4 Rated Books 8 Rated Books Book Reviews Old School Wednesdays

Old School Wednesdays: Millicent’s Gift by Ann Rinaldi & Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?

Old School Wednesdays Final

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Today, we have a double feature of old school goodness headed your way: Millicent’s Gift by Ann Rinaldi, and Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.

Millicent's GiftTitle: Millicent’s Gift

Author: Ann Rinaldi

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: This edition 2004 / First published in 2002
Paperback: 224 pages

Millicent’s fourteenth birthday won’t be an ordinary day. In her family, turning fourteen means receiving a magical Gift: the ability to make one wish in life that will come true. But Millicent isn’t sure she’s ready for that kind of power. As her birthday draws closer, she realizes more and more how dangerous her magic is, and how difficult the choices ahead will be. Struggling with secrets, love, and betrayal, in the end Millicent has to make the hardest decision of all.

Standalone or series: Standalone novel

How did I get this book: Bought

Format (e- or p-): Print Book

Why did I read this book: I stumbled across this book recently at The Strand when Ana was in town for BEA – I remembered that I *loved* a book by Ann Rinaldi when I was much younger, so naturally I scooped this book up instantly.1 This week, I decided to go with Old School fantasy enchantments and curses – Millicent’s Gift was a perfect fit.

Review:

Millicent MacCool is not your average teen. The youngest daughter in a long line of women, stretching back to 16th century medieval England, Millicent will come into her “Power” when she turns 14 – the point of great contention in Millicent’s Gift. You see, a “Power” is a strong piece of magic that can only be used once (I guess?), and can be openly accepted or rejected. Only those that have studied the old ways, have passed a great test of magic, and have refrained from telling any lies can come into their Power.

As Millicent’s birthday draws ever-closer, she faces pressure from her brother and legal guardian, Mac (who also happens to be the town’s righteous upstanding Sheriff). To Mac, the MacCool Power and magical gifts bring nothing but heartache and death, and he yearns for his younger siblings to have normal lives. Millicent, who has been homeschooled and training for her Power for years, faces a crossroads in her life – to accept the abilities and Power that is her birthright, or to reject it and live a normal life.

This is a very odd, bizarrely slow and starkly written novel. I love the idea behind the book and the concept of one great Power (really, it’s a Big Wish) and the idea of training for accepting this magic over the years. The magic in this book, however, is frustratingly vague and doesn’t ever quite make sense. For example, Millicent and one of her aunts can shapeshift, however this is not a large use of Power? Why can’t Millicent lie (how is that a barrier to magic?!)? Are we meant to believe that in all of her fourteen years, Millicent has never told a single lie?!

These frustrations said, I should clarify something: Millicent’s Gift isn’t really about magic. It’s actually the story of a young girl and her family D-R-A-M-A. It’s the story of a young teenager who starts going to public school and makes a toxic friend who abuses their relationship; it’s the story of family secrets, an absentee father, a dead sister, and a jealous brother. Heck, there’s a drug bust, robberies gone wrong, and even a shootout by the end of the book. And yet…for all this drama and action, Millicent’s Gift never quite manages to tie everything together in a compelling story. There’s a lot that happens, but I was never invested enough in the characters to actually care about what was happening. Similarly, Ann Rinaldi’s writing style is aloof and clipped which – while intriguing in the voice it creates for Millicent – felt distancing and offputting.

There are also a few red flags that went up over the course of reading this book – phrases and thoughts characters would have that are big Oh No Nos.2 For example:

(A scene in which Mac is convincing his mother and aunts that Millicent needs to go to public school)

“You act as if you have to save her from us,” Aunt Melanie accused.

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to. You’ve all done a good job of nurturing and loving her. You’ve done the woman thing, and I’m grateful. But just don’t stop me from doing what I have to do. And don’t warn her off me. We’ll all do what we consider best for her, and may the best man win. Okay?”

(A scene in which Millicent’s twin brother Dexter reflects on their house being broken into)

“I’m gonna kick the crap out of that Dennis. He’s nothing but a faggot, anyway. If I’d been here last night I’d have laid him flat.”

