Mechanica by Betsy Cornwell
Nicolette's life was happy when her mother and father were alive, before magic was banned in the kingdom and her mother made their fortune by creating marvelous, mechanical creatures. It has been years since then and Nicolette's step-mother seems determined to have the entire family live sad, austere lives. But when Nicolette rediscovers her mother's hidden workshop, right after an announcement about an upcoming technological exhibition, it seems like her chance at a life of happiness and satisfaction isn't lost after all.
This is a Cinderella retelling and the story mixes in quite a few traditional tropes (the familial set-up, "Cinderella's" escape plans etc) with some tropes that I see quite often in modern Cinderella retellings (she meets the prince before the actual ball, she goes to the ball and her goal isn't to ensnare the prince's heart in the process etc). There are no big flaws to this story, however there were a lot of little details which I thought didn't work well, such as the romance. The romantic plot felt very weird, there's relatively little interaction between the two characters, Nicolette even acknowledges that it's more of a way for her to have someone to "talk" to in her mind than the beginnings of an actual relationship, and yet Christopher seems to have also gotten a crush for Nicolette in the same timeframe with the same lack of contact. I think the path that Cornwell took in the end was the right one for the characters but that still didn't make the romance retroactively fit in better.
My largest problem was with the setting however, which is a shame since the idea of a steampunk-esque world was what caught my interest in the first place. My first complaint is that there is simply too much crammed in, magic is ultimately responsible for moving a number of the plot pieces forward (ie, the story would be hugely different without it), but I still feel like it was overkill. More importantly however, this entire setting felt just too tailored for Nicolette and it threw the balance of the story off. Ideally a character should have to overcome multiple conflicts in a story, some easy and some hard, but in Mechanica there was simply too great of a difference between Nicolette's domestic conflicts (with her "family" that she can't seem to escape) and her external conflicts (where as soon as she steps out into the world she succeeds immediately). There was simply too much whiplash between these two extremes and it left me feeling honestly a little frustrated that Nicolette couldn't do anything about her personal life (and the story semi-snuck in a "technical girl hates sewing" idea which always leaves me feeling grouchy and defensive) and yet the outside world was just waiting for her to do great things and already had a place set aside for her in history.
All in all this is far from being a terrible book, out of all of the fairy tale retellings I seem to have the most trouble with Cinderella ones (like, I even found a good Beauty and the Beast retelling recently!) and this one does work much better than others I have read. I've also read Cornwell's other work, Tides, and I remember having similar thoughts on the lack of balance regarding conflicts. I'm still willing to give her one more story to see if this is a problem she can rectify a bit better but I also don't see myself adding either of these books to my collection.