One of the great things about being in a book club is that you get exposed to books and authors that you’ve never heard of before. After reading several books with heavy themes, it was suggested that we treat ourselves to something a little lighter, even a kids’ book. We chose The Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale.
Ironically, I already owned the book. I had been shopping at Target a few months before, and was somehow drawn to this book. Maybe it was the earnest look on the girl’s face, maybe it was the words “bestseller” and “Newbery Honor book.” Either way, it sounded interesting.
Technically, you could call the book a fantasy. But it is one of those fantasies that feels like it could really happen. The protagonist, Miri, is part of a group of “highlanders” in a fictional land. The village’s people all work in a quarry, digging a valuable stone out of the earth that is not available anywhere else. That life is all they know. They have families, they work in the quarry, and, periodically, the crafty “lowlander” merchants come and buy the stone from them to sell at a profit. The lowlanders view the highlanders as backward and ignorant. But many of the highlanders who work in the quarry have a special “gift” that no one else has.
Miri, who lives with her sister and father, soon experiences an interruption in her peaceful life. The nation’s young prince needs to find a wife, and it has been revealed that the future princess must come from the highlander people. The only way to prepare for such a thing is to have a “princess academy,” which will train the youngest daughters of each family in ways of grace and gentility. Only after they have received their sufficient training will the prince choose his future bride.
The idea of the story sounds a little far-fetched, but it works. Miri is a strong-willed, but charming character who you want to succeed. She endures prejudice, greed, competition, and even some physical abuse while at the academy. The dynamics between the girls and their motivations for winning the prince’s affections are fun and interesting to read about. There are jealousies and alliances, leaders and followers, but all of them benefit from the education. Miri even learns some things that benefit her entire town. Ruling over the girls is a strict teacher named Olana, and even she experiences some growth in the course of the story.
There is a crisis towards the end that, I feel, seems a bit contrived, but the story needed something to show how the girls could work together when necessary.
As a whole, this is a very unique tale with a surprise ending. I think it is this uniqueness, plus the engaging characters and writing that rarely lags, that make this an appealing book. It is appropriate for all ages.