Princess Academy by Shannon Hale
As far as titles go, Princess Academy is just as on the nose and just as vaguely descriptive as, say, Snakes on the Plane. Both of those titles simply describe a noun in the story itself; it’s up to the reader and/or viewer to fill things in. Snakes on a Plane gained enormous hype online for its title alone, and I, I must ashamedly say, dodged Princess Academy because it sounded a little too pat. With the rise of fairy tale high schools (from The School for Good and Evil to Ever After High to Disney’s recently announced Descendants), I, based on the title alone, though that Princess Academy was in the same wheelhouse—a wheelhouse I do visit, but not often enough to warrant seeking it out.
At least, I thought that until I read Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl and utterly adored it. (We’re setting aside the fact that she also wrote Austenland, which appears to have bizarre things to say about fandom and romance. I’ve not personally read it, so feel free to correct me, but I’ve heard some things about the film adaptation.) What I loved about The Goose Girl is its focus on Ani coming of age by constructing an identity for herself outside of her family, instead of a more traditionally violent coming of age narrative, as well as watching Ani fall in love with her adopted country.
Princess Academy is not as internal or complex as The Goose Girl. Readers outside of the target demographic will see every twist coming from a mile away. But, as we’ve learned from Pacific Rim, simple is not stupid. And neither is formula—romantic comedies would hardly be a viable cinematic genre if we didn’t enjoy it. Rather, instead of focusing on a character’s internal workings, Princess Academy looks at a community.
Mount Eskel is a remote territory of the kingdom of Danland, where the villagers scrape out a rough living mining lindel stone. Miri Larendaughter is too small to work in the mines, so she spends her days as a goatherd. But their world is turned upside down when representatives of the Danlander king arrive. The king’s priests have predicted that the prince’s bride will hail from Mount Eskel. For the next year, all eligible maidens will attend a “Princess Academy” to whip them into shape. At the end of the year, a ball will be held where the prince will select his bride. Removing all able-bodied girls from quarry work is a nightmare for the villagers, but the Academy offers other, less tangible benefits to the girls and, ultimately, all of Mount Eskel.
Undersized Miri is a lovely protagonist, although I didn’t connect with her as much as I did with Ani. There’s absolutely no question of Miri falling in love with the prince. A few pages into the novel, we’re introduced to Peder, the boy she’s interested in. Hale details her young longing perfectly: “Peder laughed, stirring in her a desire to something more, something clever and wonderful, but the wanting startled all her thoughts away, so she clamped her mouth shut before she said something stupid” (18). Despite her lack of confidence and isolation from the rest of her community, she’s a determined young thing. Her time at the academy has her standing up to the bullying teacher, trying to negotiate personal politics as a handful of older girls hellbent on snatching the prince turn against her, and using what she’s learned to help her community. (The fact that it’s economics warms my heart.)
But, while I ultimately enjoyed Princess Academy, I didn’t like it as much as The Goose Girl. Something about the structure of it felt off for me, or, possibly, it’s the stakes. Ani was fighting for her throne and her very soul. The harshest things get in Princess Academy is an attack of bandits and Miri confronting her father’s distant love. I did appreciate that, like Ani, Miri’s coming of age story is untraditional. Instead of deciding to move away from her community (despite having the option), Miri realizes that her place is right at home. We don’t see that narrative a lot, and it is an important one to see treated as just as valuable as the globe-trotting option. I think it’s absolutely perfect for the middle grade reader, however. I’ve simply moved on to heartier fare.
Bottom line: Princess Academy is perfect for the middle grade reader, focusing on a girl saving her community through education and realizing where her place in the world is. A little too simple for me, but simple is never stupid.
I rented this book from the public library.