Reviewed February 11, 2011.
HarperCollins Children's Books, 2011. 182 pages.
Today I'll be posting my second-ever Blog Tour Author Interview on my blog, where I interview Diane Zahler about this book, which has just come out. I did not agree to do the interview until I'd read the book, so I was happy that I enjoyed it very much! I wasn't surprised, because some of my very favorite books are retellings of fairy tales, but I was happy about it, and happy as well to spread the word about such a good book.
A True Princess is a loose retelling of "The Princess and the Pea." One thing I like in a fairy tale retelling is when they plausibly explain odd details in the original fairy tale. Like Ella Enchanted explains why Cinderella was such a doormat to her stepsisters, while still being spunky. A True Princess by the end of the book reveals why in the world a queen would use a pea below a pile of mattresses in order to test whether a candidate was a true princess.
But I do like it that the author didn't adhere slavishly to the fairy tale and gave a more modernized ending, with some true love involved in the prince's choice.
This book is a feel-good story, which I also enjoy. All the fully human characters are kind, except Lilia's stepmother, and she's only at the beginning. She's not actually even Lilia's stepmother, since Lilia was a foundling, taken in by a kind man when she was a toddler. Lilia explains how she got there:
I was about two years old when Jorgen, out fishing in the river, grabbed a strange, rough basket as it floated past. He found me inside, sound asleep. The river came down from the mountain glaciers and was ice cold. If the basket had tipped in the swift current or leaked, I would have perished from the freezing water. But I was perfectly dry, and when I opened my eyes -- the color of spring violets in this land of the blue-eyed -- Jorgen was overcome with astonishment and could not leave me to the river. He carried me home to his new wife and two motherless children -- his son Kai, who was close to my age, or so they guessed, and his daughter Karina, who was five years older. I had stayed with them ever since, but I certainly was not part of the family, and Ylva never let me forget that. I helped Kai with the shepherding and Karina and Ylva with the household chores, and I slept on a pallet in the barn with the sheep. Ylva did not even let me eat at the table with the others.
The book begins as Lilia overhears Ylva telling her husband that they must hire Lilia out to the miller, whose wife needs a serving girl. The miller is a cruel man, even to his own children, and Lilia decides to run away, to head north and see if she can find answers about her origins.
Lilia is rarely truly alone in this book -- which makes it all the more of a feel-good book to read. For the next day, Kai and Karina, and the dog Ove, catch up with her. They tell Lilia that they are coming with her. Ylva was so angry when Lilia left, she threatened to betrothe Karina to the miller's son. So the story is more of friends going on an adventure than of a lonely quest.
But the friends do face an adventure. At an inn, they meet some kind (and handsome) lords who are also traveling. They warn the three travelers about the Bitra Forest, where the Elf-King lives, who steals children and poses great danger to travelers.
Despite the warnings, they are attacked by bandits in the forest and go off the path. They encounter the Elf-King and his people, and his daughter decides she likes Kai. She enchants him and decides to keep him.
So the quest to find Lilia's origins ends up being a quest to rescue Kai. Lilia bravely stands up to the Elf-King and negotiates with him. If Lilia will bring back Odin's own cloak clasp, dropped on his Hunt, and now in a palace not far away, Kai will be released. But she is only given a fortnight in which to do it.
So there is real danger and tension, but because of Lilia's support from Karina, and others she meets along the way, things never get truly dark.
This is a good yarn and with its feel-good nature is suitable for a middle grade student's first fairy tale retelling. But it also has plenty to offer for people like me, who have loved fairy tale retellings for years.
And you'll finally understand why the princess was bothered by that pesky pea!