book reviews / fantasy

Book Review: Princess Academy

princessacademy hardcover

Shannon Hale

YA Fantasy

Newbery Honor Book

If the title puts you off, don’t let it.

I was expecting such a book to follow more familiar formulas of what defines a YA princess. A school for fantasy princesses? Sure, let’s cover the usual academic standards of Deportment, Grace, Manners, Geography, Dancing. Let’s have our heroine view the system with a blend admiration and disdain. Let’s have some good old teenage girl cattiness. And let’s have our prince be both shocked and attracted by our heroine’s mastery of a select few of these princessly subjects, but also by her nonconformity.

And yup, these elements are present in the story.

But hey, it’s Shannon Hale we’re dealing with. There’s something familiar about her subjects, but she sees them through a sharper pair of glasses.

And the big silver Newbury Honor medallion slapped on the cover ought to have been a clue.

My first surprise was how the setting is nothing remotely princessly, just remote. We begin in a village that makes Smallville look small, high up in Mt. Eskel. A place so cold people bring their goats into their houses from warmth, and so everyone smells like goat. A place where the only export is linder, a special type of stone, and everyone grows up to work in the quarry.

Everyone except our scrawny heroine.  Miri’s dad treats her like a fragile flower. Miri worries she’ll never grow big enough or skilled enough for her father to trust her in the quarry.  And if she doesn’t mine linder like everyone else in the town, well, she really has no place there. There’s already things about the community she can’t take part in, like the mysterious “quarry-speech.” (This mind-to-mind communication becomes a key part of the plot later, as well as a telling commentary on what defines and builds a community.)

Miri sees herself as a useless burden. She tries to make up for it by making her few friends laugh. Friends like the village boy Peder.

Everything changes when an official from the kingdom’s capital rides into town with an announcement.  Tradition states that the priests will predict the province where the prince will pick his future bride. This time, the lucky girl will come from Mt. Eskel.

Normally, the eligible girls ages 12-17 would gather for a few days and a ball, and the prince would make his choice right away.  But the territory of Mt Eskel is so uneducated and backwoodsy that the officials decide to train up all the likely candidates for a year before letting the prince choose.

It never occurs to anyone that some of the applicants won’t want to apply for the job of princess.

Hale depicts the academy, as extraordinary as the circumstances are, as having the kind of school dynamics young readers can relate to. Miri is a wonderful heroine. At various stages Miri is (in modern terms) class clown, rebel, reject, teacher’s pet, Miss Popular, honor student, activist, and student council member. The fact she can play all these roles is not a sign of her inconsistency, but rather the complexity of a bright young person learning who she is and how she fits into her culture.

Indeed, nearly every character in the book shows complexity.  Anyone who has been to school knows how quickly standings within a group of young people can change. All the students, including Miri, show flaws now and then. And I was delighted when students besides Miri got to be the heroines from time to time, each girl playing to her own strength. This book was not only about Miri’s development, but the development of the group itself.

Indeed, the question not only of what shapes an individual, but what shapes a community, is one of Hale’s strongest themes, and what sets the book apart from others of its kind. Mt. Eskel may be Smallville, but it’s a vibrant community in its own right. The writing does not gloss over the poverty, nor does it make it the town’s defining feature. Hale does wonderful world-building in her description of quarry life, with its unique speech patterns and songs. Linder, the special rock they mine, is nearly a character itself.

Just as Miri as a person must decide where she fits into the world, she helps her community decide where it fits into the larger world. It’s a touching and oddly realistic tribute to the thousands of economically-poor-but-culturally-rich people groups in the world today.

Oh, and did I mention the side plots with cute boys are filled with a sweet innocence and awkwardness that is perfect for the age group?

If this book had a formula, what would it be?

image by khunaspix at freedigitalimages.com

image by khunaspix at freedigitalimages.com

Disney princess

+ The Bachelor

+ Any of the Harry-Potter-style Boarding Schools for Extraordinary Careers

+ Social Activism

= Princess Academy?

And still I don’t think I’ve pinpointed the ingredients that give this book its depth as a coming-of-age story.

Maybe, like a great cook, Hale adds a pinch of a secret ingredient nobody can single out, but everyone senses is baked into the essence.

Princess Academy makes the grade. I give it 5 out of 5 linder blocks.

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