I sighed. “Yeah, I know. But he’s not a faggot, just because he’s a hairdresser, Dex. That’s a stereotype and it isn’t fair. It’s not nice, either. He just had a little too much to drink.”

(A scene in which Millicent’s mom talks about magic)

“Are you telling me we’re part Cherokee now, too?” Dex asked.

“No. But the Indians are all very mystical. And so is this family.”

Needless to say, I was not impressed with this book – and considering it was published relatively recently in 2002? NOT OK.

Ultimately, I finished Millicent’s Gift wishing I hadn’t picked it up at all. While there were some good elements to the book – the pressures of living up to family expectations, the importance and distinction between telling the truth and doing the right thing, for example – this book couldn’t really pull it all together in a cohesive, meaningful way. This, compounded with the writing issues and some serious red flags mean that Millicent’s Gift is certainly NOT the book for me.

Rating: 4 – Bad

Ella EnchantedreTitle: Ella Enchanted

Author: Gail Carson Levine

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade/Young Adult

Publisher: Scholastic
Publication date: This edition 2011 / First published in 1997
Paperback: 240 pages

How can a fairy’s blessing be such a curse?

At her birth, Ella of Frell was given a foolish fairy’s gift—the “gift” of obedience. Ella must obey any order given to her, whether it’s hopping on one foot for a day or chopping off her own head!

But strong-willed Ella does not tamely accept her fate. She goes on a quest, encountering ogres, giants, wicked stepsisters, fairy godmothers, and handsome princes, determined to break the curse—and live happily ever after.

Standalone or series: Standalone novel

How did I get this book: Bought

Format (e- or p-): Print Book

Why did I read this book: After the bad taste that Millicent’s Gift left in my mouth, I was hopeful that Gail Carson Levine’s much beloved MG novel Ella Enchanted would be the perfect antidote for my reading slump. I confess that this is the FIRST book I’ve ever read by Levine, and that it took me so long to get around to this one because… well, I’m not a fan of Anne Hathaway, and the movie trailer looked terrible. I know, that is a rotten reason not to read a book. Argh. My fault. Completely my fault.

Review:

When young noblewoman Ella is born, she receives a magical gift from a feckless fairy named Lucinda: obedience. This “gift” however is truly a curse, for Ella must do ANYTHING that is ordered of her. Should someone tell Ella to assist with the laundry or go to bed, she must comply. Should somebody order Ella to throw herself into an Ogre’s cooking fire, or eat chocolate cake until her stomach explodes, or lop off her own head, she must do so. In short, Ella’s curse is dangerous, indeed. Only two people – Ella’s beloved mother and dear family friend and cook Mandy know of Ella’s curse, for Ella’s own protection.

But just because Ella is blighted with a dangerous, foolish gift and forced to carry out any order doesn’t mean that she is without her own free will or opinions. No, Ella is clever, unimaginably strong-willed, and finds ways to rebel against those who discover her secret. And, when the fate of the Kingdom is on the line, it is Ella who must break her own curse and save the one she loves.

Oh, friends. How has it taken me so ridiculously long to read this book? This Newbery Honor book? I’m happy to say that Ella Enchanted is every bit as charming and winsome as I hoped; but more than that, it’s actually a powerful and empowering read. The premise alone is superb: take a heroine and strip her of her free will in such a way that she knows she’s being stripped of her will, and actively finds any way to rebel against the magic that binds her. You’d think that Ella’s obedience might equate to a lack of agency – but in fact it is just the opposite. DUDES. I adored Ella. I love how she would find little ways to resist and subvert her orders (like the time Cook Mandy orders Ella to hold a bowl while Mandy beats the eggs, and Ella would hold the bowl but walk around the kitchen aimlessly such that Mandy would have to follow her around). Ella’s fierceness and her desire for freedom is a driving force in the novel, especially when she runs into the worst possible people who discover her secret.

Did I mention that this is also a proper fairy tale and a take on – wait for it – Cinderella? I won’t reveal too much about this retelling aspect of the story, but suffice it to say that Levine’s twist is every bit as wonderful, sweet, and empowering as the rest of the book. (Ok one slight spoiler: Ella is the one that saves the Prince, naturally.)

