Merrie Haskell’s The Princess Curse

I came across Merrie Heskell’s The Princess Curse on LizMc2’s blog. Her description of the book as “a middle grade fantasy . . . involv[ing] a young woman discovering her power and her relationship with a powerful older man” reeled me right in!

The story’s a retake on “The 12 Dancing Princesses” fairytale. I’m not very familiar with the original tale except for the knowledge that the titular princesses are cursed to dance the night away. Thankfully, my lack of knowledge of the original had no bearing on my enjoyment of The Princess Curse which does have enough loose ends for there to be a sequel!

Reveka, the 13-year-old heroine, is exactly the kind of 13-year-old girl that I love to read about: smart (and self-aware enough to know that she’s smart), spunky, and scheming. She also has a limited store of patience, is full of confidence that borders on cockiness, and usually acts like an express train going on full steam—in other words, she reads and feels like a teenager. She dreams of having a herbary, and being “the herbalist for an entire abbey” because as she puts it:

[C]onvent was the best choice for me. A place where I would have all the time I was supposed to be devoutly praying to think about herbs. I didn’t really care for all the silence and singing and obedience—but my own herbary!

See what I mean about being smart and scheming? I want to be friends with this girl!

Also, the rich and varied description of all the herbs made me want to start a herb garden of my own! Immediately!

Reveka lives and works as an apprentice-herbalist at a castle with 12 princesses who mysteriously disappear each night. Attempts to investigate their whereabouts have resulted in either the said investigator disappearing completely or being put into a slumber from which nobody wakes up. There’s a prize for “breaking the curse” which our girl has her eyes on.

I love how we can see Reveka’s evolution as a character even in something as simple as her desire to break the curse: while money is the reason that Reveka becomes interested in the curse, very soon it takes on more personal tones as her co-apprentice gets caught in the curse’s tentacles.

The force at the center of the curse aka “the villain” is fleshed out and multidimensional rather than being rendered in a single color (in that it reminded me of another “evil villain” whose evilness had more to it than appeared on the surface). Same goes for Haskell’s description of the “Underworld” which is neither “dead” nor simple.

Reveka also has a complex relationship with her father. I don’t think I’ve seen father-daughter relationships as one of the main foci of a YA story and I really like that Haskell weaves this into her narrative: a pivotal point in the story hinges on Reveka’s love for her father. Of course, neither Reveka, nor her father, are very good at expressing their love for each other.

My one quibble with the book is the resolution of the curse and Reveka’s final decision which seemed a little too fatalistic, and too abrupt, and also a little troubling. I understand it’s the author’s prerogative to build her world the way she/he deems it fit but I find it troubling that [SPOILER ALERT—HIGHLIGHT TO READ FURTHER] the survival of the underworld hinged on Reveka’s acceptance of herself as a bride to Dragos. Till that point, I seriously thought that our whiz-kid would find a herb-based solution while her romance with Dragos would proceed on its own pace without there being a forcing of hands, so to say.

Despite the quibble, I think it’s a story worth reading. Here’s one of my favorite bits:

I jumped when the door banged open and Pa’s voice asked, “Have you seen Mihas? He hasn’t been around all day.”

“No, I haven’t seen your apprentice.” Brother Cosmin answered.

“Wait—where’s Reveka? Did she go off with him?”

“Go off with him?” Brother Cosmin repeated, sounding surprised.

Pa’s voice was grim. “He’s got something of a crush on her.”

I buried my face in my hands. Why did Pa know this?

“Why would you think that means she’d go off with him?” Brother Cosmin asked.

A good question, Brother Cosmin! Why would Pa think that I’d be interested in a cowherd’s stupid crush and take up a dalliance with the boy—to the point of neglecting my work and letting Mihas neglect his? . . .

“I don’t think you need to worry about that,” Brother Cosmin said. “She’s about as interested in Mihas as she is in my donkey. Which is to say she might stoop to giving him mashed juniper berries for his colic, but that’s about all the notice she pays either of them.”

