I’m a huge fan of Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, and I consider her clever twists on fairy tales to be literary ancestors of my own writing. Among my favorites of her books are The Princess Tales, six very short novels, which I bought combined into one (400-page) volume, The Fairy’s Return and Other Princess Tales. I reread these before the Once Upon a Time Challenge began, but it’s still an appropriate time for a review!
Set in the Kingdom of Biddle, each story riffs on at least one fairy tale, but always with Levine’s gift for bringing a practical eye to silly situations. The stories are loosely connected, but all stand on their own too. I thought I’d take this story by story…
“The Fairy’s Mistake” – The fairy Levana is just trying to follow tradition when she enchants kind Rosella to produce jewels every time she speaks–and when she enchants Rosella’s nasty sister Myrtle to spew toads and bugs with every word. But it all goes wrong when Rosella is carried off by a prince who doesn’t care if she exhausts herself speaking as long as he gets the jewels, and Myrtle uses her new powers to blackmail the villagers and get everything she wants!
This is a beautiful example of Levine’s gift for telling a story that largely stems from looking at fairy tales and asking, “what would that actually be like?” The situations are ridiculous, but Levine lets them play out in very believable ways, with characters who behave as real people would.
“The Princess Test” – Blacksmith’s daughter Lorelei is sweet and kind and loving, but very, very delicate, apt to fall sick or develop rashes at the drop of a hat. Meanwhile at the palace, Prince Nicholas’ parents are determined that he must marry a true princess, and they have just the test for finding the right one. You can probably guess which fairy tale this ultimately plays on. It’s a fun little story…even if I do have a sneaking sympathy for Lorelei’s servant, who gets fed up with Lorelei’s extreme sensitivity.
“Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep” – When fairies come to Princess Sonora’s christening, their gifts include making her the most brilliant person in the world. She’s smart enough to know she can’t evade her curse to prick her finger on a spindle and sleep for a century, but she’s determined to learn as much as she can first, and only fall asleep at the most opportune moment. Sonora is probably my favorite princess in this collection, very much the opposite of the traditional passive, inactive Sleeping Beauty. And this has one of the most fun romantic pairings, between a princess who has endless answers no one wants to hear, and a prince with endless questions no one wants to answer.
“Cinderellis and the Glass Hill” – Cinderellis is a brilliant inventor, but can never impress his two older brothers who only care about each other. Princess Lark is similarly lonely in her castle, as her father is constantly away on quests (and always bringing back the wrong item). Their paths cross when Lark’s father decides to bestow his daughter’s hand in marriage on the man who can ride a horse to the top of a specially-built glass hill (because that’s obviously the way to choose a suitor…)
This one riffs on a few different fairy tales, and may be my favorite story in the collection. I have a soft spot for characters who just want to be seen and valued, and are unappreciated by the people around them. And I love a story that presents climbing an enormous glass hill to win a princess and fully realizes how ridiculous an idea that is!
“For Biddle’s Sake” – Parsley, so named because she only eats parsley, charms the fairy Bombina with her lovely (if green) smile. Bombina adopts her and tries, very hard, to curb her nasty habit of turning people into toads…but she can’t completely change her ways. This has some resemblance to the Frog Prince story, but according to Levine’s website is actually based on a more obscure fairy tale called “Puddocky.” There are quests and princes and magic, but I also especially enjoy a princess-turned-shepherdess who’s sure that she’ll find a prince if she just kisses enough amphibians.
“The Fairy’s Return” – Gun-shy after her earlier mistake, fairy Levana hasn’t bestowed a gift on anyone in decades, but the Fairy Queen tells her she must get back into the business. Her path crosses with a princess who won’t laugh and a baker’s son with a gift for jokes—and Levine threw in a golden goose and some very odd poetry for good measure. This is gleefully silly, and again offers characters who don’t quite fit into their lives, but ultimately find their proper place, and people who will appreciate them as they are.
Each of these stories stands alone just fine (except possibly the last, a more direct sequel to the first), but they’re especially fun together. They contain allusions and cross-references that are more entertaining with context. But whether you read one or several, these are a delightful time, with Levine’s gift for likable characters, not to mention great silliness with a nevertheless practical bent. An excellent read for Once Upon a Time perhaps!
Author’s Site: http://gailcarsonlevine.com/
Buy it here: The Fairy’s Return and Other Princess Tales