The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell
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Retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses (and then some)
Published September 6th 2011 by HarperCollins
Twelve princesses suffer from a puzzling (if silly) curse, and anyone who ends it will win a reward. Reveka, a sharp-witted and irreverent apprentice herbalist, wants that reward. But her investigations lead to deeper mysteries and a daunting choice--will she break the curse at the peril of her own soul?
I feel like I've been talking about this book non-stop for all of 2013. And really...I kind of have. Every now and then there are books that come along that you expect to like, and hope to love, and that is enough. But sometimes, you pick up a book, and you're pretty confident you're going to like it, and then something happens, some magical, alchemical thing, wherein the book is clearly meant to have permanent space in your brain. You can't really explain it - it might not be the best written book you've ever read, or the most universally praised; it might not even be something you'd feel the same about, were you to read it at a different point in your life. But for whatever reason, at this moment, it's right. It pushes all your buttons. Ticks your boxes. Fills your gaps. You and The Book, sitting in a tree, forever.
And for whatever reason, The Princess Curse was one of those books for me. It's one I know I will reread, probably for a while to come. And because of that, and because I've been talking about it almost non-stop since reading it in January, I kinda don't even know where to begin.
There was something just so engaging and lively about the story, and about the heroine, Reveka, especially. She's exactly what I wanted in a female protagonist as a kid (and still want now) - she's smart and competent, and she has a passion, which always fleshes out a character nicely; she approaches her world intelligently and fearlessly, even when she's scared (and I know that sounds like a contradiction, but you know what I mean). She's not flawless, she's not a Mary Sue, but she is a great heroine to connect to, both age appropriate and smart/relatable for readers beyond that age. She's curious and willful and a little fierce. As a character, she's kinda perfect; I don't know what else I could even ask for.
And Reveka leads us into a really great, memorable world, a sort of Eastern European mdeieval setting that draws on real historical figures and cultural traditions and beliefs of the time to build a great sense of place. Added to this is Haskell's take on the magical underworld of the story, Thonos, which is based in known myth and fleshes the fairy tale - and Reveka's world - in a really enjoyable way. Though most of the story is spent above ground for Reveka, the pieces of Thonos that we do see are gorgeously evocative, incorporating the known and typical underworld aspects of the fairy tale, but expanding it, working in other traditional depictions of underworlds, and playing them off of each other to make something really intriguing. The two worlds play off of each other very well, and it's something I'd love to explore more (she says, crossing her fingers that a second book will come to be).
Also - and I don't want to give anything away here, but - there's an excellent bit of mash-up going on! I love a good mash-up, and Haskell begins to incorporate some Beauty and the Beast elements at the end that could really be explored in a second book (ohpleaseohpleaseohplease). Sometimes mash-ups can seem chaotic and piecemeal, but Haskell uses the elements of both stories judiciously, along with the pieces of the mythology, as mentioned, choosing the ones that work best together and kind of blending one into another, to make something that seems more effortless and real.
As is clear from this review, there is room to grow into second book - or dare I say series? - and though I'm really hoping that happens because I don't want to be done with Reveka and her world, the book is not necessarily open ended. Things are wrapped up nicely, and one can end this book feeling like it's complete, with the reader given an idea of what Reveka's future will hold. This is nice for the imagination to play with, but also nice because it leaves open the possibility for more of this fantastic world and these fantastic characters, and I know I'm not alone in saying I would truly LOVE to see how Reveka and Frumos interact when she's older.
So if it's not clear, I'm saying: Pick this one up. Read it, love it, share it around. It's definitely worth your time.
And bonus factor: Botany*.
*No, but seriously, though? Am I the only one who gets a little giddy when botany plays a part, especially in a fairy tale? I love me some characters who garden, man...
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