Because how can you go wrong with a title like Princess Academy?
Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Miri lives on a mountain where, for generations, her ancestors have quarried stone and lived a simple life. Then word comes that the king’s priests have divined her small village the home of the future princess. In a year’s time, the prince himself will come and choose his bride from among the girls of the village. The king’s ministers set up an academy on the mountain, and every teenage girl must attend and learn how to become a princess.
Miri soon finds herself confronted with a harsh academy mistress, bitter competition among the girls, and her own conflicting desires to be chosen and win the heart of her childhood best friend. But when bandits seek out the academy to kidnap the future princess, Miri must rally the girls together and use a power unique to the mountain dwellers to save herself and her classmates.
Thoughts: I don’t normally review mid-grade novels. YA is usually about as young as I’ll go, since often I find books for audiences much younger than that don’t have plots as deep or complex and can’t often hold my attention as well as books for older audiences.
Shannon Hale’s work, on the other hand, appears to be a pleasant exception.
I’d say that Princess Academy straddles that fine line between mid-grade and young adult, with an easy-to-follow writing style and simple conflicts to resolve, combined with some deceptively in-depth world-building, unexpected plot twists, and it’s certainly a thick enough book to hold some good story inside. It’s a fine read when you’re looking for something light and relaxing, something that doesn’t take too much of your attention, but that still has a decent plot and is something worth reading.
The story centres around Miri, a young girl from a poor mountain village who is chosen, along with every other girl of a certain age in her village, to be part of what they call the princess academy. Fortune tellers have predicted that the kingdom’s prince will find his future bride in that region, and in order to allow each girl to put her best foot forward, they must be trained in politics, history, etiquette, and a dozen other things that none of them have ever had cause to think about before. All so that one of them might impress the prince when he visits and so can marry into the royal family.
You go through the book expecting that, as is typical for such stories, Miri will be the one that the prince chooses. Hale throws readers for a loop by not having that happen. It’s a small thing, but bucks the trend enough to be very noticeable and praise-worthy. Instead, that honour goes to Miri’s friend, who knew the prince when they were children, and Miri instead goes on to change the economy of her village and improves the lives of everyone there. It’s impressive to see a story about a girl who isn’t just some romantic prize, but instead is more concerned with finance and trade and justice, making sure that the people of her village are no longer taken advantage of by traders. It’s not something often seen. Usually you’ll see a female character who is concerned with that kind of justice and is the romantic prize. Kudos to Hale for not setting up the story that way.
It’s also interesting because it shows how a good story can be told from a character that isn’t technically the main focus on the unfolding events. Miri is undeniably part of the whole princess academy deal, but she isn’t particularly interested in the academy’s primary purpose. It’s someone else who goes through that, beginning to end, and is the one chosen by the prince when all is said and done. But Miri’s story is still interesting to follow, probably moreso because it’s atypical for stories but very typical for what the majority of people will actually experience in their lives. We won’t always be the ones to achieve greatness. We won’t always get the guy, or girl, or whoever. We won’t always be the centre of the stories going on around us. Sometimes someone else will have the spotlight shining on them and will get the fairy tale ending. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have our own stories to star in, and that we can’t do something amazing with the lives we lead. It actually sets realistic expectations for readers, and doesn’t cave to the pressures of the standard story: girl gets chance to become princess, girl thus marries prince. Here it’s: girl gets chance to become princess, girl uses training to discover her village is being swindled and puts a stop to it.
As I said earlier, Hale’s writing style is clear, smooth, and easy to follow, without making things simplistic or dumbing down the expectations of what the audience can understand. The world-building draws on European-inspired fantasy to provide a very traditional feel to the setting, and it doesn’t break too many molds where that’s concerned. But a lot of the subtler aspects of culture-building are there, from snippets of local songs and jokes and the expressed difference between the mountain girls and the people from the royal capital. It’s familiar enough to draw younger readers is and different enough to make it clear that it’s fantasy, that Miri’s world is not our own at any point through history. It’s the kind of book I curl up with when I don’t want to stretch my brain much, when I was comfortable and familiar fantasy that I can sink into with minimal effort and still come away from having been entertained. As far as mid-grade fantasy goes, Hale has definitely piqued my interest enough for me to want to check out more of what she’d written, to see if her world-building and skill with creating individual and very real characters continues.