Recommended Reading: Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy and Princess Academy: Palace of Stone
So, I just checked out Shannon Hale’s 2006 Newberry Honor book Princess Academy, and I liked it so much that I checked out its 2012 sequel, Princess Academy: Palace of Stone.
Man, I’m glad I didn’t read the first book in 2006. Then I would have had to wait six years for the next one.
Review for both [some SPOLIERS ahead] under the cut:
The Cover: I seriously love the original cover for Princess Academy. I read an e-version of the book with a different cover, so I have no idea who made this one. Which is a shame, because this artist deserves some serious kudos. I like the sense of scale, I like the mist-shrouded mountains, and I like the line of girls in differently-patterned dresses in the foreground. This cover relates to both the setting and the premise of the book. Even the fact that the girls are holding hands is from the book. (In the steep rocky terrain where they live, girls hold each other’s hands when they walk as a safety precaution.) None of the other covers for the book are this awesome.
The Setup: Miri lives on Mount Eskel. Mount Eskel is the only place in the world that produces linder, the special, marble-like stone that the king uses in his palace. Life on Mount Eskel is entirely dictated by quarry work and the support of the laborers who work in the quarry. Now that she’s old enough, Miri desperately wants to work in the quarry with everybody else, but her father won’t let her and she’s starting to wonder if she just doesn’t measure up. Maybe she’s too weak or too little. Opportunity for Miri and her mountain town comes when the kingdom’s officials announce that the prince’s bride is going to be a girl from Mount Eskel. (The kingdom’s priests have a vision or something. I’m not sure of the details, as they never show up as characters.) Miri and a group of other young girls from her town are now required to attend the “princess academy” so that they can be trained to be viable princess candidates. When they’ve finished their training, the prince will come and pick one.
Why I loved It: Princess Academy easily could have been just another Cinderella story with a twist, and honestly, that would have been OK. I’ve got nothing against a good Cinderella story. But Princess Academy isn’t really a Cinderella story a all. The academy girls are all readying themselves to meet–and possibly be chosen by–the prince, but the prince himself is a relatively minor character. The heart of the story is how the girls are affected by learning in the academy, and how just having an academy changes their home town. For the “princess academy” is the first institution of formal education that Mount Eskel has ever seen. The academy’s students are the first members of their town to learn to read, the first to learn the skills of diplomacy, and the first to learn about the world below their mountain. And they take what they learn and apply it to their daily lives. Miri, the book’s heroine, is especially invested in sharing this new knowledge with her community, and she eventually uses what she learns at the academy to better Mount Eskel’s standard of living.
Who cares about bagging a prince when you could be encouraging economic development?
Princess Academy: Palace of Stone
The Cover: It’s a pretty girl in a palace of stone. So, that’s accurate, I guess. Though if she’s in the linder wing of the palace, the stone should be less golden marble and more silver-white veined with pink. And the girl is wearing sky blue! In the book, Miri wears a sky-blue scholar’s robe, so I guess that’s Miri in her scholar’s robe? You can’t really tell whether that’s a robe or a dress, though, with Miri posed like that with the coy over-the-shoulder look. Miri wears a blue dress later, too. Maybe the generic blue whatever she’s wearing is supposed to stand in for both the dress and the robe.
The Setup: Miri’s friend Britta, who was chosen as the princess at the end of the last book, invites Miri and some of their fellow academy graduates to visit her for a year. Miri, of course, is most looking forward to the opportunity to spend a year studying at Asland’s school. However, the lowlands are more troubled and conflicted than Miri realized, and as the kingdom feels the stirrings of revolution, Miri finds herself in the middle of all the political turmoil. And she might have accidentally become a symbol of the revolutionary movement. Whoops.
Why I loved It: Princess Academy was such a complete, satisfying book on its own that my hopes weren’t high for Palace of Stone. I thought, at best, it would be a nice continuation of the main character’s journey and maybe give me a little insight into how the cast of the first book was doing. Honestly, I expected it to suffer the fate of many sequels of beloved books: the inability to measure up to its predecessor.
Then I read Palace of Stone, and had my expectations exploded in the best possible way. Palace of Stone continues the character development that began in the first book, while exponentially expanding the story’s scope.
This could have been a cute, fun story about friendship and the importance of supporting the people you love. And it is one. However, Miri’s too ethical a heroine to support her friend the princess at the cost of the princess’s people. One of Miri’s major challenges, then, becomes figuring out how to support the kingdom’s protestors (whose cause she embraces) without betraying her friend. And while she balances the needs of the lowlander populace with the desire to keep Britta from getting killed by an angry mob, she also has to keep in mind how the decisions she makes in this new world can impact the community that she left back home in Moutn Eskel.
A couple of criticisms
Criticism #1: Not a lot of diversity in either book. No POCs (enough of the characters are described as blond to get me to assume that the ‘default’ for this world is white) and no LGBTQ characters. There is one disabled character, though. She’s pretty cool.
Criticism #2: OK, so the second book introduces a love triangle between Miri, Peder (her love interest in the first book) and a revolutionary-minded merchant’s son named Timon. The whole “good boy next door versus political rebel” thing felt very shades of Katniss/Peeta/Gale to me. Though I do like Timon more than I like Gale (sorry Gale fans!). Aside from the Hunger Games evocation, the romantic rivalry read as pretty natural, and I would have been OK with Miri picking either–or neither–of her suitors.
And the saga continues!
There’s a 3rd Princess Academy book, The Forgotten Sisters, coming out in March 2015.
Darn it, I should have waited another year to read these.