mother married Ella’s father, they all moved into his house, and while it felt grand at the time, the years of neglect and disrepair have taken their toll. Sometimes, it seems to Anastasia, the neglect and disrepair have taken their toll on all of them.
Lady Tremaine’s dress is heavy and dark, not quite a widow’s outfit but also not a dress worn by someone whose life experiences radiate joy. Her now-grey hair is done up in its normal bouffant-ish bun, with not a single strand of hair daring to be out of place. Anastasia remembers when her mother used to wear it looser, softer, but one day several years ago, she happened to be walking past her mother’s room and realised that the door was slightly ajar. She didn’t mean to spy, she really didn’t, but she caught a glimpse of her mother’s scalp as she tied her hair up. The stress was literally eating away at her hair. The bald spots made her look almost vulnerable, like a moth-eaten sweater that’s useless in winter. Making her mother look vulnerable was a feat Anastasia had thought to be impossible, and she slunk away, trying to ignore that gnawing, cold feeling in her stomach.
“Anastasia,” her mother says when she sees her now, nodding in her direction. Anastasia cannot remember the last time her mother touched her. Well, actually, she can remember, but that memory of the tower isn’t one she likes to revisit. She tries to think of her last hug, her last gentle touch, the feeling of fingertips sweeping hair off her forehead when she is fevered or a soft kiss placed to the top of her head when her mother thinks she is asleep.
She tries so hard to remember. But there’s nothing there.
“Good morning, Mother,” she greets her now, her words echoed by Drizella, who’s seated at the table and already working on her second cup of tea. Her mother nods to both of them, and the twitch of her lips reminds Anastasia of her sister. Their movements are the same, always with heavy steps and narrowed eyes as if even walking into the breakfast room is a potential battle. Her mother has a bit of a smirk while Drizella has a pout, though. Anastasia often checks her own face in the mirror, making sure that she has neither, just a pleasant disposition. She used to smile more until her mother commented that it made her look simple, so now she just tries to hold the corner of her mouth up a bit, like she is vaguely amused by a passing memory that only she can recall.
“I assume that you’ve practiced for today’s lesson,” her mother says now.
“Yes,” Anastasia says. She has, of course. Once. For nearly ten minutes. She has hated the flute ever since the metal object was put into her hands, an instrument found in the attic during one of her mother’s late-night cleaning binges. It isn’t uncommon for Anastasia and Drizella to awaken in the middle of the night to hear their mother rummaging through the attic, tossing out piles of old papers, rags, gardening shears, all the things that gather in an old home’s crawl space over many years. Sometimes, privately, Anastasia wondered if her mother was looking for her father. She had mentioned it to Drizella once, who had just replied, “That’s stupid. Why would Father be upstairs?” and they never talked about it again.
Their father was never found in the attic, of course, but the flute was, and when Anastasia said “What’s that?” upon seeing it in her mother’s hand, it became hers.
It could be worse, though. At least she doesn’t have to take singing lessons like Drizella.
“And I trust that you’ve also practiced, Drizella,” her mother says as she sits down at the table. In a fancier home, there would be someone to pull out her chair for her, someone to attend to her napkin and make sure her water goblet is filled, but theirs is not a fancy home, and both Drizella and Anastasia glide themselves into their own seats at opposite ends of the table.
Neither of them ever sits within arm’s reach of their mother. It just isn’t done.
“Of course, Mother,” Drizella says, and Lady Tremaine raises an eyebrow toward her, always ready to knock down any words that may be perceived as insolence. “I mean, yes, Mother.”
“Good. I hope you girls realise how expensive these lessons are, how much it costs to make sure that both of you grow up refined, not slinking around in a scullery like” — she gestures toward the kitchen, apparently not having enough energy to even say Ella’s name — “her.”
“Yes, Mother,” Anastasia says, placing her own napkin in her lap. There’s a small burn mark in the corner, probably from a too-hot iron, but she doesn’t mention it. All that will do is get Ella in trouble, and Anastasia’s stomach turns over when she thinks about her mother’s temper focusing in on any one of them.
“And speaking of her, where is our tea? Where is our food? Why is it so hard to get a simple task done?” Her mother sighs like someone has punched the breath out of her body. “Ella!” she calls, sharp and mean, and both Drizella and Anastasia flinch a little at the noise.
