Friday, June 20, 2014

Review: "The Princess Curse" by Merrie Haskell

The princesses of Castle Sylvian are under a curse, and young Reveka, the herbalist's apprentice, intends to be the one to break it. With the reward the king is offering, she could run her own herbary--and not have to listen to Brother Cosmin yelling anymore.

But breaking the curse is no simple matter, with a tower full of enchanted sleepers who failed to break the curse, and the princesses themselves poisoning those who try. It's for their own good, they tell Reveka. Better to be poisoned, than to follow the cursed princesses to the Land of the Dead where souls wander and fade, and where a monster hunts for his bride.
4.5 out of 5 stars

On Thursday nights I attend "Blog Night" with some friends of mine, where we all wedge ourselves into a tiny office with laptops and wine and work on our respective blog entries. That's why most of my reviews lately have gone up on Friday mornings: I draft them on Thursday night, edit and publish the next morning.

This also means that when Blog Nights are cancelled, the chances of me carving out time specifically for BookGrumps drop significantly. My apologies, dear readers! If you ever want the quick-and-dirty version of what I'm reading/recommending, you can always check out my 2014 reading list or my starred reviews on Goodreads.

There, with that out of the way...

I adore The Princess Curse and recommend it entirely. I first read it after seeing Ana Mardoll's review of the ARC before its actual release; I read it twice in the month of May--once in a single happy gulp for myself, and then again immediately afterward, reading aloud to my book-loving but slow-reading roommate.

Merrie Haskell gave her heroine a delightfully offbeat internal voice that made the usual first-person-narration drone snappy and fresh. Reveka's thoughts are tinged with all the colors of her setting: her convent upbringing, her current education in (and passion for!) herbology, her regional superstitions and beliefs. Even though Sylvania is imaginary, Haskell grounds it so thoroughly alongside actual medieval regions like Hungary, Wallachia, Turkey and Transylvania that the reader believes in its existence. (Reveka's soldier father name-drops Vlad Tepes, the original Dracula, whose wars he fought in.)

The abundance of pink flora on the cover are misleading. This is not a book about romping in the woods with fawns and bunnies while magic sparkles fill the air. Reveka is facing war, deadly curses, and the Lord of the Underworld himself. The tradition of the Twelve Dancing Princesses is woven together with the older legend of Hades and Persephone. But--keep up with me here--it's also not a grim book for all of that. It's a high-stakes but still charming adventure, driven by Reveka's irreverent and dauntless spirit.

I have a certain fondness for blockheaded heroines, like Reveka and Katniss and Rachel Morgan, who leap to wrong conclusions, misread clues, and dig their heels in. It's rare and thereby more interesting to me to find leading ladies who are clever yet wrong. It also lends to the humor of the book, when the reader has caught on to what the character hasn't. Haskell can't resist openly lampshading this at one point.
In the stories, you always knew who the monster is; the storytellers always say he's charming and friendly and looks like an ordinary man, but they also drop hints so broad that you can't help but think the girl is stupid for not knowing.
Wink-wink, nudge-nudge.

Though the ending is a little pat, Haskell's overall success with this unusual melding of folk tales is enchanting: dark without becoming heavy or grim, realistic without being gritty, a comedy without farce, not "twee" or sentimental but charming. I have my fingers crossed that Haskell will continue Reveka's tale in another book, as there are a number of loose ends I'm dying to see resolved. And here I thought I was over fairy-tale retellings.

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 4/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 5/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 5/5
Resolution of Conflict: 3/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: fail
Content Warning: underage marriages [no sexual content], Stockholm Syndrome, references to torture

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