Merrie Haskell,
The Princess Curse
(HarperCollins, 2011)

Take the fairy tale "The Twelve Dancing Princesses." Add a dash of "Beauty & the Beast," the Greek underworld, Romanian mythical creatures, a 13-year-old heroine and not one, but two terrible curses. It's an unlikely mix, but it works.

Merrie Haskell's The Princess Curse is a thoughtful and thoroughly enjoyable fantasy that doesn't shy away from hard decisions and compromising situations.

The story starts off familiarly enough. There's something rotten in the state of Sylvania, a fictional Eastern European nation set in the 15th century. Every night, Prince Vasile's 12 daughters mysteriously disappear from their tower bedroom and return exhausted, with their slippers in tatters. Anyone who observes the princesses either disappears completely or falls into a deep, seemingly enchanted sleep. But if the risks are high, so are the rewards for breaking the curse: marriage with one of the princesses or a fabulous dowry.

Reveka, the herbalist's sharp-witted apprentice, dreams of having her own herbery in a convent, and that dowry is exactly what she needs to make it happen. (She knows the nuns would never take her without it.) But breaking the curse is no simple matter, and the stakes are far higher than she could have imagined. From invisibility spells to a mysterious stranger in the woods, to a dying world she didn't even know existed, Reveka is soon over her head in magic, treachery and choices that affect not only her life, but also whole worlds.

The disparate plot lines come together cleverly and writing is sure-footed, but it's really the characters and the relationships between them that make The Princess Curse click for me. Reveka is an observant, sometimes irreverent narrator whose tone is modern and accessible, and her relationships with the other characters are subtle, complex and (at least in two cases) genuinely touching. Kudos to Haskell for penning characters who can't be simply classified as good or evil.

The Princess Curse reminded me at different times of both Elizabeth Marie Pope's The Perilous Gard and Clare Dunkle's The Hollow Kingdom, though it is supposedly targeted to a younger audience. Despite Reveka's age, the content of the book seems better suited for young adults than for the 10-12 age range. At 10, I know I would have missed some of the subtleties in the characters' relationships and decisions, as well as the allusions to mythology, Vlad the Impaler and botanical poisons -- details that definitely made The Princess Curse more enjoyable. Actually, I would have liked even more detail in the settings and side characters.

Still, it's a lovely book. I started reading The Princess Curse late in the afternoon and ended up skipping dinner so I could finish it. Haskell leaves certain threads dangling about one of the main characters, and I, for one, can't wait to read a sequel.

book review by
Jennifer Mo

19 November 2011

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