Rachel Hartman–Seraphina

Like so many other 16 year olds Seraphina, the eponymous heroine of Seraphina, struggles to fit into her world. Her mother died at childbirth and her relationship with her father is strained at best. She thinks she’s ugly and feels torn between two worlds.

Unlike other 16 year olds however, Seraphina also happens to be half-dragon. Rachel Hartman’s debut Seraphina is as enjoyable on a re-read as it was the first time I read it two years ago. (I re-read in preparation for Shadow Scales, the sequel).

Rachel Hartman’s world is one where an uneasy peace exists between humans and dragons. The story opens with the 40th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty looming on the horizon. To commemorate the event, dragon commander Comonot and his entourage are travelling to the human kingdom of Goredd.

While there is no outward conflict between dragons and humans, distrust runs rampant, with the two species viewing each other as alien beings with no common ground between them. To compound the matter, as the story begins, the human king Prince Rufus has just been murdered—in a fashion that is reminiscent of dragon killings.

seraphina-198x300At this point I want to talk about Hartman’s dragons. Dragons in Rachel Hartman’s world are not the fiery creatures of passion and emotion that one normally encounters. Quite the opposite in fact. Cool logic is their purview and they disdain emotional quagmires, looking at human beings as interesting cockroaches, as Seraphina puts it.

Seraphina’s character and the tension fraught world of Goredd reminded me of the world we live in. I love how the framework of a fantasy world makes the issues that are explored in the story feel non-threatening. The distance that the fantasy aspect provides makes it easier for me to approach the subjects that are being dealt with, and to think about them from a broader perspective than I would have been able to if those very same issues had been couched in a non-fantasy story. (And in fact this is one of the reasons why I think I love fantasy as a genre).

Seraphina is thrust right in the middle of all the intrigue. A gifted musician and the assistant to the court composer she comes to be in a unique position, one from which she can see clearly both into the human and the dragon heart. In her quest to understand the going-ons around her, she has to reach a measure of peace with herself, and has to stop viewing herself as one of the “grotesques.” As she comes to realize:

We were all monsters and bastards, and we were all beautiful.

Are you intrigued yet?

The world that Hartman builds is very atmospheric:

The road, not wide to begin with, narrowed even further above us; the upper stories cantilevered over the street, as if the houses were leaning together to gossip. A woman on one side might have borrowed a lump of butter from her neighbor on the other without leaving home. The looming buildings squeezed the sky down to a rapidly darkening ribbon.

Or the vividness of the details that makes this bit come alive:

I did not just see it: I smelled fish and market spices, felt the ocean’s salty breath upon my incorporeal face. I soared through the pristine blue sky like a lark, circled over white domes and spires, and glided above the bustling dockyards. A lush temple garden, full of chuckling fountains and blossoming lemon trees, drew me in.

As you can make out from the above, the writing is lovely (and remains so through and through):

The music flew from me like a dove released into the vastness of the nave; the cathedral itself lent it new richness and gave something back, as if this glorious edifice, too, were my instrument.

I took one last look around this peculiar, smelly slice of interspecies coexistence, the treaty’s mad dream come to raucous life.

Seraphina is exactly the sort of fantasy that I enjoy the most—layered characters, evocative settings and thought-provoking writing. It doesn’t hurt that the plot sucks you in too.

There’s just one last thing that I want to remark upon before I go off to enjoy Shadow Scales. Though there’s just a whiff of romance in the story, I very much love the way that the sort-of-love-triangle that exists between Seraphina and two other characters, Princess Glisselda and Kiggs, is handled. Far from portraying one of the girls as an evil other-woman, Hartman makes the reader fall in love with both Seraphina and Glisselda. They complement each other in their strengths and weaknesses and share a friendship that has nothing to do with Kiggs. I just love that so much!

