The Wicked Ones (The Dark Ascension Series, Book 1)

The Wicked Ones by Robin Benway


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Book Review

Anastasia and Drizella Tremaine have promised themselves—and each other—that they’ll never be like their wicked and tormenting mother. But bad things happen … even in a Cinderella tale.

Plot Summary

People often say good things about family. But what do you do when it’s not so good?

For Drizella and Anastasia Tremaine, that’s something of a daily question.

Their family’s limping downward spiral began when their father decided he was too weak to be like other fathers. He left when Drizzy and Anna were just little girls, taking their family’s fortune with him.

The girls’ mother, Lady Tremaine, later remarried, but any hopes that would set their family aright withered soon after when their stepfather grew sick and died. The only good thing that came out of that experience was a stepsister named Ella. And that’s not because Ella is good herself—though she is and even the mice and birds love her—but because Ella became the focus of their mother’s ire.

Lady Tremaine, you see, is far from the sweet, mothering type. The wisest path is always the path that avoids her glance. Bitter and cruel, she demands a Yes, Mother in reply whenever she speaks, but that respectful title is far from applicable.

In fact, Drizella and Anastasia are determined that they shall never be like their heavy-handed mother.

They’ll protect one another and obey Lady Tremaine’s will, of course. There’s a royal debut party coming up that their mother is very much preoccupied by, and the girls will do everything they can to impress the Prince and live up to expectations. (To not do so would risk being thrown into their house’s crumbling tower and left there for days.)

However, the girls know that a royal wedding is very unlikely in their future. But some other good things might be.

Drizella has recently discovered a love for science, and a teacher who is kind and thoughtful. And Anastasia has met a young man who has left her with thoughts of, someday perhaps, having a good family of her own.

But the girls know that one must never forget Lady Tremaine. They are a part of this woman’s tightly clutched “family” after all. And Ella won’t keep her heated attention occupied forever.

Christian Beliefs

We’re told of how Drizella’s grandmother first laid eyes on her head of black hair and said: “She looks like she came from a coven.”

Other Belief Systems

This story is set in what we would consider a fairytale kingdom. But author Robin Benway restages the tale in a much more “real world” environment with mentions of travels to Paris and other parts of the world. The only “magic” in the mix is Ella’s extraordinary ability to connect with the animals around her—sewing little outfits for them and singing with them.

Authority Roles

Drizella and Anastasia seem to have the deck stacked against them from the very beginning. As very young girls, their father—who admits that he’s a liar and a cheat, a thief, a gambler and a drunk—steals the family’s valuables and runs away. He states that “to be loved is to have a responsibility” before slipping into the night with quickly forgotten small regrets.

That betrayal has obvious negative impacts when we later catch up with the girls when they’re 16 and 17. They both are very wounded by this betrayal and still harbor “hopes” that their father was somehow kidnapped and might come back to them someday. Lady Tremaine is impacted by her husband’s desertion, too. It helps make her a much crueler and more manipulative person.

Lady Tremaine is emotionally distant and controllingly hurtful to her daughters. She orders around, screams at and emotionally belittles all of them constantly. But Drizella and Anastasia are treated like queens when compared to stepdaughter Ella. Ella is looked upon as nothing more than a slave. Drizella and Anastasia don’t necessarily care for their much prettier and much sweeter stepsister, but they do sometimes feel sorry for the abuse she suffers at their mother’s hand.

At one point Drizella meets a widowed female scientist named Madame Lambert. She’s a kind, older woman who Drizella shockingly realizes was “someone who would offer a hug instead of a shove.” And “she finds herself never wanting anything to hurt Madame Lambert.” Not only does Madame Lambert spark a joy of learning in Drizella, she openly welcomes her in—much like a soft and comforting mother—when the young girl is at her lowest point.

“Your worth is not based on anyone else,” Madame Lambert states when Drizella worries over things her mother has said to her. And when Drizella is bullied harshly by others, the good woman comforts her, saying: “Well, anyone who calls two young women ugly during a ball celebrating youth and beauty must have their own ugliness inside of them. And sometimes, in groups, that ugliness can be catching.”

For her part, Anastasia finds her share of kindness and comfort from a young groom who works for the palace. He saves her from being run over by a fast-moving carriage and the two become friends. That friendship slowly blossoms into romance.

It should also be noted that the Tremaine family isn’t looked upon fondly by the surrounding community or by the girl’s peers. When Drizella and Anastasia were younger, their mother would keep any potential friends at bay. And when the girls go to the royal party, they overhear other young women saying nasty and unkind things about them and their dresses. When they present their “talents” at that debut ball, things don’t go well. And Drizella notes that the crowd’s laughter “was cruel and harsh and vindictive.”

The girls both suffer a final, incredibly cruel emotional blow brought on by their mother.

Profanity & Violence

Drizella teases Anastasia about Lady Tremaine “drinking heavily” when they leave the house.

There are many instances of emotional abuse that deliver their own brand of violence. But Drizella, Anastasia and Ella are all physically grabbed, dragged around and abused by their mother as well. Anastasia has reoccurring nightmares about being dragged up a staircase and thrown into a decaying tower room connected to their home. She was alone in this crumbling room surrounded by rats. And later, when Ella is dragged off by Lady Tremaine to be “disciplined” in the same way, Anastasia can’t help but do something to aid her stepsister.

While being dragged up the tower steps (before the events of this story take place), Anastasia’s finger was dislocated. And that improperly healed injury torments her going forward. When Ella steps out of the tower after days without food, she is filthy, ragged and gaunt.

Sexual Content

Anastasia falls in love with the palace groom, Dominic. He hugs her close, treats her tenderly and kindly, and they embrace and kiss several times.

Discussion Topics

Have you ever been on the receiving end of hateful, unfair words? What do you think people should do in circumstances like that? Where should they go? Who can they talk to? What should you do if you see someone else being mistreated?

Do you think people are shaped by what other people say or do to them? So what things should you maybe do or say differently to others? Are there ways that you can be the kind person who makes a positive difference in someone’s life? Did this book make you think of ways you could be a better friend?

Take a look at Matthew 7:12 and Galatians 6:9-10. How do those verses relate to this story?

Get free discussion question for books at

Additional Comments

Disney has a stockpile of stories that it’s re-exploring from different perspectives with books like this one. And that alone will grab many reader’s attentions. But parents of younger readers should note that this is no light-and-fluffy fairy tale. This is a darker, somewhat tragic tale filled with emotional and physical torment.

That said, this is also an interesting behind-the-scenes story that compels us to closely consider, and form emotional ties with, Cinderella’s “wicked” stepsisters. It raises involving questions about how parents’ foul choices and manipulative ways—as well as societal bullying—can impact a young person’s character in very negative ways. And at the same time this tale points to how a kind word, a gentle friendship and a hug can all be great blessings.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not necessarily their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Review by Bob Hoose