Nancy Springer, Fair Peril (Avon, 1996)

Madeleine "Buffy" Murphy doesn't believe in the stories that she, a budding professional storyteller, brings to life for her audiences. Fairy tales are simply that, a bit of phantasm given the solidity of words without reality. Her own year-old divorce and losing custody of her youngest child seems to have shaken her belief in happy endings, anyway.

OK, so maybe the talking frog she finds in a woodland pond shakes her lack of faith slightly, but she decides it's easier to cope with a chatty amphibian than the prince he promises to become -- so, much to his distress, he remains relentlessly unkissed and green. And the war of words and stubbornness between Buffy and the so-called Prince Adamus provides an entertaining, light-hearted read through the first 75 pages of Nancy Springer's Fair Peril. And the oft-autobiographical stories Buffy tells her captive frog-prince, short and sketchy though they be, are an extra treat.

But then Emily, Buffy's 16-year-old daughter with an attitude, accidentally discovers her secret. Soon she, who is never impressed by anything more dramatic than a trip to the mall, is swept up in the frog's tragic tale. After a midnight raid on her mother's house -- appropriately attired in fashionable black, of course -- she applies the appropriate smooch. And suddenly there's a teen-aged girl and a beautiful, naked man (with medieval attitudes, mind you) on the run.

Buffy, of course, tries to intercede. (Perhaps she's feeling just a slight bit miffed that it wasn't she who kissed the damn frog, after all.) Unfortunately, telling most people what's going on will usually lead to polite but unyielding people in uniforms insisting on confinement and mental competency tests. Buffy calls on her fairy godmother, someone she only recently discovered existed, and copes not at all well with the knowledge that it's her gold-plated ex-mother-in-law. She seeks aid from her much-pierced, leather-clad, slightly magical and secretly gay storytelling librarian friend, but turns him into a frog by mistake. (And, since he's gay, her kiss won't defrog him.)

With her own newfound magical abilities, she cleverly (OK, accidentally) turns her oafish ex-husband into a dank and malodorous fog (missing the all-important "R" during her cheerleaderish chanted spell). No one seems to mind too much -- he's a politician, after all -- so Buffy resumes her search for Emily. That quest takes her to the mall, and here Springer has detailed for us possibly the world's tackiest shopping establishment -- and that's saying something. Of course, this mall isn't all that it seems.

Soon, Buffy is involved in the land of Fair Peril, which we might call Fairy Land, and its dark, impassive queen.

Springer has done an excellent job creating a world of fantasy right here in our own. While many authors give us fantasic events which never have consequences, here we watch as Buffy deals with a criminal investigation, disbelieving police officers, an unhelpful ex-husband, an annoying, domineering mother-in-law, a missing car, missing clothing and a heaping pile of embarrassing circumstances. In this way, Springer makes her protagonist and the events surrounding her seem more real -- even as they elicit a hearty series of chuckles in the process. Buffy is made even more real by being realistic -- she's overweight, she has bad hair, she makes unpleasant facial expressions and she's not always the perfect mom.

Emily, the daughter, might seem like a stereotype at first, the typical selfish, self-centered teen. But Springer has given her depth as well, a willingness to learn and grow, and even to accept help from her mother.

Somewhere along the way, we learn that all of our major characters -- Buffy, Emily, the frog prince, the frog librarian and even the oafish politician -- are looking for the same thing, in their own way. But we also learn that sometimes you don't get what you thought you wanted, or at least not in the way you wanted it, and can still have a happy ending.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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