Winterling. By Sarah Prineas. Harper. $16.99.
The Book of Wonders. By Jasmine Richards. Harper. $16.99.
A True Princess. By Diane Zahler. Harper. $6.99.
Princess of the Wild Swans. By Diane Zahler. Harper. $16.99.
There is a certain reliability to modern fantasy novels. Their worlds may differ, their protagonists may differ, and the specific events in their plots may differ, but their overall ambience tends to be similar and their eventual outcomes satisfying in similar ways. Readers who enjoy any of these new fantasies will likely find at least some things to like in all of them. Winterling has a straightforward plot: young girl who has always felt she does not belong learns where she does belong and what she is fated to become. And it has some elements that will not surprise fans of the fantasy genre: a hidden passage to another world (here called the Way), a land in thrall to a powerful and evil character (here called the Mór), unknown parentage, and plenty of secrets that must be discovered. Sarah Prineas mixes these elements interestingly, and her writing is appropriately dark (but not too dark) – suitable for ages 10 and up: “She gave a sigh, put her hands behind her head, and gazed up at the sloping tent ceiling. Things weren’t as wonderful here as she thought they’d be. She couldn’t forget about the bloody death of the stag in the clearing. He hadn’t really been an animal, had he? Her stomach twisted just thinking about it.” There are, of course, magical creatures and elements galore: wildlings, a seeing-stone, wolf-guards, flying horses. And there is an inevitable, melodramatic speech by the evil huntress: “‘She could be dangerous. But I will bind her to me. …I will bind her with blood, and my power in the land will be secured.’” Amid the easy-to-anticipate elements are some less-predictable (although still not unique) ones, such as the notion of the bonding power of oaths. The eventual triumph over the Mór, despite a wholly expected revelation at the heart of it, is well done, and in fact Winterling is well-written enough so that it rises above its many formulaic elements to produce a satisfying venture into Prineas’ fairyland.
The Book of Wonders, the debut novel by Jasmine Richards, is for slightly younger readers, ages 8-12, and its fantasy realm is one that has often been visited before: that of One Thousand and One Nights, the classic often known as The Arabian Nights. Here, though, the land is not Arabia but Arribitha, and the protagonist is 13-year-old Zardi, whose sister, Zubeyda, has been taken by the evil sultan (who can see even with his eyes closed) for nefarious purposes. One thing the sultan forbids is discussion of the powers of magical beings, such as djinns and sorcerers. But Zardi loves to hear stories about them, and of course she will encounter them when she and her best friend, the silver-haired Rhidan, embark on a voyage with none other than Sinbad. The objective: find an object called the Windrose and bring it, and magic, back to Arribitha – and overthrow the sultan. The language here, especially the dialogue, is somewhat too freewheeling for an Arabian-nights story: “‘It was weird. We were getting along quite well at first. He wanted to know a bit more about my magic, why I had it, why I’d lost it. I told him that I didn’t really understand what was happening with me and that’s why I wanted to find my real parents.’” Yes, there is a real-parents plot here, too – they are very common in fantasies – and there are also the usual threats: “‘Such a shame that your story will end here,’” for example. The eventual confrontation with the sultan Shahryār leads, not surprisingly, to a decision not to kill him but to transform him – yet another oft-repeated theme (it appears in Winterling as well). The Book of Wonders is not especially inventive, but the characters are attractive and the story is nicely paced, with the sort of satisfyingly upbeat conclusion that young readers of fantasy will enjoy.
Diane Zahler’s fairy-tale retellings, also intended for ages 8-12, draw even more directly on legend than does The Book of Wonders. Zahler chooses known fairy tales and expands them: “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” in The Thirteenth Princess, for example, and a combination of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” with bits of Goethe’s Der Erlkönig in A True Princess, originally published last year and now available in paperback. A common theme in fairy tales, used again and again by Zahler, is that of a girl often raised as a servant who is really a princess and who – after she discovers her true identity – becomes the rescuer of others. The girl in A True Princess is 12-year-old Lilia, an orphan who gets on the wrong side of the Elf King when fleeing through his domain with her friends, Kai (a name from Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”) and Karina. After Kai falls under a spell cast by the Elf King’s daughter, Lilia determines to rescue him – which she can only do by tracking down a particular jewel that is connected to Odin, chief of the Norse gods (whose eventual appearance in the story is a bit of a deus ex machina event but does tie things up rather neatly). Zahler’s latest foray into fairy tales is based on Andersen’s “The Wild Swans.” Princess of the Wild Swans features yet another 12-year-old protagonist, in this case one known as a princess from the start. She is Princess Meriel, and the story follows the basic outline of Andersen’s: Meriel must sew shirts from stinging nettles in order to rescue the princes, her brothers, from a spell – cast by their evil stepmother – that has turned the princes into swans. There is a bit of “Swan Lake” in this book as well: Meriel faces a deadline involving a body of water called Heart Lake – if it freezes, her brothers will fly south, so she must complete her task quickly. And, as in the original story, Meriel must not speak until her task is complete – but Zahler makes sure we stay in touch with her thoughts, and as usual introduces characters to help the princess and flesh the story out (the half-witch Riona, her clever brother Liam, and others). There is, unsurprisingly, an eventual confrontation with the evil queen: “There was only anger…that she had taken my father and my brothers from me, anger that she had harmed my friends and destroyed their home.” The queen, known as Lady Orianna, speaks the sort of gloating lines that recur in far too many modern fantasies: “‘Did you think to escape me, you foolish girl? …Do you not know that I am faster than you, stronger than you, smarter than you? …I shall sweep you aside as if you were an insect.’” But good triumphs over evil, of course, and even Andersen’s bittersweet conclusion, in which one prince retains a swan’s wing because the final shirt was not quite finished, is turned into something positive here. Like Zahler’s other fairy-tale-based books, Princess of the Wild Swans will be most appealing to preteen girls, who will enjoy the “princess” fantasies within the recognizable world of fairy tales – even if they have not read the specific stories on which Zahler bases these novels. Some settings, in Zahler’s books and those of authors such as Prineas and Richards, are so culturally familiar that even if readers have not been to them before, they will likely feel a pleasant sense of familiarity and have the impression that they are journeying to places that are well-known and comfortable to visit, if only in fiction.