By Nichole Harwood
While many of us are currently diving into the massive archive of movies available on Disney+, one author has been spinning her own Disney-inspired tales for the last ten years. Playing on the backstories of some of Disney’s most infamous and iconic witches and hags, Serena Valentino’s Villains novels have probed animations’ darkest minds to great critical acclaim. Valentino’s latest entry, Evil Thing, tackles the cackling dalmatian hunter Cruella De Vil, with a mesmerizing breath of fresh air.
I have been a longtime follower of Valentino’s Villains series, and for good reason. Her series provides a unique look into what could have motivated famous Disney antagonists while weaving in her own original character’s storylines through each book. These portrayals range from sympathetic to brutally cruel, all while giving typically simplified villains underlying complexities that were previously hidden from the naked eye.
Valentino adds depth to these characters by showing how they are victims of circumstance illustrating how unfortunate chains of events transmute them into the wicked personalities we know from their movies today. Evil Thing, however, takes a much different approach than any other book in the series so far.
To begin, the novel stands out among its predecessors as being the first of its kind not to be tied to any previous entry in the series. While Cruella De Vil’s story is explored much like the other stars of the Villains series such as Ursula or Mother Gothel, none of Valentino’s original characters star in Evil Thing. The book is not tied in any way to the rest of the series, making it the first of Valentino’s books to be unequivocally about the starring villain.
Additionally, it also stands alone in its title. Where every other Villains book’s title is accompanied by a tagline description, Evil Thing is not. Perhaps Valentino saw the would-be puppy murderer as a villain in a league of her own.
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Whatever the case, Valentino handles the story of this Disney antagonist in a far more serious manner. De Vil’s story is a detailed autobiography where, unlike in any other book in Valentino’s series, we are shown a young Cruella who has both positive and negative traits from the very beginning. She is sometimes good, sometimes pitiable, and other times detestable. Furthermore, Cruella alternates between all three of these traits throughout until a brush with quite literally insanity dampens any glimmer of good, amplifying the negative characteristics that had been present throughout the entire story.
“Sure you know the story of those puppies, those wretched dalmatians and their insipid owners, Roger and Anita. And I’m sure you even rooted for them to evade me. Me, that monster, the “devil woman” in a fur coat. But don’t I deserve a chance to tell my own side of the story? The real story. It is fabulous, after all. Behold! The story of me. Cruella De Vil!” – excerpt from Evil Thing by Serena Valentino
While specific shifts in character were jarring, I never once felt like I was reading a story other than the actual biography of Cruella De Vil. Valentino adds a lovely touch by including an afterword where she tells the audience that she was requested to tell Cruella’s story due to the individual having once been a fan of her work. Evil Thing spins so delightful, sometimes so heart wrenching a tale I found that, all in all, it quickly became one of my favorite reads by Valentino.
From the very first page, I could envision Cruella, her animal fur hanging on her lanky body, leaned back in a dramatic pose meant to exude fabulousness and high fashion. She’d breathe in a puff of dark smoke as her skeletal face stretched into a grin, recounting her tale to an audience that was more scared of what roots such a monster could have sprung from. From there, Valentino puts her pen to the paper and recounts the narcissistic and insane woman’s story as the villainess demands her right to be heard.