Cynthia Voigt,
(Atheneum, 1999)

Cynthia Voigt returns to the world of the Kingdom, the setting for several of her previous books, with Elske, a tale of loyalty, love and courage.

Elske is a child of the Volkaric, the people known as "Wolfers" who live in a band governed and protected by the Volkking. Their existence is brutal, stark and rigidly defined. Within the Volkaric, Elske is the Death Maiden, chosen to serve the Volkking into the Afterlife. Elske understands and accepts her fate. Fate, however, has other things in store for her.

Instead, Elske makes her way north to Trastad, a port city. She encounters people who shelter and clothe her and help her find a position as a servant. Through a fortuitous chain of events, she becomes the servant to Beriel, one of the foreign princesses who has come to Trastad for the Courting Winter. Beriel is known as the Fiendly Princess for her refusal to adhere to some of the social expectations and traditions during the previous Courting Winter, but she is also the rightful Queen and heir to the Kingdom. Sent to her second Courting Winter, Beriel is the intended victim of a plot engineered by her brother, Guerric, in a bid to usurp the throne. Guerric, however, has seriously underestimated his sister, for Beriel refuses to be anyone's victim.

Elske is drawn into Beriel's struggle against the conspiracy that threatens her life. The two travel together to the Kingdom where Elske becomes an integral part of the plan to restore Beriel to the throne. In addition, Elske has an opportunity to reconcile herself with her Volkaric past.

Voigt is a writer known for shaking up readers' expectations, and she does just that in Elske. The storyline, when reduced to its essence, is common and tired: young person of a warriorlike tribe helps a young royal regain the throne. Voigt transforms this by discarding cliches. Elske doesn't cling to Volkaric ways as superior; her responses to people and situations reflect her background, but her character grows and changes in many ways. Beriel's strength and determination are admirable, but her pride and her consuming and single minded narrow focus make her less likable. It is clear that Elske, not Beriel, is the true heroine.

The story is not really about restoring Beriel to the throne; it is the story of restoring Elske to herself. Elske's Volkaric upbringing stripped her of a sense of self which is regained through her new experiences. Furthermore, she transforms those around her to bring out their best qualities.

The story is compelling, leading to a thoroughly satisfying ending; Voigt's sense of story is exquisite. Elske is a character about whom the reader cares and thinks long after the covers are closed.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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