There’s a rustling sound behind the door before Ella appears, her arms laden down with several serving trays. Her cheeks are flushed from the heat of the kitchen and Anastasia clutches her cold hands together under the table, tries not to feel jealous of the warmth.
“I apologise,” she starts to say, but their mother waves the words away with her hand.
“Your silly sorrys are useless to me,” she says. “Either do the job correctly the first time or we’ll find someone who can.”
Ella’s face pales, even though both Anastasia and Drizella know it’s a bluff. If they could afford actual in-house help, Ella wouldn’t be here now, they’re both sure of it. And the windows and cracked walls would be repaired, and they would host parties and dinners with roasted pheasant and champagne and other things that Anastasia’s read about in stories but never seen in real life.
If that ever happened, Anastasia’s not sure where Ella would go, but one thing is for certain: she would no longer be here.
Their mother waits for Ella to pour the tea for her first, then sips at it as she moves on to the girls’ empty cups. “And it’s ice cold,” she says. (Anastasia takes a tiny sip of her own tea and finds that it’s lukewarm, but she says nothing.)
The only thing that seems to be ice cold at the table is their mother’s eyes as she focuses her glare onto Ella. “We have been extremely charitable with you,” she says, her voice low and calm, and across the table, Drizella’s gaze meets her sister’s, both of them silently acknowledging how stupid it would be to say anything right now. Their mother’s temper has always had the potential to boil over like a teakettle. Best to just let some steam out every now and then.
“Extremely,” their mother continues. She smirks a tiny bit as if amused by her own foolish generosity. “We’ve given you a home here.”
Nobody bothers to point out that, technically, it was Ella’s father who gave them a home. Anastasia looks up at the cracked plaster walls, the chandelier so weighed down by dust that it looks like it could fall from the ceiling at any moment. A home.
“Anastasia and Drizella have been quite kind to you, as well, never complaining about the time and attention that you’ve taken away from them.” Their mother wipes at her mouth with a napkin even though she hasn’t taken a single bite of food yet. “Do you feel as if our treatment is beneath you?”
“Oh, no — ” Ella starts to say in a rush.
“Did I say you could speak?” their mother says quietly, and even the mice in the walls stop their rustling. Anastasia suspects that the grandfather clock in the corner has also stopped ticking, too scared to move its hands for fear of retribution.
It’s almost as if the house itself is frozen in time.
“We have given you everything, and all I ask — all we ask — is that you return some of the generosity that has been bestowed upon you. But you don’t even know how to adequately boil water, do you.” She gestures toward her cold teacup. “And now my darling Anastasia and Drizella have to hurry off to their lessons, and not only will they be late because of your inability to do anything correctly, they will also be hungry, because if you can’t boil water, then how can you be trusted to cook anything?”
Their mother gestures toward the platters that Ella is still holding on her arms. Anastasia can see somewhat runny eggs sliding around on the plate, and her stomach turns. They’ve eaten so many eggs over the past several years. The chickens keep providing them, but more importantly, they’re free.
“What, exactly,” their mother says slowly, her icy gaze travelling all the way up from Ella’s feet, shoved into hole-ridden slippers, to the top of her head, “is your use to me? To us?”
Anastasia squirms a tiny bit. She’s always wanted to be an “us,” but the way her mother says it makes it sound like an army, a weapon.
“Actually,” her mother continues just as Ella opens her mouth to answer, “I already know the answer to that simple, simple question. You have no use. You’re useless.” She waves her hand at Ella, shooing her away. “Leave.”
It’s like watching a cat play with a ball of yarn, batting it around, unravelling it, then leaving it a pile on the ground, bored with the game before it even gets started. Ella starts to slink away, but their mother’s voice immediately calls her back.
“Leave the food!” she thunders. “What, do you want us to starve?”
“No, ma’am,” Ella says, moving the plates quickly from the platter to the table. When she sets Anastasia’s food down in front of her, Anastasia can see her hand shaking. She wants to reach out, grab her wrist, tell her that it will be all right, but she knows she’d be choosing a losing side in a game of winner takes all.
And Anastasia would never admit it, not even to herself, but deep down, she wants it all.
Excerpt from Robin Benway’s The Dark Ascension Series: The Wicked Ones reprinted by permission of Disney Press.
Robin Benway’s The Dark Ascension Series: The Wicked Ones is out January 10; you can preorder it here.
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