There was only one major thing that detracted from the book, to me. The “evil stepsisters” are stereotypically portrayed as greedy, overweight, and extremely dim-witted (to the point of being uncomfortable – in a making fun of someone with a serious learning disability kind of way); of course, they are also as ugly as they are unkind. I was hoping for a little more depth and sympathy or understanding of these characters, but while we get a bit of backstory and depth, Hattie and Olive are sadly one-note.

That criticism said, I truly loved Ella Enchanted. I cannot wait to read more from Gail Carson Levine – anyone have any suggestions on what to read next?

Absolutely recommended.

Rating: 8 – Excellent

Reading Next: Truth or Dare by Jacqueline Green

Buy the Books:

(click on the links to purchase)

Millicent’s Gift

No Ebook Available

Ella Enchanted

Ebook available for kindle US, nook, google, kobo, sony & iBookstore

  1. The Last Silk Dress!!! A YAish Gone with the Wind featuring a Southern Belle that undergoes some serious soul searching not only in terms of what she believes and the war, but with her family and place in the world, too!
  2. TM Tom Haverford.

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22 Comments

  • Matthew
    June 5, 2013 at 8:18 am

    Levine’s “Tuesdays At the Castle” is great fun as are her fairy tale stories (there are like six of them). The only other thing I read was “Dragon Slippers” which was alright. Many other people I know adore it, though.

  • Liz
    June 5, 2013 at 9:24 am

    Ella Enchanted was one of my favorites as a kid; I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Levine has a real gift for protagonists. If you’re looking for another Levine, I remember really liking The Two Princesses of Bamarre.

  • superbwg
    June 5, 2013 at 10:28 am

    Ella Enchanted is one of my favoritist books of all times!!! The Princess Tales are pretty good, short, quick and hilarious. I have liked the vast majority of her books, the only real exception being Ever, which just felt flat. Fairest is ok, but a bit confusing, all the rest are pretty awesome.

  • Karen
    June 5, 2013 at 10:33 am

    Dragon Slippers is by Jessica Day George, not Gail Carson Levine. Good series, though!

    I LOVE Ella Enchanted, I don’t care too much for GCL’s princess books but I’ve liked her other, longer books. Nothing quite lives up to Ella Enchanted.

  • Gerd D.
    June 5, 2013 at 11:01 am

    Unfortunately, the trailer for Ella doesn’t only look terrible (and while I actually kind of like Anne, she really doesn’t fit the role of Ella at all), the movie is terrible.
    They took only the barest outlines of the story, and the title, to produce a quick cash-in from the book’s fame.
    I had such high hopes for it after reading the book and learning that there was a movie – well, will I ever learn?

  • de Pizan
    June 5, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    I’ll second The Two Princesses of Bamarre. The Rumpelstiltskin Problem is also good–she talks about how problematic she always found the fairy tale, so retells it in several different stories to try to make sense of it. Fairest and Ever are interesting premises, but I never felt like they came together quite as well as Ella Enchanted or The Two Princesses.

  • Franki
    June 5, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    I’m glad you enjoyed Ella Enchanted! I loved it when I was a kid! If you’re looking for something by GCL which is more about looks, there’s always Fairest. But just in general I really like her books. So many good memories. 🙂

  • shay
    June 5, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    The Two Princesses of Bamarre!
    It is amazing.

  • Kristin
    June 5, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    I also was a big fan of Fairest, which if I remember correctly is set in the same world as Ella. It’s another fairy tale rift, this time on Snow White and Levine really tinkers with the concept beauty in the novel.

  • Amanda W
    June 5, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    The Last Silk Dress was one of my favorite books as a teenager. I read it so many times! I also liked Rinaldi’s Time Enough for Drums (although, I will say that I haven’t read that in a long time, so there might be some problematic elements that I just didn’t really think about at the time because I was too distracted by ALL THE FEELINGS). But, it doesn’t surprise me that this Rinaldi book wasn’t very good — I feel like with the exception of those two books, I’ve never really liked any of her other work. Not sure why, especially because those two were among her earliest books.

  • Katharine Ott
    June 5, 2013 at 7:16 pm

    I would recommend Levine’s “Dave at Night.” I read it quite a while back, but remember liking it. And regarding “The Last Silk Dress” – that was the very first book for our newly established book club which we started in March of 2004 and is still going strong!

