Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #18)

Princess Academy
Author: Shannon Hale
Published: 2005
Pages: 314
Age Range: 10-14
Genre: Fantasy
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: ****1/2
Rating: PG

First Sentence: Miri woke to the sleepy bleating of a goat.

I’d decided to re-read this one in anticipation of the release of the sequel later this summer and then found that Ms. Hale was going to do a read-along on her blog this month.  I’d intended to follow along but once I got into the story again I couldn’t read just a chapter a day, I’m too impatient.

Miri is a young girl living in a mountain village with her father and sister.  Her mother died just after giving birth to Miri and because she is so small she’s always been kept out of the quarry where everyone else works, young and old.  She feels unimportant and unvalued in many ways because of this and has struggled to find a place among the other girls her age who share the gossip, stories and experience of the quarry that Miri has missed.

But her sister is good to her and she has her best friend Peder.  Though lately their relationship has become a bit strained and awkward thanks to Miri’s evolving feelings for him.

One day troops from the ruling city come to tell them that the next princess has been prophesied to come from their village.  All girls of a certain age must leave their homes to attend a school to train them in preparation for a ball where the prince will choose his wife.  Many of the girls are ecstatic for a chance to leave the sleepy town and experience the world outside and daydream of their fairy tale lives with the prince.  But most of them are anxious about leaving their homes for the first time and that anxiety increases when they meet their tutor who is harsh and exacts unfair punishments on them for so many things.

Over the course of many months Miri stands out as an exemplary student and finds herself in competition with Katar, an older girl determined to win the prince’s affections. Miri spends part of the time in isolation from the other girls who believe her to be a stuck-up trouble maker though eventually she finds friendship with Britta, another outsider. Several experiences prove to the other girls that Miri is a born leader and her quick and far thinking allow them to earn extra privileges, make life a bit more fair under Tutor Olana’s rule and eventually ends up saving their lives.

This would be a fairly straight-forward story except for the aspect of quarry speech which gives it a bit of a fantastical bend.  The linder stone the villagers quarry seems to have nearly mystical properties.  Through it the villagers can communicate in a telepathic sort of way.  This figures prominently in the story on multiple occasions and is a key in helping Miri to find her path and personal strength.

I love Hale’s writing style and attention to detail. Her descriptions stay true to the voice of her narrator as if it were someone from the mountain village telling the story of someone they knew.  All of the images are based in things familiar to the people she is talking about.  For example:

One more snowfall, then the clouds retreated higher than any mountain.  Winter’s grip eased, and the sun seemed to lean closer to Mount Eskel.  It was painfully bright, the sky a hot blue.  The hard crust of snow softened and patches of earth emerged, showing green things rising out of the mud and pushing up onto the hills.  The smell of the wind changed—it felt thicker, richer, like the air around a cook pot.  Spring was stretching on the mountain.  (pg 113)

If you want to follow along with the rest of the read-along it’s not too late to start.  And be sure to look for the sequel, Palace of Stone, coming out in August.

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