Mercedes Lackey is a pretty prolific author of romantic fantasies. I've read her Element Masters series (most of them, at least; I believe a few more have been published since I read them initially) and found that they were good in the fantasy element, but very light in the romance; I thought the Five Hundred Kingdoms series, the first book of which is The Fairy Godmother, would be a little heavier on the romance because it's published by Luna, which specializes in romantic fantasy and sci-fi. Well...it kind of was, once the romance actually appeared, but that didn't happen until a good way through the book.
So, The Fairy Godmother is a deviation from a fairy tale. Elena Klovis is supposed to be Cinderella, but her prince is only eleven years old, so clearly that's not going to work; instead, when her evil stepmother and stepsisters leave town to escape their debts, she takes the first job offer that comes along...which just happens to be with a woman who turns out to be the Fairy Godmother for Elena's kingdom and some others, and who is looking for an apprentice. The first fifty to sixty percent of the book deal with Elena learning to become a Fairy Godmother and make the Tradition, a magical force which tries to push people down paths following different fairy tale archetypes. The job of a Fairy Godmother is to help along the good paths and try to diver the bad ones, working within the constraints of the Tradition to ensure that no backlash comes about. When Bella, Elena's mentor, decides that Elena is ready, she promptly ditches Elena and is never seen again, not even to offer some friendly advice on some of Elena's harder cases. In her absence, Elena steps up her Fairy Godmother game.
The romance comes into play when Elena sets out to question a trio of brother Questers headed down a Glass Mountain path, and ends up turning the middle brother into a donkey for his terrible behavior. Since she feels bad leaving him to wander the woods and probably die, she takes him back to her home (also inhabited by a quartet of Brownies, though they don't seem to care about being thanked, which I could have sworn was a Brownie thing) so that he can work and learn humility and eventually regain his humanity--permanently, as she has to give him one human day per week or risk him forgetting his humanity. The prince, Alexander, spends his time scheming to get away, and then eventually begins to learn his lesson. And there are some romantic dreams, though there's not much real-life romance between them. In fact, any time some real-life romance begins to emerge, Elena pushes back against it because she's afraid the Tradition is going to push her onto a path that will ultimately be detrimental to...well, everything.
The Fairy Godmother aspect of this was really creative; I liked how Lackey subverted so many fairy tales and turned so many into other ones, even inventing a few new ones. While I expected a typical Cinderella story, I wasn't heartbroken when that wasn't what I got. Elena's magic manages to be stereotypical and creative at the same time, following old paths while also forging new ones. But I didn't believe the romance here at all. It felt very, very fake, unlike the romances which slowly built up in the Element Masters series. Honestly, it did seem that magic forced the romance in this, rather than the romance growing on its own...even though Lackey was trying to make it seem like Elena and Alexander found their way on their own. Additionally, the "big baddie" forced in at the end was just that: forced. It felt like a different story entirely.
I got this book as part of a set from the library, so I'll read the second one to see if The Fairy Godmother was more just world setup for the series as a whole, but I do hope the romance will be more pronounced in the other books, or else I won't continue with the series a whole.
3 stars out of 5.