  • Amanda
    June 5, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    Levine’s books of short retold fairytales are similarly fantastic: The Princess Tales Vol. 1 & 2 The characters always feature strong, resourceful women and a healthy dose of humor. My students (4th graders) adore them, and so do I! If you liked this you’ll probably like Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, and also The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo.

  • Linda W
    June 6, 2013 at 7:58 am

    I’m really sorry the film version of ELLA ENCHANTED kept you from reading this book. Glad you read it finally! This was the first of Levine’s books that I read and I had to read the others. I agree with Liz: The Two Princesses of Bamarre is a good one to read next.

  • Missie Kay @ The Book Fix
    June 6, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    I have liked all of the GCL books I’ve ever read, but my favorites are Ella, Two Princesses, and especially Ever are my favorites. I saw that someone above didn’t like Ever, but I think it’s wonderful. Of course, it’s a version of the Cupid & Psyche myth, which I always love.

  • Amanda @ Late Nights with Good Books
    June 6, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    I read Ella Enchanted shortly after it was published and it remains one of my favorite books to this day. Ella is a wonderful heroine and role model and her story is both clever and creative. I’m glad you had such a positive first experience reading Gail Carson Levine! I will say, I don’t think any of her other books quite compare to this one, but I think her second best novel is The Two Princesses of Bamarre, in which she creates her very own fairy tale. It also really explores the dynamics of sisterhood and is just very well done.

  • Elaine
    June 7, 2013 at 12:18 am

    I only read Ella Enchanted this year too and I’m also not thrilled about the way the stepsisters are written. It actually made like the book less because I was expecting something a LOT more different from the usual Cinderella story. The book did fantastic things for Ella but I still feel bad about the stepsisters, they never catch a break.

  • Stephanie Burgis
    June 7, 2013 at 8:01 am

    I’ve only read one Gail Carson Levine novel so far, but I really enjoyed it: A Tale of Two Castles. Fab heroine who becomes the assistant to a dragon detective! And an ogre who’s a really good guy.

  • Jamie
    June 7, 2013 at 10:17 pm

    Read The Two Princesses of Bamarre. It is a strange read, for sure, but I loved it.

  • Elizabeth
    June 10, 2013 at 12:08 am

    What de Pezan says – Ella Enchanted was my favourite of all Levine’s novels, and I thoroughly enjoyed Two Princesses. The others are a little fluffier and are fun, quick reads, but the characters aren’t as fleshed out as Ella Enchanted.

  • Chachic
    June 10, 2013 at 9:36 am

    Yay, I’m so glad you enjoyed reading Ella Enchanted because it’s one of my favorite fairy tale retellings. Ella is such a great character, I love how she was able to find ways to overcome the curse. I felt like the romance was pretty sweet as well. Hmm I’ve read some of Gail Carson Levine’s other novels but Ella Enchanted is still the one that stands out for me.

  • Glory
    November 30, 2013 at 1:16 pm

    I just thought that I would pipe in about Carson’s middle-grade book, “The Wish” since no one has mentioned it here; a girl wishes for popularity and friendship and it all goes awry. It opened my eyes as a kid, because how could compelling that everyone love you ever be a bad thing?

    Also, the Two Princesses of Bamarre is excellent, as it examines sisterly relationships, and Carson’s concept of magicians and use of seven-league boots in that story is fascinating.

    “Ever” is a Psyche-Cupid love story as someone mentioned here, though I found obstacles to the romance rather quick and easily resolved.”Fairest” is a Snow-White retelling that deals specifically with the concept of beauty and size, that is reminiscent of the “Girl of the Fire of the Thorns,” though on a smaller scale.

    What I love about Carson is her ability to construct different personalities when writing her stories; Ella is clearly different than the two princesses of Bamarre, same with Wilma from the “Wish.”

  • Theodora
    January 28, 2015 at 3:39 pm

    Ella Enchanted is an awesome book. Levine also wrote Fairest, which takes place in the same world, predictably off of Snow White. It’s one of my favorites of hers. The heroine is the sister of Ella’s friend Areida and is wonderful in a completely different way.

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