April 19, 2007


Dragon’s Keep. By Janet Lee Carey. Harcourt. $17.

Princess Pigsty. By Cornelia Funke. Illustrated by Kerstin Meyer. Translated by Chantal Wright. Chicken House/Scholastic. $16.99.

      Perfectly coiffed golden hair, an elegant royal demeanor and an ever-present longing for Prince Charming are nowhere to be found in these two books, one for teenagers and one for younger readers; and both books are the better for what they lack.

      Dragon’s Keep is a first-rate adventure about a princess born with a horrible deformity: the ring finger of her left hand – her wedding finger – is a dragon’s claw. She is born at a time when dragons still roam and threaten the land, and she witnesses the grisly depredations of the great winged beasts firsthand. She is also aware of a prophecy involving the giving of a talon, breaking of a sword, and ending of a war; but neither she nor anyone else knows what this soothsaying – which comes from none other than Merlin, although this is not an Arthurian tale – could possibly mean. Rosalind (or Rosie) is princess of Wilde Island in the year 1145, and her way proves a tangled one indeed, as her mother, Queen Gweneth, tries methods both magical and mundane to get rid of the curse of the claw. But magic proves too weak, and the simplicity of the knife endangers Rosie’s life, for the claw, it turns out, is intimately tied to her very being. Just how intimately becomes clear when Rosie confronts one dragon and is carried off by another. She learns the reasons for the dragons’ continuing attacks, for their hatred of humans, and she learns that the race of dragons is dying – and why. And while living at Dragon’s Keep, she soon finds herself with divided loyalty, just as her body is divided. As she learns the dragons’ language and seeks to help their young survive – not always successfully, as in a harrowing chapter about a flood that threatens dragons and humans alike – she finds out more and more about her own origin as well. When Rosie’s deeply buried secret is at last revealed, it makes perfect sense – but Merlin’s prophecy remains unfulfilled and in many ways oblique. It is to Janet Lee Carey’s credit that she eventually weaves a thoroughly satisfactory, even thrilling, end to the story, without quite tying up every loose end. Prophecies, it seems, do not always turn out entirely neatly. But Dragon’s Keep does.

      There’s nothing neat at all about Princess Pigsty, which will delight young readers with its story of Princess Isabella, youngest child of the king and queen, who proclaims that being a princess is “boring, boring, boring” and says that she wants to blow her own nose, make her own sandwiches and, above all, get dirty. Her crown gives her headaches, her dress makes it impossible to climb trees, and “princesses don’t even pick their noses,” Isabella complains to her father. Finally, the king has had enough, and banishes Isabella to the kitchens to do all sorts of messy jobs – which, it turns out, she loves to do. Well, thinks the king, if that didn’t teach her a lesson, perhaps a little time in the pigsty will – and he sends Isabella there. And she does learn a lesson – several, in fact: that pigs like potatoes, and are smart, and that it’s a shame to eat them. The king refuses to let Isabella leave the pigsty if she won’t act like a proper princess, and that’s just fine with her – but not, it turns out, with the king, who misses her and eventually persuades her to come back to the castle and even wear her crown occasionally…and who agrees, in turn, to listen to what she has learned and never again force her to have her hair curled. Written with Cornelia Funke’s usual flair (as aptly translated by Chantal Wright), and endearingly illustrated by Kerstin Meyer, Princess Pigsty is a wonderful reminder that princesses – some princesses, anyway – can be people, too.

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