July 17, 2008


The Eyes of a King. By Catherine Banner. Random House. $16.99.

Fairest. By Gail Carson Levine. HarperTrophy. $6.99.

Ever. By Gail Carson Levine. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      Fairy tales, as collected by Charles Perrault, the brothers Grimm and others, were not intended for children – they were dark, often psychologically complex (although they long predate any formal understanding of psychology), and filled with genuine horror and awful punishments. Victorian Bowdlerizing of the old fairy tales started a trend toward making them children’s stories in the 20th century – and now, in the 21st, subjects for revamping in the name of creating books for teenagers and preteens. Sometimes that also means creating books by teenagers: Catherine Banner, author of The Eyes of a King, is 19, and is said to have started writing the book when she was just 14. It would be churlish to dismiss this book as mere juvenilia, and also unfair, since in many respects it is quite well done. Besides, it is the first book of a planned trilogy, and some of its inelegances of plot may be worked out (and worked through) in the later volumes. As is, The Eyes of a King follows a now-familiar formula, which has been done quite well by (for example) Cornelia Funke with Inkheart and its successors. This is a story in which a book has genuine power – not merely to teach or to allow a person to imagine other worlds, but literally to transport him or her somewhere else and affect his or her life directly. That’s the basis of The Eyes of a King: Leo North, who is 15, lives with his grandmother and takes care of his younger brother; he attends military school because other boys do. But he knows he has undeveloped magical powers – powers he must resist, since in his land, Malonia, they lead to serious trouble. Then Leo finds a blank book in the snow (a very typical kind of fairy-tale device), and words start to appear on its pages, and he learns of Malonia’s history and of a parallel universe where two other teens – Ryan and Anna – live. Their lives start to intersect Leo’s in ways that are supposed to be magical but that feel as if they have often been used before (which they have). Leo faces tragedy involving his brother, uncertainty about whether he is losing his mind, and a growing connection with another world. Banner cleverly gives Leo’s story in first person and the tale of Ryan and Anna, set in different type, in third person. And there is some genuine emotion here, and some genuine learning by the interlinked characters. But even though The Eyes of a King is a very good effort, it never quite makes the sort of connection between fairy tale and the real world that the old stories made so effortlessly.

      Gail Carson Levine is a more facile writer than Banner, but she seems to have her own difficulties with the world of fairy tales. Although her first novel, Ella Enchanted, was…well….enchanting, and she has shown a fine sense of humor (something Banner’s writing lacks) in certain of her books, such as Cinderellis and the Glass Hill, Levine seems to be trying too hard to make her books and their characters likable a lot of the time. Fairest, originally published in 2006 and now available in paperback, is loosely based on the Snow White legend. It is about a land where grace, beauty and especially song are prized, and it focuses on a girl named Aza -- who has little of the first two qualities but an extraordinary ability with the third. The wicked, untalented queen takes advantage of Aza’s wonderful voice for her own purposes, and it is only gradually that Aza learns to value herself for who and what she is instead of conforming to society’s dictates and expectations. The story is better than a bare plot summary makes it sound, but not much better – there are lots of songs (perhaps too many), and long descriptive passages that do not advance the story much, and a sense of rushing through the climaxes of the tale (including Aza’s finding true love). Aza herself is not especially appealing: it is easy to forgive her ugliness and gracelessness within a fairy-tale world, but she also seems rather dull and not especially intelligent. The book works on some levels but, taken as a whole, just seems too contrived and obvious.

      Yet it is not as contrived as Levine’s new fairy-tale book, Ever. This one has a genuinely offbeat plot. A 17-year-old god named Olus spends his time with mortals because he is uncomfortable with the other gods, who are much older. Olus is especially attracted to a 15-year-old mortal girl, Kezi, who – because of her father’s unwise oath – has only 30 days to live. Together, Olus and Kezi seek a way to save her life so they can both be together for Ever. The working-through of the plot, though, is not as good as the outline. Olus seems like something of a stalker at first; the tests the two must face in order to succeed in their quest seem to go by quickly; the characters’ love seems more shallow than heartfelt; and the writing itself is choppy, told in chapters alternating between Kezi and Olus – who do not sound very different, because the characters are not particularly well differentiated. There is a lot to like in Ever, including exotic settings and the interesting notion of a young god facing his fears to help save the one he loves. But the book lacks the stylistic punch of Levine’s better works, not to mention the power and immediacy of the old fairy tales themselves.

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