Gail Carson Levine,
The Two Princesses of Bamarre
(HarperCollins, 2001)

Although characterized by the same lively prose that made Ella Enchanted such a delight, Gail Carson Levine's next, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, is unfortunately seriously flawed. It remains a quick, readable fantasy, but often fails to hold up under scrutiny.

The basic premise of the book is a flip-flop of the traditional heroine found in fantasy novels -- you know, the one who is invariably impetuous, brave, handy with a sword and ready to cut down any monsters that stand in her path. Addie is altogether different (she's even good at embroidery), but although it is nice to have a less courageous heroine, she never comes alive for me as a real person. Her sister Meryl, who does fit the stereotypical heroine, is even less convincing. Quite honestly, my favorite character in the novel is the dragon, who with her moral ambiguity -- first roasting her prisoners out of boredom and then regretting their deaths and remembering them fondly forever afterwards -- is actually the most realistic and well-rounded character.

The characters, however, are not the major problem. The most severe failing of Two Princesses, particularly as it is written as an epic high fantasy with dragons and fairies and sorcerers, is its continual failure to ask why things are the way they are. Why do specters persist in misleading humans? Haven't they got anything better to do? Why do they have to prophesy when commanded? Why did the fairies stop interacting with humans, particularly given their need in the plague? Why does the Gray Death choose the victims it does? Does it consciously choose? How is it spread? Why is the king such a coward? (He is characterized throughout only by his cowardliness, which misses a great opportunity for an interesting three-dimensional character.) These are questions I didn't think about until I finished the book and realized nothing is explained; everything just is.

Patricia C. Wrede uses many of the same stereotypical elements in her Enchanted Forest Chronicles (dragons, princesses, sorcerers) more successfully because of her ironic tone: she mocks fantasy conventions where Levine tries to follow them without really expanding or explaining very much. A pity, since she did such a good job in lending plausibility to the story of Cinderella.

Two Princesses also suffers from a sudden and rather incongruous ending, two seriously unconvincing romances and some fairly unsubtle messages about the various forms of heroism. However, to make up somewhat for its shortcomings, the plot moves quickly, and the lore about the sorcerers is particularly creative. There's also a bit of humor as Addie contemplates the difficulties that might be had in attempting to extract an invisible splinter obtained from an invisible table and the dangers of traveling with seven-league boots (dangerous road blocks, for one). But it all still remains a little shallow, a little generic.

This is probably a good coming-of-age choice for younger fantasy readers who may not be bothered by the lack of plausibility, but better choices for those who like their high fantasy well doused with wit include Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, Vivian Vande Velde's A Hidden Magic and Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles.

by Jennifer Mo
20 January 2007

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