by M.A. Larson
Recommended Ages: 14+
The princess cadets at Pennyroyal Academy are being trained in the arts of combating witches - which mostly consist of the princessly virtues of courage, compassion, kindness, and discipline. Believe it or not, these are the only things that can defeat a witch's power to create chaos and fear. Witches like to do wicked things like turning knights into stone, turning people into animals, and mixing the hearts of princesses and dragons together in a cauldron to brew more witches. Evie, who has a secret sympathy with dragons (although knights are supposed to slay them), has a double motive to fight them - but, at the same time, she is terrified and confused. Among the most confusing things in her life, besides the fact one of her princess-cadet classmates is a boy named Basil, or her feelings for Remington, or the way she inadvertently turns a bewitched pig back into the annoying boy he originally was, is the fact her most antagonistic classmate - her Draco Malfoy, if you will - turns out to be her stepsister.
Evie's confusion grows even further when meeting her human mother triggers memories that create a seemingly irreparable conflict between her birth family and the family that raised her. But in order to make it to her second year at the academy, she has to look past her personal turmoil and focus on her studies. Winning a ballroom dancing contest would be an easy way to make it to her second year at the academy, but the way things go for Evie, it's no surprise she'll have to survive a terrible ordeal called the Helpless Maiden - a test of which cadets have the right stuff to lead the fight against the witches. The surprise is how personal the war becomes for her before she even makes it to the end of her first year.
This debut novel is only the first of what promises to be at least a three-book series; its sequel, The Shadow Cadets of Pennyroyal Academy, came out in June 2016. You may be surprised to learn the author is a dude - a big, hairy, married-with-kids type dude, even - who is a hero to a fan community whose existence I only learned about while researching this review: "bronies" - adult male fans of the cult animated series My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, for which M.A. Larson was a writer. He also wrote for the animated shows Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, My Gym Partner's a Monkey, Gravity Falls, and Littlest Pet Shop.
Meanwhile, this book is being developed for the screen by Reese Witherspoon's film production company. My research also informs me it was originally conceived as a comedy-spoof targeting a younger age group, with the working title Princess Boot Camp - which I think would still be a cool idea; though if anyone actually wrote it, they would be seriously ripping this book off. The final product is darker than you would expect, with a lot of in-depth exploration into the troubled emotions and buried memories of young adults making their way through a seriously messed-up world. It has a lot of girl-power stuff, some spiffy (and mildly spoofy) fairy-tale elements, some giddy romance, and a lot of magic, danger, and action; but besides these blockbuster ingredients, it also has challenging moral dilemmas, inspiring examples of compassion and courage, touching displays of friendship, and a harmlessly puzzling gender-role phenomenon in the form of Princess Basil, who (you might be surprised to learn) wears trousers, sleeps in his own quarters (not the girls' barracks), and shows no overt inclination to act like a girl, other than his ambition to qualify as a princess. If you think that's weird, let the fact that this book's author is an apparently straight adult male who enthuses over rainbow-colored magical ponies remind you that the real world is equally full of surprises.
It's not, thank goodness, a knockoff of Harry Potter. It isn't even accidentally very similar to the Harry Potter series. But broadly speaking, it has some points in common, such as a castle where boys and girls train to be part of a battle between good and evil in a world that happens to contain dragons and witches. If living in a castle full of pubescent witches and wizards sounds like it might be challenging, let this book enlighten you about the ever-so-non-sparkly prospect of spending up to three years in a barracks crammed with wanna-be princesses, being harangued by a (no kidding) Fairy Drillsergeant, and knowing that right outside the school's protective shield are creatures that will eat you as soon as look at you, or sooner. It's a school where the teachers include a troll named Rumpledshirtsleeves, where the expectations are unforgivingly high, and where the hopes of an entire civilization with a long, noble history rest on the shoulders of a girl who isn't sure where she belongs. There's deep stuff under the blockbuster trappings. And that's the stuff that will make me decide to read the sequel.