Saturday, December 22, 2012

A True Princess by Diane Zahler

A True Princess by Diane Zahler

Target Audience: Children, 9-12

Summary: Twelve-year-old Lilia is not a very good servant. In fact, she's terrible! She daydreams, she breaks dishes, and her cooking is awful. Still, she hardly deserves to be sold off to the mean-spirited miller and his family. Refusing to accept that dreadful fate, she decides to flee. With her best friend, Kai, and his sister, Karina, beside her, Lilia heads north to find the family she's never known. But danger awaits. . . .

As their quest leads the threesome through the mysterious and sinister Bitra Forest, they suddenly realize they are lost in the elves' domain. To Lilia's horror, Kai falls under an enchantment cast by the Elf King's beautiful daughter. The only way for Lilia to break the spell and save Kai is to find a jewel of ancient power that lies somewhere in the North Kingdoms. Yet the jewel will not be easy to find. The castle where it is hidden has been overrun with princess hopefuls trying to pass a magical test that will determine the prince's new bride. Lilia has only a few days to search every inch of the castle and find the jewel—or Kai will be lost to her forever.

Type of Adaptation: Retelling drawing inspiration from The Snow Queen, combined with The Princess and the Pea

So, back in August, I read a truly horrendous adaptation of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Remember? It was The Thirteenth Princess, and it incensed me? So here I am, four months later, reading another adaptation by the same author. Why? Because I’m a little bit of a masochist.

Okay, seriously, because all authors have bad books, and I wouldn’t want people to judge Cameron Dokey on Winter’s Child, so I decided to give Zahler the benefit of the doubt. Maybe The Thirteenth Princess was her bad book. Maybe this one would be better.

And to be fair, it was. It was better. But I’m not gonna jump all the way to ‘good.’ Also, unrelated, this is the second of three novels I’ve picked for this month that managed to be an “inspired by” rather than a true adaptation. But let’s start from the top.

So, Lilia is a 12-year-old girl who has been a servant on in this house just about her entire life, yet is somehow still horrendous at housework of all sorts.

Right off the bat, here, I'm a little put off about this, for the following reason: I do not have a natural talent for playing the piano. However, I'm pretty sure that if I had to play the piano every day, for most of each day, for ten years, without fail, I would pick up some skills. There's natural talent and then there's learned talent. And if Lilia had to cook and clean and mend and all that other stuff that being a servant entails every day, for most of each day, for ten years, without fail, I'm pretty sure she'd be able to make porridge without lumps in it by the end. Maybe her first 20 or 30 or even 100 batches of the 3,650 she's made since being a servant would be lumpy, but by the end of an entire decade? Even for the laziest servant, repetition leads to proficiency, and choosing to ignore that fact so you can set up your "surprise she's a super secret princess" plot twist that everybody saw coming from page 2? Rankles a bit.

Oh, and spoilers. She's a super secret princess, which is why she couldn't get the hang of housework, and trust me. We'll be getting to that particular point in a bit.

But yeah, Lilia is a servant who can't do anything right but somehow hasn't been fired, and when we open on her, she's eavesdropping (which, we are told in the chapter title, is something that a "true princess" doesn't do).  Specifically, she's listening in on the woodcutter and his wife who took her in when she was a baby found drifting down the river in a basket, a la Moses. The wife is a sour, angry sort of woman who doesn't like Lilia and wants to get rid of her. If her argument for this was only, "Dude, she's been making porridge for ten years and still can't manage it!" I would totally understand, but no, Ylva is just generally unpleasant and spiteful (later we learn she's his second wife, which immediately clears up that point -- fairy tale stereotypes FTW!)

Anyway, Ylva wants to essentially sell Lilia to the miller in exchange for free flour, and Jorgan is so henpecked that he doesn't argue. And Lilia, having overheard this, decides, in a move I can't fault her for, that she would rather run away to find her true people rather than be sold to someone even worse than Ylva. Lilia knows she's not from around here because she has dark hair and purple eyes, and everyone else has blonde hair.

