Monday, July 8, 2013

Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock*

*Being a Wholly Truthful Account of her Various Discoveries and Misadventures, Recounted to the Best of Her Recollection, in Four Parts
Benevolence is not your typical princess -- and Princess Ben is certainly not your typical fairy tale.
With her parents lost to assassins, Princess Ben ends up under the thumb of conniving Queen Sophia. Starved and miserable, locked in the highest tower, Ben stumbles upon a mysterious enchanted room. So begins her secret education in the magical arts: mastering an obstinate flying broomstick, furtively emptying the castle pantries, setting her hair on fire... But Ben's private adventures are soon overwhelmed by a mortal threat to her kingdom. Can Ben save the country and herself from foul tyranny?

~Print copy (library), 344 pages
Published: 2008 by Houghton Mifflin Company

[I'm back on my normal blogging schedule, for those who care to know. Because, well... I care to know!]

Is it just me who looks at that title and thinks this is going to be about a transgendered princess? Because I certainly think that would make for some awesome, dramatic-and-tense fantasy.

But, alas, it is not. Ben is short for Benevolence. Not to say that this book isn't awesome in its own right, for Ben, it should be said bluntly, is fat. Interesting factoid: in medieval times (you know, where monarchy, as you apply it to fantasy, actually existed?), being fat was a sign of how rich you were. Skinny meant you couldn't afford to be fat, and fat meant you could afford to eat rich food often enough to get fat.

This book sort of looks down on her gluttony, but I think it's pleasing to come across a book out there with fat princesses. Because, you know, that would've actually paralleled real life; princesses, with all that rich food at banquets every week, really would've been fat.

So, that was definitely a good start. So, too, was the parallels to fairy tales: locked in a tower, parents killed by assassins and now under the rule of an evil "stepmother" -- though, really, she's not too evil. She's more of a woman under duress, and a lot more believable a villain. Which leads to another good thing: antagonists who are less cut cardboard and more real-life.

And the writing... THIS is good writing. It sounds sophisticated. Queen-like, because this is sort of Queen Ben's memoir of her past as a princess. Which is really good format for this novel because it reads lovely, has an explanation for reading lovely, and tells the story in a coherent way.

In fact, the whole first two parts were really quite interesting. It's the second two parts that left me a bit troubled.

First off, because there wasn't a slightest hint of romance in the first half, I kind of assumed it would be that -- non-romantic. Actually, she mentions several times that she never wants to get married. My kind of heroine! It's only in the second half that it becomes relevant, and I really don't appreciate it sprung on me. (Here's my opinion on romance.)

While the last parts did amuse me, and leave me at the edge of my seat in places, that romance, truth be told, kind of spoiled it. I realize in my mind that queens do have to get married, as do all monarchs, in order to procure a hereditary heir to the throne. But I did not want to indulge in that voice of reason, because I wanted to indulge in that disbelief that you have while reading. I mean, she mentioned she didn't want to get married! I didn't think she would consent to being married! But, spoiler alert -- as in all fairy tales, he gets the princess. (I won't mention who.)

The tales of the dragon in the nearby mountain, the evil country bent on dominating their smaller but more fertile kingdom, the Queen-who's-more-of-a-general... I loved those parts. The romance was disappointing.

And there's the small matter of setting. With the magic and the tales of a dragon, I'd believed this to be a made-up land. In the second half, though, the author drops hints of France and such in the matter, and suddenly I can't tell where this novel is located. Are these made-up warring kingdoms? Made-up kingdoms set in real life? Or real-life kingdoms I've never heard of? I still don't know, though I sort of suspect option #2.

So, overall, I thought it was lovely in some parts -- the writing, the fairy tale parallels, finding an actual fat princess -- and in others, not so much (mainly, setting and romance). I'm not really sure what I give it -- a 3.25 stars, really. I'd recommend it to people who like fairy tales, but who aren't so quirky as to suspend the whole romantic notion of fairy tales, like I do.



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