February 23, 2017
(++++) AMPHIBIAN ANTICS
Frogkisser! By Garth Nix. Scholastic. $18.99.
There have been lots and lots and lots of variations on the old tale of the princess and the frog, and there have been lots and lots and lots of amusing send-ups and mash-ups of fairy tales – in which themes are turned upside-down and inside-out, characters rethought and remade, and plots thoroughly mangled and mashed together. So there is plenty with which to compare Frogkisser! But although Garth Nix’s novel – intended for ages 12 and up, but written at a level that will be just fine for many 10-year-olds – is reminiscent of many other adventure-driven mixtures of fairy tale, fantasy, humor and silliness, it has enough offbeat and unusual elements to be more fun than most other books of its ilk.
The plot is not particularly unusual. Princess Anya, the protagonist, wants to be left alone to study magic. Unfortunately, her older sister, Morven, who will be queen one day, has a bad habit of falling in love with visiting princes. Even more unfortunately, the evil Duke Rikard, who is the girls’ “stepstepfather” and a dark sorcerer with designs on the crown, has a bad habit of transforming Morven’s suitors into frogs. No worries – a dash of “Fairly Reliable Transmogrification Reversal Lip Balm” and a suitable kiss will restore the froggy royals. Unfortunately, there is none of it left, so Anya must make some, which means she must go on a quest for the proper ingredients, and this is where the book gets interesting. Anya heads off in the company of Morven’s latest suitor, the now-frogified Prince Denholm; a faithful if somewhat overenthusiastic talking dog named Ardent; and a boy named Shrub who happens currently to be a newt. Also along on the trip are weasel assassins sent by Duke Rikard – and hilariously interchangeable journalists, all named Gerald the Herald, who talk in shouted headlines (this is not as unrealistic as Nix may think).
Not everything is hilarity: there is an intended undertone of meaningfulness to Frogkisser! Unfortunately, it is laid on too thickly and makes parts of the book unnecessarily message-heavy. It is fine that Anya must learn about the All Encompassing Bill of Rights and Wrongs, the dangers of misuse of power, and the importance of treating people fairly. And it is fine, even admirable, that she encounters Roberta (called Bert), the strong, beautiful Robin-Hood-like character who leads the Association of Responsible Robbers and who happens to be not only female but also black – a welcome deviation from the usual portrayal of capable, forthright characters. But, well, Bert’s role is to challenge Anya to examine the privilege to which she has been born and to accept limits on it and the unfairness of having some people born to better things than others and all that. This is well-meaning but tedious. Yet Nix almost gets away with it – until he insists on introducing a second perfectly balanced, all-good, knowledgeable and powerful and revelatory and beautiful dark-skinned female character, thereby abandoning the obsolete notion that all fairy-tale characters are white in favor of the idea that white characters may be good, bad or indifferent, but black ones are all perfect.
This stance gets old quite quickly, but luckily is not the primary point of Frogkisser! There are some much better elements elsewhere, such as having the Good Wizard’s teacher be a combination of Merlin and Snow White (and yes, there are seven dwarves in the book). Taken as a whole, the minor characters are intriguing if uniformly one-dimensional: no one in the book is as interesting or fleshed-out as Anya, although Ardent comes close. Still, the relatively bland characterization is a small matter. Among its counterbalances are the subtle ways Nix pays homage to other amusing-but-serious fantasies for younger readers: at one point, for example, Anya ends up with “a Wallet of Inexhaustible Crunchings and Munchings,” a direct reminiscence of Gurgi in Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain and the little-noted Disney film, The Black Cauldron. What is also so good here is the complete absence of romance, or even a hint of it in the future, in what is essentially a story of growing self-awareness under the gentlest of adult guidance (also a recurrent Alexander theme). Anya believes that princesses need to be able to rescue themselves, and that concept is right in line with 21st-century thinking. Anya is actually far less perfect than Bert and the Good Wizard, and that makes her all the more admirable: she persists even when frightened instead of being always above the fray. Nix sometimes tries a little too hard to make the goings-on hilarious, which is why the readership for the book may skew toward the young side even though the themes will be of interest to teenagers. The unraveling and reweaving of fairy-tale tropes is skillfully done here, and if the weight of social commentary is at times a bit blatant and overdone, the fact that Nix introduces it at all is worth something. Scarcely a profound book – it is, at its foundation, a romp – Frogkisser! contains a soupçon of meaningfulness that places it a cut or two above most of the many other frog-and-princess rethinkings and reimaginings. The sequel – there is not the slightest doubt that there will be one – will be most welcome.