You know, I read about so many people who have purple eyes. From fantasy and young adult literature, you'd think they were ubiquitous -- but I've never met a single one in real life! Of course, if I did, I would know immediately that this person was super special and Destined For Great Things. Because everyone knows that eye color determines both destiny and personality traits. And only the Super Special-est are purple-eyed.

But yeah, Lilia once heard that people from the north have dark hair, and that's how she knows she's from the north, not because she was found floating down the river and north happens to be upstream, which is how my mind would have come to this conclusion, but never mind.

So she runs away, but she doesn't get very far before being discovered by her foster brother and sister, Kai and Karina, who saw she was missing and decided to take their dog and go find her. And now, they're determined to run away with her.

Lilia (and Cassie): But your father! How will he get along without you?

Kai and Karina: Eh, he'll be fine. He's got Ylva and her new baby, so he'll have another family soon. Also, fewer mouths to feed, amiright?

Lilia: Okay, great! Awesome! Road trip adventure time!

Cassie, and Cassie alone: ... Really? Really, guys? Lilia sneaking away with no warning, I get, she didn't have a choice, and she couldn't exactly let them know where she was going, but you two? This is your father, and you're going to leave in the middle of the night with no note, no explanation, and no regret?

Kai and Karina: Road trip adventure time!

Cassie: So, because he's left at home with a shrewish wife and a newborn baby, he's not going to care about the two of you anymore, just like that? And, yeah, fewer mouths to feed, but what about herding the flock, especially now that you've also stolen his sheepdog?

Kai: Cassie, road trip adventure time!

Cassie: What about . . . whatever it was Karina did?

Karina: Cassie, road trip adventure time!

Cassie: You guys sure you don't want to think about this just a little bit more---


Ahem. Anyway.

So Lilia and Kai and Karina travel, switching between traveling at night and during the day, with seeming ease. We learn in this section that Lilia has never been able to sleep well in a bed or on a cot of any kind (BECAUSE SHE'S A SUPER SECRET PRINCESS, GUYS, SEE THERE ARE CLUES!!!) But apparently, this doesn't apply to THE GROUND, since she sleeps there with no problem -- apparently, this phenomenon is limited to something that can actually be called a bed, and I don't know, guys. It's inconsistent and ill-defined and apparently no one on the editing team ever had an issue with it, so I'm gonna move on.

Lilia and Kai and Karina end up in an inn that they can afford with a few copper coins, and they meet a band of traveling knights who tell them the legend of the Elf King and his daughter, and of Odin's Hunt, and of a kingdom up north with a prince who refuses to marry unless the girl can pass a test proving herself to be a true princess, and wow! All of a sudden, we have an awful lot of stories happening. We've got Goethe's "Elf King" and Anderson's The Snow Queen and The Princess and the Pea, and some Norse mythology thrown in there as well! I got to this point and had to ask how she was going to manage all this in just 180 pages!

And the answer, unfortunately, is not terribly well, and by picked one element to really focus on and then neglecting the others. And the element Zahler chooses is The Princess and the Pea. That's the focus of the story. Oh, The Snow Queen is there, but it takes a decided backseat, as does “The Elf King” and the Norse mythology.

The kids get lost in the enchanted forest because they do exactly what they weren't supposed to do and leave the path, and they end up at the court of the Elf King. Kai takes one look at the Elf King's daughter and is hopelessly enchanted by her beauty, and she decides she wants him to be her new plaything. Lilia and Karina won't let that happen, and so they decide to make a bargain with the Elf King. If they can obtain something his daughter wants more than Kai and bring it to him within two weeks, he'll let Kai and all the other human children in his court go free.

And that's essentially all we get of The Snow Queen -- a boy named Kai being taken in by an ethereal woman, and needing to be rescued by his sister/close friend. The other elements aren't really there, and to be honest, when I picked this book for this month, I was expecting there to be a bit more of the story than that. The summary makes it sound as if we're going to be mainly immersed in The Snow Queen, with the events of Princess and the Pea taking the place of the majority of Gerda's journey -- which I was pretty okay with, but that's not what I got.