Anyway! Here’s another bit that I enjoyed:

The ocean was still there, but my music was a bridge, a ship, a beacon. It bound me to everyone here, held us all in its hands, carried us together to a better place. It modulated (ripples on the sea) and modulated again (a flight of gulls) and landed squarely on a mode I loved (a chalky cliff, a windswept lighthouse). I could make out a different tune, one of my mother’s, just below the surface; I played a coy melody, an enigmatic variation, referencing her tune without bringing it up explicitly. I made a pass at her song, circled, touched it lightly before swooping past once more. It would draw me back into its orbit again and again until I gave it its due. I played her melody out in full, and I sang my father’s lyrics, and for a shining moment we were all three together.

Among Others by Jo Walton – A Review

Among OthersAmong Others was a bit of a disappointment. In all honesty the disappointment probably stems from my notions of what a sci-fi / fantasy novel should be like. (And I am confused whether Among Others is a sci-fi story or a fantasy). Devoid of mindbending magic and fantastical creatures and the grand battles between good and evil Among Others is a pean to the sci-fi genre.

Morwenna, the 15 year old zealous sci-fi lover whose diary entries we read has just lost her twin. She has also run away from her evil witch of a mother who was responsible for her twin’s death. She is meeting her father for the first time and is settling down somewhat uncomfortably ‘among others’ – amongst a group of sports-loving, girly-girls who are as different from her as can be.

As an ode to books and the power they wield and as a revelation of a book lover’s somewhat tempestuous relationship with books they adore Among Others excels. I was sucked in by the intensity and the passion with which Morwenna discusses books. While the focus on sci-fi meant I had not read 90% of the books being talked about the minutiae of being a reader – of being held in grip by a book, of discovering one that forces you to reconsider your long-held cherished notions, of the fact that there are books that change one’s life and the eventual discovery that you aren’t the only one whose life has been changed, of there being “some awful things in the world, it’s true, but there are also some great books” – was all eminently relatable.

It’s just that I found myself disappointed with the overall plot.

The breathless quality of Morwenna’s narration set me up to expect unspeakable revelations being disclosed in the very next breath; however, the entirety of the the accident that led to the twin’s death, Morwenna’s mother’s role in all of it and the grand face-off between good and evil was over before I was aware of it. Again, I want to repeat that there’s nothing wrong with this by itself – it’s just that I was caught completely unawares.

Among Others depicts magic as something that could be construed as happenstance – no fire-breathing dragons and faery realms here. Miss Walton also touches on predestination vs free will. If there is such a thing as magic then who is to say that your reading of these words was not so much your choice as perhaps a circumstance already ordained to happen because of magic meddling in somewhere along the chain of events? Overall, I found the description of magic whimsical and refreshing:

Grampar’s chair resented anyone else sitting on it as much as he did himself. Gramma’s shirts and jumpers adjusted themselves to hide her missing breast. My mother’s  shoes positively vibrated with consciousness. Our toys looked out for us.

The element of magic is secondary to the story. The focus is on Morwenna coming into her own. That she can wield magic is incidental. Her identity is defined more by the books she reads than her ability to do something rare and secretive like magic. And yet it is this very aspect of Among Others which makes me question the necessity of magic in the story in the first place. The coming-of-age story could have been told with no introduction of magic in the first place. Its presence seems superfluous to the overall story. Then again, perhaps that is Miss Walton’s message – that our identity need not be defined by the presence of a superhuman ability (or the lack of it); rather it’s a conscious decision that we must make each moment through our choices.

There are also some lovely insights tucked into the folds of Among Others:

Class is like magic. There’s nothing there you can point to, it evaporates if you try to analyse it, but it’s real and it affects how people behave and makes things happen.

and

I hate it when people imply that people only read because they have nothing better to do.

and

If you love books enough, books will love you back.

Book lovers out there, I certainly recommend this for a one-time read. Fantasy lovers out there, put away your expectations in a little box and then come to Among Others.