Cinderella retellings are as old as time. Each country has their own spin to this classic tale, and modern authors are just as part of the phenomenon, creating their own twists on a down-trodden heroine stuck with a cruel stepmother and stepsisters until fate gives her a prince.
Jae Jones’ new fantasy, Guardians of Dawn: Zhara, is a loose retelling of Cinderella set in a fantastical Asian inspired world where magic is banned, but a plague is turning magically inclined citizens into monsters called abominations. Their only hope is a group of rumored guardian magicians, called Guardians of Dawn, with the power to heal this affliction.
The novel follows Jin Zhara, who has to balance living in poverty with a demanding stepmother and taking care of her blind sister. On top of this, she has a magical gift that she must keep hidden or else her kingdom’s current regime will sentence her to death. Zhara’s reality is turned upside down when she has a fateful encounter with a mysterious yet bumbling and cute young man named Han. He accidentally gives her a book that eventually leads her to the Guardians of Dawn. It turns out the mysterious man is the prince of the kingdom who has his own reasons for trying to find the Guardians. Together, the pair travel on a journey to learn the origins of the plague and why it turns magicians into monsters.
Marketed as Sailor Moon meets Cinder, Guardians of Dawn: Zhara actually shares few similarities with these stories. Jones creates a newly imagined world, rich with its own magical system and charming characters. It’s adventurous, witty, and fast-paced, alternating perspectives between Zhara and Han who share an undeniable chemistry. However, the best moments of the book are when the leading couple team up to unravel the mysteries of their kingdom. Han is a refreshing romantic lead, who differs from the typical brooding, tall, dark and handsome prince. Instead, Han is a himbo, who’s willing to read a romance book just to impress his crush.
Throughout the novel, Zhara also encounters other characters who have a connection to the Guardians of Dawn, but unlike her budding relationship with Han, the book doesn’t focus too much on these other interactions. It feels like a missed opportunity not to explore some of these other characters and dive deeper into the world. However, from the direction Jones seems to be leading readers at the end of the novel, the other characters will hopefully play bigger roles in the future.
Light novel and K-pop fans will also find scattered easter eggs throughout the book such as an interesting iteration of a certain seven-member boy group band that has been taking over the entire world by storm including the United Nation. Who this K-pop group is may not be surprising to those familiar with Jones. Other fun mentions are the romance novel titles that Zhara and Han keep finding throughout their journey. These names are in the conventional vein of the titles used in some light novels and manga. These are just some fun easter eggs that never detract from the story, and if anything, they add a certain comedic effect that is done just right.
Guardians of Dawn: Zhara is a delightfully fun first entry into a new fairytale inspired fantasy series that fans who have enjoyed shoujo manga like Sailor Moon and other fairytale retellings like Cinder will want to give a try.