Princess Academy, Book 1
Author: Shannon Hale
Publisher: Scholastic Inc.
Description from Goodreads:
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.
First Sentence: "Miri woke to the sleepy bleating of a goat."
On the surface, Princess Academy seems a silly tale, a story of a Prince choosing a bride, an obvious read-a-like for Kiera Cass' The Selection. Of course, that is the crux of the story: the prince of Danland is to choose his bride from among the twenty girls of the proper age in Mount Eskel, a small territory town full of quarriers. The girls are required to spend a year in training for the Prince's coming. However, Princess Academy is so much more than that, and you would be a fool to pass it by because of that expectation.
The covers given to Shannon Hale's books market to middle grade readers, which I think is a shame. While middle graders could certainly read this book and enjoy it, so too can teens and adults. There is nothing childish about Hale's writing or the stories she tells. They are, however, free of swearing and sex, which might age them in the eyes of publishers. These books are not just for young folks.
When I saw Shannon Hale in person, she spoke to her motivations in becoming a writer for young people. She talked about how much reading meant to her as a child, and how she loved the stories of journeys. She compared that to all of the literary classics she was made to read in college, beautifully composed, but lacking in plot and story. As an author, she aims to compose books that do both, that can be both quality literature and entirely fun to read, told in a classic story arc. To my mind, she succeeds beautifully.
One of the largest themes of Princess Academy is that of class. Those in Mount Eskel live far from the rest of Danland. They have their own customs and interests. Their sole source of income is from the mining of linder, the best building stone in the land. Only in Mount Eskel can linder be found, and those that live there build their lives around it. They even have their own form of speech for use within the quarry, which is so loud normal conversation cannot be used. Quarry-speech constitutes the only truly fantastical element of Princess Academy. This ability feels magical and wondrous, and I commend Shannon for devising it.
Despite their unique skills, those in Mount Eskel are looked down upon by the lowlanders, the traders that come through town. Seen as stupid blue collar workers, the mountain people get no respect. As such, they have just as little affection for the lowlanders, viewing them solely as hateful people out to mess with hardworking citizens. These tensions can be felt in any society, the gap between the wealthy and the poor.
In the Princess Academy, the possible princesses get an opportunity no Mount Eskel person has ever had before: the chance to obtain a traditional education. In Mount Eskel, the learning always ran to the mining of Linder, and other skills necessary to survive on the mountain. No one in the town knew how to read or much of anything about the history of their country. Princess Academy points to the value in book learning and of language, but also indicates the power and beauty of the work of the miners. Both are important, and learning can improve anyone and any profession.
Miri, our heroine, is a tiny girl, not strong enough to mine linder, who does not really fit in. Perhaps the most important theme of the book is about realizing one's own strengths. While Miri may have no physical strength, her extraordinary cleverness helps her and others through life. Even that, though, might not be her largest contribution. Miri has a wonderful attitude and the ability to make others laugh. She excels in finding common ground with others, in creating friendships. This makes her such a wonderful, touching heroine.
The other girls, too, have real personalities. Unlike The Selection, in which only a couple of girls receive much notice, Shannon manages in this short book, to make sure that we have a good sense for quite a few of the girls. She gives even the most annoying ones a real sense of self, and attributes them with motivations for acting the way they do. In fact, even the evil school marm, who reminds me quite a bit of Umbridge in her disdain for the students and draconian punishments, is not simply a figure of evil. Shannon develops fascinating, lovable, flawed characters.
The romance, which I just have to comment on, is so well done. Shannon does not go for the easiest and most obvious routes. Her books always make me feel and give me butterflies of happiness when the couples finally get together. She manages to make me swoon without even writing in a kissing scene. This, my friends, is true skill.
This was my second read through Princess Academy and I love it every bit as much as I did on my first time through. Shannon is one of my favorite authors for a reason.
Favorite Quote: "'I keep thinking about a tale mmy nurse used to read to me about a bird whose winds are pinned to the ground. Have you heard it? In the end, when he finally frees himself, he flies up so high he becomes a star. My nurse said the story was about what keeps us down. So here's what I'm wondering—if Miri's wings are free, what will she do now?'"