Book: The Memory Thief (City of Wishes Book One) by Rachel Morgan (2019)
Age/Genre: Urban Fantasy
You’ll probably like this if: You thought Cinderella could use more magic…and a few vampires.
Content Notes: Classism, Racism, Slavery, Abuse
I came across this Cinderella retelling as an ad on BookBub, one of the lists I get emailed to me periodically. I clicked on it because I wanted a closer look at the cover art. I bought it because of the description. I read the whole series, because I had to find out what happens next. To explain The Memory Thief, I have to set the stage a bit:
The four high races – faeries, humans, shifters, and vampires – warred hundreds of years ago. When the war ended, faeries were the ruling class, shifters and vampires had territories they were restricted to, and humans became slaves of the other races. Faeries most commonly held human slaves in order to preserve their stores of magic essence. Vampires held human slaves for their blood. Shifters kept humans to preserve their race. As the years passed, the races began to mingle more and more, though there is still very clearly a hierarchy. The vampires and shifters were allowed to move to faery-ruled lands and vice versa. Some humans were freed and became active members of the economy, although they were generally disdained for their inability to control magic.
Estelle (Elle) Winter, is a human, born to human parents of some wealth and influence, with the previously unheard of ability to wipe memories. Elle’s mother died of a long-term illness when Elle was 7-years-old. Her father married Salvia, a faerie, when Elle was 12. Salvia had two daughters from a previous marriage, Meredith and Sienna. They lived together happily until Elle’s father was bitten by a vampire and killed himself rather than turn. The family discovered quickly that the majority of their properties and fancier belongings had to be sold to cover the debts of their patriarch. They ended up with a townhouse in a shabby genteel neighborhood in Vale City. Salvia enslaved Elle with magic as a way to ensure that Elle would wipe memories whenever Salvia wished.
Now, Elle is the human slave of her faerie stepfamily. She cleans, cooks, runs errands, and occasionally helps with the cons that Salvia and Meredith use to support their lavish lifestyle. Meredith uses her beauty to attract unsuspecting rich men (who Salvia chooses) into getting engaged and/or giving her lavish gifts. When the con has run its course, she brings the men home to “meet the family” and Elle wipes their memories. Elle’s stepsister, Meredith, is just as self-serving as Salvia, but Sienna is kind and struggles against her mother’s abusive nature. Salvia often uses Sienna as a means to control Elle by physically punishing Sienna for Elle’s failures. Together, Sienna and Elle plot to get Elle’s freedom and escape from Salvia’s house.
Their plot hinges on Elle’s memory-wiping abilities. Secretly, Elle sneaks out to the faerie clubs pretending to be fae and wipes the bad memories of fae who wish to forget in exchange for magic essence. Sienna and Elle collect the essence with the intention of purchasing a wish to free Elle from the slave-charm. Unfortunately, the price of the wish rises faster than Elle can collect the essence to free herself. Elle’s encounters with a handsome and charming faerie, and her subsequent abduction by a vampire, make her desperate enough to contact the Godmother – the elusive woman in charge of the illegal wish trade.
The Godmother’s price isn’t in any form of usual currency. Instead, her price is specific to the wish and the wisher. Elle repeatedly says that she has never met someone who is happy with the price they paid for their wish, which is why she hasn’t considered summoning the Godmother until now. Her desperation drives her to make a bargain with the Godmother, but the bargain she makes will embroil her in even more danger.
As I read the blurb for this book, I couldn’t help but be tickled by the idea of the fairy godmother as a mobster making bargains for wishes. I won’t lie, I pictured the fairy godmother from Shrek 2 before I read the book. The reality in the book is even more interesting. I’m hoping for another series where we explore the origins of the Godmother and find out if she has an end goal we don’t realize yet.
Elle is an interesting character in her own right. She has lived through a lot of adversity and considers herself capable of handling crises. The primary reason Sienna hasn’t run away by herself is because she believes she needs Elle in order to survive the “real world.” Yet, every time Elle comes face to face with someone from another of the high races, she internally panics. Her internal monologue frequently repeats the refrain, “Humans are the weakest of the high races.” She is certain that she is not capable of fighting a faerie, vampire, or shifter if they choose to attack her. I respect that she is trying to recognize her own limits, but she seems to omit an important bit of information every time she has this thought spiral: She is a human with an ability no one else has. While Elle has successfully navigated the club scene by flying under the radar, playing like she’s a faerie with a unique but fairly useless talent, she has forgotten that she is not entirely powerless.
Surprisingly, the “charming and handsome faerie” Elle bumps into seems to think she is much more capable than Elle does. His name is Dex, and he recruits Elle to help him determine why a secret society of vampires seems to be abducting a large number of humans. That may sound obvious – vampires drink human blood, after all – but usually the humans abducted for blood reappear either as blood slaves, vampires, or dead bodies. These humans have gone missing for good. Dex knows that Elle is human; he doesn’t know about her ability. Yet, Dex has confidence that Elle can handle herself when necessary. Yay for a male protagonist who doesn’t assume a girl needs protecting!
Equally refreshing was Elle’s unwillingness to put herself into needlessly perilous situations. Unlike other books I have read where the female protagonist talks herself into taking risky steps because she feels like she has to do it, Elle actively avoids danger until it’s absolutely necessary to walk through the fire. And then she does it unwillingly and with a lot of caution. To me, it felt like her sense of self-preservation made it easier for other characters to value her plans and capabilities. The other characters didn’t feel the need to protect her from her own terrible instincts.
The beginning of this series is a Cinderella retelling, so there is a pretty familiar plot: Cinderella enslaved by her wicked stepmother and hoping that someday she will be free to live some ambiguously “better” life. This is accomplished through a faerie godmother, a ball, and a handsome prince…although, the wish from the Godmother comes with a price in this retelling. The Godmother is quite a bit different than the Fairy Godmother in the Disney version of this story.
The Godmother’s differences are really perfect for the Urban Fantasy setting of The Memory Thief. Vale City is a typical, glittering city with a seedy underbelly – with a few notable exceptions: pixies, rather than mice, steal food from unprotected pantries; instead of drugs, the illegal wish trade dominates the black market; and items labelled “unicorn” aren’t just made with rainbow food coloring. The clubbing scenes in particular reminded me of raves – from the rhinestone-encrusted boots to the skimpy clothes – there just happened to be magic floating around, as well. Plus,the vampires were basically a street gang.
Overall, the world built in this series was very well done. Morgan left a few avenues open for spin-off series, as well, and I seriously hope that she writes those stories soon! I might just have a new go-to urban fantasy author.