Mette Ivie Harrison,
The Princess & the Hound
(HarperCollins, 2007)

You don't need to be a dog person to read Mette Ivie Harrison's latest young-adult fantasy. The Princess & the Hound isn't so much about dogs as it is about tolerance, revenge and the many different types of love -- between humans and animals, parents and children, and men and women. The cover seems to promise a lightweight romantic fantasy with pretty dresses and sparkly magic, but this is actually a rather dense, contemplative tale more likely to appeal to fans of Robin McKinley and Donna Jo Napoli than Gail Carson Levine.

Its central premise is a case in point. In the kingdoms of Kendel and Sarrey, those who are discovered to possess "animal magic" (most commonly the ability to communicate with animals) are summarily burned at the stake by their suspicious neighbours.

Enter teenaged Prince George, only son of the ailing King of Kendel. George not only talks to animals but is also haunted by dreams of a bear who might, according to legend, have once been an arrogant human king. Solitary and unable to trust anyone around him, George shoulders his duties obediently but unenthusiastically. When presented with a politically advantageous marriage to Princess Beatrice of Sarrey, he agrees for the sake of peace between their kingdoms.

But Beatrice, though intelligent and courageous, is aloof and indefinably odd; the bond between her and her constant companion, a wild hound named Marit, is even odder. Slowly, George is drawn into a tangle of mysteries and secrets. It's up to him to separate truth from myth, discover the links between Beatrice's oddness, his father's ailment and the great bear of his dreams -- and perhaps find himself in the process.

With its gentle, introspective hero, The Princess & the Hound is based more on the leisurely revelation of secrets than it is upon actual action. Readers impatient enough to skim will find themselves lost in a convoluted denouement that ties all the disparate threads together.

Unfortunately, links between these interrelated stories can seem tenuous and their resolution altogether too tidy. George is a well-developed and likable character, but Beatrice and Marit appear only around page 100 and proceed to be largely distant, secretive and unapproachable to George, which does rather put a damper on the romance aspect. More than the brambly plot or occasionally overwrought language, the failure of the romance to convince is the book's most serious flaw.

But George is a striking hero whose strengths are his kindness and integrity. And there are plenty of interesting and thought-provoking ideas about what it means to be human, individual responsibility and the consequences of hatred that make the book worth reading. It might be more ambitious than successful, but The Princess & the Hound ventures into subjects commonly overlooked in favour of splashy special effects and action.

review by
Jennifer Mo

12 April 2008

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