by Margaret Owen
read by Saskia Maarleveld
Macmillan Audio, 2021. 14 hours.
Review written October 31, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
2022 Cybils Finalist, Young Adult Speculative Fiction
2022 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #1 Teen Fantasy Fiction
Oh, this book is so, so good! I listened to it while on a road trip four hours away to New River Gorge National Park and found myself looking forward to spending more time in the car, almost more mesmerized by the audiobook than I was by the stunning autumn leaves. The narrator did a wonderful job weaving the spell, and I was hooked from the very beginning.
The book begins with a dark tale:
Once upon a time, on the coldest night of midwinter, in the darkest heart of the forest, Death and Fortune came to a crossroads.
They’ve come to the crossroads to meet with a woman and her four-year-old child. The mother believes her child is bad luck. The woman was a thirteenth child, and this child is her thirteenth. So that is how Vanja gets Death and Fortune as her godmothers.
But then we fast forward twelve more years. Vanja is wearing the face of a princess, and she’s planning a jewel heist at the house party of another noble family.
We learn that for a year, Vanja has been masquerading as the princess whom she once served, using the princess’s enchanted pearls that give her a beautiful appearance and play on the desires of those who look upon her. She’s betrothed to the margrave of Boern, but he has been away at war for a year, so she’s had charge of his castle.
As she pulls off the elaborate jewel heist, at the end of the first chapter we read:
Once upon a time, there was a girl as cunning as the fox in winter, as hungry as the wolf at first frost, and cold as the icy wind that kept them at each other’s throats.
Her name was not Gisele, nor was it Marthe, nor even Pfennigeist. My name was — is — Vanja. And this is the story of how I got caught.
I saw on the flap that this book is a retelling of “The Goose Girl,” and for a little while, I was faintly horrified to find myself sympathizing with the horrible maid who stole the princess’s life, a princess I came to love in Shannon Hale’s version, The Goose Girl. But this is a very different retelling! I think it’s kind of funny that now two of my favorite books came from that fairy tale, but in such different versions.
In this version, the truly terrible villain is actually the margrave the princess was traveling to marry.
And as Vanja pulls off her jewel heist as the Pfennigeist, she learns that the margrave is coming home. And he’s called in the Order of the Prefects of the Godly Courts to uncover the Pfennigeist. And on her way back to the margrave’s castle, she runs afoul of another of the Lower Gods and gets cursed to slowly turn into a statue of jewels by the full moon — unless she makes up for all she has taken.
Of course, that may not be the worst thing, because now that the margrave is back, he wants to get married quickly. And what are these monsters that keep coming after his bride?
But oh, there’s so much more — I’d better not try to tell all the threads woven together and then skillfully unwound.
I will say this is a very loose retelling of the fairy tale, with many more details woven into the story. Instead of being an actual goose girl, the deposed princess works in an orphanage which in German (or something like it) is called Gosling House. A junior prefect who comes to investigate the thefts is named Conrad, and yes, a dead horse is important to the plot by the end.
Besides being a very loose retelling, it’s also much darker than Shannon Hale’s retelling, but after all, we’re pulled into sympathy with the villain of that tale — she hasn’t been treated well by the nobility, including sexual assault by the margrave when she had the appearance of a servant. (Nothing sexual is onstage, but there are some innuendoes and some dark moments.)
But oh my goodness, how well the plot is woven!
I thought of it as an alternate-reality medieval Germany, since they use a Germanic language and The Goose Girl is a fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm. So then I was pulled up short when same-sex relationships and transgender people are seen as entirely normal. Kind of pulled me out of the medieval Germany vibe. But then I laughed at myself. It was a world where the religion involved tribute to the Lower Gods, including gods of place and the gods of Death and Fortune. So without our same Scripture, why wouldn’t same-sex relationships be seen as normal?
But oh my goodness, the plot of this book is wonderful! Vanja’s set up with lots of problems — She also wants to gain enough money to get out of the Blessed Empire so she won’t have to serve one of her godmothers for the rest of her life. But she also needs to evade justice for her thefts and break the curse so she doesn’t get turned into a statue and continue to hide her true identity and stay alive despite the monstrous attacks and also try to avoid marrying the margrave.
Yes, it’s complicated, but magnificently so.
Oh, and the title? It comes from a proverb from the Blessed Empire:
The little thief steals gold, but the great one steals kingdoms;
and only one goes to the gallows.
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