Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Few More Reviews

The Goose Girl
by Shannon Hale
Recommended Age: 12+

The first novel by the Newbery Honor-winning author of The Princess Academy is similarly set in a fairy-tale world. This is sensible, since the story itself is a classic fairy tale, embellished with richer detail and deeper characters. It is the story of the lovely princess who is supposed to marry the sterling prince, but whose plans are upset by a ruthless usurper. Before the heroine can get the boy who is rightfully hers, she must bide her time as a lowly goose girl, escape from deadly perils, develop fantastic powers, and above all, become the take-charge kind of person her queenly mother never managed to make of her.

The princess Ani grows up believing she is fated to be the next queen of Kildenree. Instead, on the day of her royal father's funeral, she finds out that her mother has other plans for her: marriage to the heir of the kingdom across the mountains, marriage to ensure peace with their stronger and more aggressive neighbors. Regretting only that she cannot be the leader her mother meant her to be, Ani begins her journey to the kingdom of Bayern, accompanied by a lady's maid and a band of guards. But the lady's maid proves to be as ambitious as her guards are disloyal, and Ani finds herself hunted, lost in the forest, helpless to stop her ex-lady-in-waiting from taking her place and marrying her prince.

Helpless, that is, except for the other young beast tenders who become Ani's army. Helpless except for her gift of communicating with animals and even, more and more, with the very wind. Will that be enough to save her when Ani crashes what was supposed to be her own wedding, and when she must face an angry king over against a wily imposter with the gift of persuasion? Will that be enough when she is trapped alone with the people who have been trying to murder her? The outcome is so uncertain, after all, that you may well feel as if an ice cube had been dropped down the back of your shirt.

This is a delightful fantasy romance, told by a voice abounding in delicious imagery and mysterious poetry. Hale really knows how to turn a phrase, and how to grab a reader's feelings. And she also creates a world worth visiting again; which makes the sequel, Enna Burning, welcome indeed.

The Princess and the Hound
by Mette Ivie Harrison
Recommended Age: 12+

It was not so much Orson Scott Card's endorsement as the cover art on this Harper Teen paperback that persuaded me to read it. But in the end I was reminded of the impression Card's books have left on me: the sense of a tale that started with great promise, but never quite lived up to it.

It is the story of a prince named George. On his father's side, George is heir to the throne of Kendal. From his ill-fated mother, however, he has inherited a forbidden magic: the power to speak to animals in their own language. Anyone caught with this secret can be publicly burned; but as his mother's death proves, if you try not to use the power, it burns you up from within. For this and other reasons, George holds himself aloof and lives only for his princely duty. And that duty, it now seems, will include marriage to the princess of nearby Sarrey, marriage to ensure peace between the two countries.

George is ready to marry Princess Beatrice, sight unseen, whether he likes her or not. He has become quite good at keeping his feelings to himself. But the princess is nothing like what he expects. Constantly accompanied by her great hound Marit, with whom she shares a unique and mysterious communion, Beatrice seems to be even better at hiding her true self than George is. Does this mean he can trust her with his secret? Or is she so well hidden that she has lost herself?

The true answer to this question is the crux of the whole story, what makes it a truly unusual and memorable fantasy. How the prince and princess find love together is more than just a romantic story; it is a collision of myth, magic, danger and promise, treachery and courage. It is a matter of seeing who is truly who, and unleashing thrilling powers to transform and renew. But it is also, finally, and I must add sadly, increasingly fuzzy and unsatisfying. Just when the author seems to hold lightning in her hands, the narrative goes limp and the fantasy passes from fascinating to preposterous. I lost the sense of the characters being real people, right around the scene in which Marit is revealed in her true form. Maybe some of it came back towards the end; but such a fumble at the most crucial moment of a story can ruin the whole thing.

I can't say it was a total waste of time. I don't begrudge a moment that I spent reading this book, and I still like the cover art. But I appeal to Mette Ivie Harrison: reconsider your pacing and character-handling toward the end of the book. I would stand in line to buy its Second and Revised Edition; and if it is what it could be, I would cherish it. But as the book stands now, my copy will probably end up in the Christmas stocking of someone I don't have time to shop for. What a difference a few scenes could make!

by Charlie Fletcher
Recommended Age: 12+

The first chapter of this book really grabbed me. The rest of it held me in its ruthless grip. And now I eagerly look forward to the rest of the "Stoneheart Trilogy," of which this is the first book.

It begins with a school trip to a London museum, and a lonely, frustrated boy named George. George is having trouble fitting in. He misses his Dad (who is dead). He doesn't see much of his mother either (she's an actress). An encounter with a bullying classmate and a heavy-handed teacher pushes George into a rebellious mood, and he takes it out on a stone dragon's head carved on the front of the museum. The next thing he knows, George is running for his life, chased by gargoyles, dragons, salamanders, and other images graven in the form of beasts and monsters.

All this could be confusing, but if he wants to survive George mustn't dwell on his confusion. For he has fallen into another London, a world below or beside the world most of us see. In this under-London, statues can walk, talk, and even kill. The good ones, shaped like people, are called spits, and they have something akin to a human soul. The bad ones, called taints, have nothing inside but a ravenous hunger. The taints of London are after George's blood, and he has only a night and a day to atone for the crime that started it all.

George is joined by a heroic statue of an army gunner, and a girl named Edie who has her own powers and problems. No one else can see the statues moving, stalking, and fighting over George. As he searches for answers to what he must do to end his danger, George deals with creatures that straddle the line between spit and taint, between good and evil - and an enemy of flesh and blood who would willingly sacrifice George's chances of survival in order to free himself from a curse.

Besides being a thrilling adventure full of magic, menace, mystery, and non-stop, high-speed action, this novel abounds in something too many others lack: novelty. If sheer excitement doesn't excite you, perhaps originality does. This book brings it, in a way that instantly seized and constantly held my attention. I read many books every year, but only a few of them take me to places I have never seen before - and make me eager to visit them again. If you want to visit that London, this book is your ticket. If you want a return trip, you'll have to wait for Book Two of the trilogy, titled Ironhand.

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