What the Elf King's daughter wants more than Kai is Odin's cloak clasp, which just happens to be somewhere in the palace of the prince who is holding the contest to find a true princess for his bride, which also happens to be the kingdom of the band of traveling knights they met earlier in the story. So the two girls journey to this kingdom, where the obtain jobs in the palace, despite the fact that Lilia is a horrible servant, and then we're hit with a whole slew of plot "twists":

-The blue clad gentleman Karina has been pining after is the prince!
-He's in love with Karina!
-Lilia is the kingdom's long-lost princess who was stolen by the Elf King, but then stolen by the prince's falcons who dropped her in the river rather than taking her back to her parents!

None of these "twists" are even a little bit surprising.

And after looking for a priceless, god-made jewel in such likely places as the palace pantry, the linen closets, and random junk drawers (but not the room with the crown jewels, which would be too obvious), Lilia manages to find it hidden in the super secret hiding place that she saw her brother use once more than a decade ago when she was less than two years old.

Anyway, they get the clasp, return it to the Elf King, who tries to weasel out of his deal, but Lilia calls on a Norse god, and all the human children are freed, and Karina marries the prince, and Kai kisses Lilia, and now she's a princess, and then this line is uttered:

"You were a bad servant to Ylva because you were a princess."

Told you we'd be getting back to this point.

Okay. The idea that being royal makes you somehow inherently “other” – literally, physiologically, you are different because you have royal blood? Yeah, I’ve got a problem with that. Because, to me, it feeds into the whole “ruling by divine right” crap of monarchies past. Because Lilia was born to a king and a queen, that makes her incapable of sweeping a broom across a floor? I guess woe betide the princess who has to go into hiding for political reasons or the kingdom that finds itself in financial or wartime crises. Can’t ask the princes and princesses to pitch in a hand, guys! They’re physically incapable of helping you out!

And yeah, I know that idea is inherent in Anderson’s Princess and the Pea, but I have a problem with it there, too, and if I was taking a month to do that story, one of the things I’d been looking for would be offering a better explanation for a girl’s so-called sensitivity.

But, I remind myself, I am not reading Princess and the Pea adaptations this week, so let’s head to the checklist before I get much further off track.

Reigned the story in? Same issues as last month, but honestly, this novel suffers from the same issues as Anderson’s story – there’s too much going on. Zahler has about four different stories trying to happen all at once here, and she hasn’t given herself enough page room to deal with them all sufficiently. So, no.

Explore the relationship between Gerda and Kai? You know, I would have been happy if Zahler had explored the relationship between anyone, really. But she doesn’t. Each and every one of her characters is flat and two-dimensional with very little in the way of depth or definition. Lilia wasn’t as bad as Zita in terms of utter perfection, but they’re still essentially interchangeable. In fact, that’s true for all the main four – you could replace Lilia with Zita, Karina with Aurelia, Tycho with Mikel, and Kai with Breckin, and I don’t think either novel would suffer much for it. Also, Lilia acts way too old to be twelve, and Karina acts way too young and dumb to be 17. No one was well defined. So, no, checklist. No point here. There wasn’t time to explore the relationship; they were separated too soon, and then Lilia essentially forgot about Kai altogether. And while I know Kai and Lilia were supposed to have feelings for each other, there was little to no chemistry, and I wasn’t given a reason to care about ither one of them.

Define the Snow Queen? God, she was irritating! I hated her! She was the Elf King’s daughter in this version, and I spent all of her twenty pages wanting to punch her in the throat to make her shut up. She was defined, I guess, but as little more than a fairy tale stereotype, so I can’t really get behind her.

Give meaning to the journey? No. It was too disjointed with hardly any focus, and it was undertaken very poorly. Zahler tried to do too much with this one, and it showed.

One more week – let’s see if Anne Ursu delivers better than her counterparts this month.

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