January 13, 2011


Warrior Princess, Book Two: Destiny’s Path. By Frewin Jones. HarperTeen. $8.99.

Warrior Princess, Book Three: The Emerald Flame. By Frewin Jones. HarperTeen. $16.99.

Alberic the Wise and Other Journeys. By Norton Juster. Illustrated by Domenico Gnoli. Yearling. $5.99.

     Adventures in the fairy-tale realm, sometimes disguised as historical or pseudo-historical fiction, retain considerable popularity for teenage readers. The Warrior Princess books, featuring a headstrong 15-year-old who is said to be destined to save medieval Wales from the depredations of the Saxons, are effective enough in taking Branwen ap Griffith along familiar paths of destiny, and are exciting enough to keep teen readers turning their pages; but they are not especially creative in plot or scene-setting, as Frewin Jones relies on familiar characters and entities to surround Branwen, challenge her, help her and guide her. The second book, Destiny’s Path, has Branwen, not surprisingly, rebelling against the notion that she is destined to be Wales’ savior. The Shining Ones, the land’s ancient gods, have chosen her, but she does not feel ready to be a leader and is not sure she wants the assignment. This is typical self-doubt for the hero or heroine of an epic fantasy, and the Shining Ones counter it in a typical way: by showing Branwen the horrible fate of her friends and her country if she refuses to accept her destiny. Yet still Branwen hesitates, so the Shining Ones send her a half-human helper (again, a standard character in stories of this sort). This is Blodwedd, who is part owl (or, as Branwen puts it, “nothing more than an owl wrapped in human shape, save for her eyes”), and who is charged with making sure that Branwen treads the right path. By the end of the book, Branwen has accepted what she must do, although with misgivings – again, a typical stance for the protagonist of such a tale. Branwen is an action heroine when she must be – her knifing to death of a powerful Saxon invader, followed by her throwing an ax to kill another, makes her battlefield prowess abundantly clear. But her future looks bleak as Destiny’s Path, originally published in 2009 and now available in paperback, comes to an end.

     In The Emerald Flame – the title refers to what Branwen herself will come to be called – Branwen has fully (if still somewhat reluctantly) accepted her role as her land’s savior, and has embarked on a supernaturally tinged quest to rescue the spirit of the wind. She has also begun having romantic feelings for Iwan, who is traveling with her. So Branwen – again, in a typical setup for this sort of quest – must find ways to balance her heart and her mind, growing into her destiny and into womanhood as well. Branwen must also face a variety of grave dangers, the worst of which is betrayal by someone on whom she has come to rely. And then she must arrange for a climactic battle not only between herself and an old enemy but also between the opposing gods of two sides. When that battle is won, at least for a time, Branwen again shows her self-reliance and insistence on living her own life, telling the Shining Ones, who threaten her if she does not obey them at once, that they “‘must act as you see fit. …Neither by coercion nor threats will you deflect me from the duty I have set myself.’” And so she grows still further into her ordained role, insisting to herself at the last, “I shall walk the path of my destiny – but I shall do it in my own way.” True enough; but it is a way that many central characters of many other epic quests have taken many times before.

     Warrior Princess repeatedly insists on its uniqueness, even as it follows familiar threads of plot and characterization. In contrast, Alberic the Wise and Other Journeys accepts fairy-tale conventions at face value and simply tries to develop them in some new ways. Norton Juster, best known as author of The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), created this slim, three-story volume four years later, with a different illustrator (Domenico Gnoli, not Jules Feiffer). Unfortunately, this later book has almost none of the charm and wit of the earlier one, and proves much heavier going than fairy tales usually do. The problem is that Juster, whose insouciance and frequent puns made The Phantom Tollbooth such a delight, decides in Alberic the Wise that he is going to create something Serious and Meaningful (you can almost hear the capital letters). What he ends up doing is creating something Peculiar and often Dull. The title story is about a young man “who knew nothing at all,” who gets interested in traveling and learning things, who fails at multiple endeavors, and who is eventually acclaimed wise when he starts telling people everything he has done and learned. Then he finds that acclamation is also unsatisfying, ending up, now an old man, going back on the road. This is followed by “She Cries No More,” a tale in which a young boy named Claude, who doesn’t care about much of anything (and who is, in this respect alone, similar to Milo of tollbooth fame), gets mysteriously pulled into a picture at a museum, where he meets a girl from olden times and finds he cares a lot about what happens in the picture’s world. But the story has neither sense nor charm: somehow Claude takes over whole armies, fights great battles, plots strategies and inspires troops, then has his whole world collapse when he thinks he has imagined everything. The story just doesn’t work. The best tale here is the final one, “Two Kings,” which is the only story with a modicum of wit and amusement. It is about the poorest king in the world, known as King RNP, and the richest, King Magnus, and how each decides to journey to the other’s kingdom to find out if everything is as miserable – or as wonderful – as in his own land. The story is all about role reversal and finding what you expect to find, and much of it is amusing – although the ending, in which Juster refuses to button up the story as any good fairy tale ought to be pulled together, is a disappointment. Alberic the Wise and Other Journeys is a mere 88 pages long, and a number of those pages are taken up by Gnoli’s very detailed but not very inspiring illustrations. But the book somehow seems much longer, lacking the very lilt and lightness that continue to make the fairy tales of long ago (and such modern ones as The Phantom Tollbooth) so appealing.

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