Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Princess Ben

Princess Ben
by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Recommended Ages: 13+

As her rather frank memoir opens, Benevolence is a 15-year-old princess, the niece of the king of the small country of Montagne, nestled in a single valley surrounded on three sides by mountains and on the fourth by a steep cliff. Also surrounding them is the enemy kingdom of Drachensbett ("dragon's bed"), which shares its name in their language with the biggest mountain in the range, while folks in Montagne prefer to call it Ancienne ("old lady"). By whatever name, it's the most significant barrier that keeps Drachensbett from invading Montagne, but it's also where the king, Ben's uncle, and her mother, Princess Pence, are slain by what everyone suspects to be Drachensbett assassins. Worse still, the throne would pass to Ben's father, but Prince (or rather King) Walter has gone missing – whether dead or a hostage, no one knows.

So, it's high time for Princess Ben to woman up and prepare to be the next queen of Montagne. Unfortunately, she butts heads constantly with her aunt, Queen Regent Sophia, whom she fancies to be cold, unloving and a stickler for feminine graces like embroidery, comportment and trivial conversation. Also, Ben rebels against her lessons with a fish-breathed dancing master and the bland, meager diet designed to slim Her Pudginess down. Frankly, it's hard to sympathize with her, despite her being the narrator, during the first major portion of this book – and that's also despite Sophia being no easier to like. What keeps you going is curiosity about how Ben, her throne, or her kingdom survive to be telling the tale many years later. For while the sullen, greedy, rebellious princess dabbles in magic in a tower room known only to her, a threat is growing that could sweep Montagne off the map – a threat that becomes real when Ben insults the prince of Drachensbett at her debutante ball.

Of course, later in the book she grows as a Princess through adversity, blundering into an epic tight spot through the inexperienced use of magic and clawing her way out of it by character strengths she'd either kept hidden before or grew along the way. By the date of her next royal ball, she'd better have grown a lot, though, because the fate of her kingdom hangs on whether she can turn around the bad first impression she left on the earlier occasion. That, and an entirely surprising adventure on the side of Ancienne that gives credence to the name the neighboring nation has for it.

It's a royal coming-of-age novel with a fairy-tale romance woven in, to say nothing of gestures toward the tales of Rapunzel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rumpelstiltskin, the Frog Prince, the Princess and the Pea, and the Water Nixie (or whatever that story is in which the fleeing girl tosses a comb over her shoulder and it grows into a forest to foil her pursuers). I'm probably leaving a lot of in-references out. Successfully charting its main character's growth as a person, it also checks all the boxes for folklore fans, has a very satisfying story shape and is full of wry irony. But perhaps most attractive for some readers will be the archaic language – not so much the words themselves as the way thoughts are put together in a sentence structure that harks back to the early 19th century. It's an almost convincing counterfeit of a real memoir from a bygone time, giving pleasure to lovers of things both old and new.

Murdock, whose sister Elizabeth Gilbert is also a published author, lives in Philadelphia and, besides this book, has written the Dairy Queen quartet, Wisdom's Kiss, The Book of Boy and Da Vinci's Cat.

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