At first glance, Princess Academy by Shannon Hale sounds like an overwhelmingly girly book, but both the title, and the UK covers (not shown here), are a bit misleading. I’m neither a twelve-year-old girl, nor a fond reader of princesses and romantic fairy tales, but I really enjoyed this book.
Scenes of girls learning how to dance, gossiping over boys and getting excited over pretty dresses are few and far between. Instead, Princess Academy focuses on themes of friendship, loyalty, family, finding your place in the world and most of all, how education can open doors, with a little old-fashioned fairy tale feel-good on the side.
Miri lives on a mountain where, for generations, her ancestors have quarried stone and lived a simple life. Then word comes that the king’s priests have divined her small village the home of the future princess. In a year’s time, the prince himself will come and choose his bride from among the girls of the village. The king’s ministers set up an academy on the mountain, and every teenage girl must attend and learn how to become a princess.
Miri soon finds herself confronted with a harsh academy mistress, bitter competition among the girls, and her own conflicting desires to be chosen and win the heart of her childhood best friend. But when bandits seek out the academy to kidnap the future princess, Miri must rally the girls together and use a power unique to the mountain dwellers to save herself and her classmates.
Fourteen year old Miri is desperate to work in the quarry along with everyone else in Mount Eskel, but her father refuses to allow her. Ashamed, Miri feels like an outsider in a small village where family, friends and neighbours work side by side, communicating through quarry-speech, a special way of speaking without words. When the chief delegate arrives to inform them that every girl between the ages of twelve and seventeen is to attend the princess academy so that the Prince might choose one of them to be his future Queen, Miri is suddenly introduced to a vast world beyond everything she knows, and soon finds herself caught between her love for her family and home, and her awakening hunger for more.
Princess Academy certainly has elements of a fantasy – a world that is like ours, but not, a medieval-like setting and the strange, mystical properties of the Linder stone. But unlike the majority of fantasy books where the protagonist goes on a great journey through distant lands and faces a battle between good and evil, Miri’s journey is one of self discovery.
Hale writes some positive messages for young girls without being too heavy-handed or overly cloying. I loved the emphasis on education, how learning to read and write and understanding politics, mathematics, diplomacy and so on, enriched not only the girl’s lives, but their families as well. That Miri and the others were able to appreciate this gift beyond the duties of being a wife and princess. Likewise, the evolving friendships between the group of girls forms an integral part of the story line and I enjoyed seeing Miri transform from a lonely, unsure, if slightly prejudice, girl, to a confident leader, forming close bonds with several of her classmates. I also felt the romance in the story struck a nice balance. There are some cute, little, moments between Miri and her best friend, but they don’t detract from the main story, which is Miri’s personal journey and figuring out what she wants for herself.
I did have a few niggling issues. I felt the concept of quarry-speech was interesting but poorly handled in the first half of the book. Miri’s growing understanding of how it worked was clunky and a little confusing to follow at times. I also found the verse/songs that helped Miri connect with her quarry-speech, distracting. Occasionally, Hale would overemphasis a certain message (such as using diplomacy to get what you want). As an older reader, I would have loved a richer description of the mountains and Miri’s culture, but that’s because I’ve been spoilt by the likes of Melina Marchetta and Philip Pullman. This feels about right for it’s intended age group.
Princess Academy is one of those books that I feel both middle grade and YA readers will enjoy, as well as any older readers looking for a light, inoffensive, modern fairy tale with some highly engaging characters.